Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation. New York: Continuum, 1995. 151 pages
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Chapter 7. The Four Consents
The four consents (based on the work of theologian John S. Dunne) correspond to the passage of human life. "In childhood, God asks us to consent to the basic goodness of our nature with all its parts." This basic goodness is not what we do but what we are, as God made us. The difficulties we experience in childhood may prevent us from fully consenting emotionally to the goodness of life.
The second consent, corresponding to adolescence, is to "accept the full development of our being by activating our talents and creative energies," including but going beyond sexual energy and its expression. It is all too easy to distort this energy not only by abusing sexuality but by repressing it. Many Christians on the spiritual journey suffer from repression or rejection of their own sexuality. Both extremes are the province of the false self.
The third consent (early adulthood) calls on us "to accept the fact of our nonbeing and the diminutions of self that occur through illness, old age, and death." Dying is the ultimate letting go of everything to which we are attached in this world. Making this consent is more difficult if we have not made the previous ones.
The fourth consent is to be transformed. "The transforming union requires consent to the death of the false self, and the false self is the only self we know. Whatever its inconveniences, it is at least familiar. Some of us are more afraid of the death of the false self than of physical death."
Each of these consents is a kind of death, a letting go of a former life. But we can take with us the best of each stage; for example, we can continue to be childlike (simplicity, innocence) without remaining childish (subject to tantrums and ignorance). In this way we can move to the level of mental egoic consciousness and even beyond.
Whatever we may have done in our earlier life, God is always inviting us through grace to make these consents. They involve both the acceptance of legitimate pleasures with its abundant life and the final surrender of the false self to the true. Our paths differ; some may find the path in early adulthood, others in the midlife crisis, still others in old age. The process of dying itself may provide "the greatest chance of all to consent to God's gift of ourselves."