Contemplative Outreach was established in 1983 to help develop a network of individuals interested in the practice of Centering Prayer as taught by Father Thomas Keating. Three monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts are attributed with developing the practices used by Contemplative Outreach; Fathers Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and M. Basil Pennington. Fathers Meninger and Pennington began giving retreats to priests and nuns based on the 14th-century text The The Cloud of Unknowing, considered a classic in many cloistered monastic traditions. Father Keating was serving as the abbot at Spencer Monastery and encouraged this work. In 1983, Father Thomas Keating had retired to live at St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. After giving a retreat on Centering Prayer at the Lama Foundation the seeds of Contemplative Outreach were planted.
Contemplative Outreach Today
Contemplative Outreach is an ecumenical, international organization today, whose stated purpose is to:
- Bring the experience of the love of God into the world
- Renew the contemplative dimension of life
- Renew the roots of the tradition, engendering attitudes of respect, collaboration, and love among the world's religions
- Transform human consciousness for our time
- Support all sincere seekers.
Contemplative Outreach offers a number of different retreats and teachings with Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina as the primary methods used to enter into contemplative prayer.
Centering Prayer is a generic term used today for many different methods of prayer and meditation. In Contemplative Outreach it is based on the four guidelines developed by Father Meninger and based on The Cloud of Unknowing.
As abbot of St. Joseph's Abbey, Fr. Keating attended a meeting in Rome in 1971. At the meeting, Pope Paul VI called on the members of the clergy to revive the contemplative dimension of the Gospel in the lives of both monastic and laypeople. Believing in the importance of this revival, Fr. Keating encouraged the monks at St. Joseph's to develop a method of Christian contemplative prayer with the same appeal and accessibility that Eastern meditation practices seemed to have for modern people. A monk at the abbey named William Meninger found the background for such a method in the anonymous fourteenth-century classic The Cloud of Unknowing. Using this and other contemplative literature, Meninger developed a simple method of silent prayer he called The Prayer of the Cloud.
Meninger began to offer instruction on The Prayer of the Cloud to priests who came to the monastery for retreats. The prayer was well received and, as word got out, more people wanted to learn the prayer, so Fr. Keating began to offer workshops to the lay community in Spencer. Another monk at the abbey, Basil Pennington, also began to teach The Prayer of the Cloud to priests and sisters at retreats away from St. Joseph's. At one retreat, someone suggested that the name of the prayer be changed to Centering Prayer, alluding to Thomas Merton's description of contemplative prayer as prayer that is "centered entirely on the presence of God...His will...His love...[and] Faith by which alone we can know the presence of God." From then on, the prayer was called Centering Prayer.
In 1983, Fr. Keating gave the first "intensive" Centering Prayer retreat at the Lama Foundation in San Cristobal, New Mexico. One of the participants in the retreat, Gustave Reininger, previously had met with Fr. Keating and a man named Edward Bednar to discuss starting a contemplative network. After their meeting, Bednar wrote a grant proposal, which he called Contemplative Outreach, and received funds to start parish-based programs in New York City that offered introductions to Centering Prayer. This marked the beginning of the Contemplative Outreach Centering Prayer Program and a milestone in Contemplative Outreach's birth as an organization.
Other participants in the retreat at the Lama Foundation also played a large part in the growth of Contemplative Outreach. In 1985, participants David Frenette and Mary Mrozowski, along with Bob Bartel, established a live-in community in the eastern United States called Chrysalis House. For 11 years, Chrysalis House provided a consistent place to hold Centering Prayer workshops and retreats. Many Centering Prayer practitioners and teachers who now carry on the work of Contemplative Outreach were trained and inspired at Chrysalis House.
In 1986, the three monks' experiment was incorporated as Contemplative Outreach, Ltd., and the first official board of directors was named. Fr. Keating served as the first president, Fr. Carl Arico as vice president, Gustave Reininger as treasurer, and Mary Mrozowski and Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler as directors. At first, the organization was run from Gail Fitzpatirick-Hopler's dining room table. After several necessary expansions, the network's international headquarters now has offices in 2,000 square feet (190 m2) of space in downtown Butler, New Jersey, with seven full-time employees, two part-time employees, and five volunteers.
- Divine Indwelling: Centering Prayer and Its Development, with George F. Cairns, Thomas R. Ward, Sarah A. Butler, Fitzpatrick-Hopler (2001) ISBN 1-930051-79-4
- Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (1986) ISBN 0-8264-0696-3
- The Mystery of Christ: The Liturgy as Spiritual Experience (1987) ISBN 0-8264-0697-1
- Mystery of Christ (1988) ISBN 0-916349-41-1
- Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation (1992) ISBN 0-8264-0698-X
- Intimacy with God (1994) ISBN 0-8245-1588-9
- Loving Search for God: Contemplative Prayer and "The Cloud of Unknowing,", with William A. Meninger (1994) ISBN 0-8264-0682-3
- Sundays at the Magic Monastery: Homilies from the Trappists of St. Benedict's Monastery with William Meninger, Joseph Boyle, and Theophane Boyd (2002) ISBN 1-59056-033-7
- Lectio Divina: On Retreat with Father Thomas Keating (2005) ISBN 0-8264-1782-5
- The Cloud of Unknowing: And The Book of Privy Counseling (1973). translator, William Johnston. 1996 edition foreword, Huston Smith. Image Doubleday, paperback: ISBN 0-385-03097-5