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The Inner Journey: Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Spirituality

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Journey

Photo: Johannes Plenio

Many times I find myself wishing that we had a concordance of Merton’s writings. A concordance would make it easy to locate Merton texts we remember reading, but can’t recall where we read them. It would help us also to find the many ways in which he used a particular term. It would enable us to clarify his understanding of a particular topic by putting together the things he wrote on that topic. I hope someday this project will come to fruition. Anybody out there who would like to help? I might add that at the present time we do have The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, which has some 350 entries that bring together Merton’s thinking on a wide variety of topics. I have to confess to a personal interest in this work, since I am one of its three authors. Clearly an encyclopedia is not a concordance, but it does give at least a bit of help in this direction. Particularly helpful is the paperback edition of the Encyclopedia, which has an extensive index.

It would be interesting to guess which topic would have the most entries in a Merton concordance. I would be willing to bet that “contemplation” would be at the top or near it. In one of Merton’s early books of poetry there is a poem based on Psalm 137. The psalmist, writing in exile, vows the depth of his commitment to the holy city of Jerusalem. Plaintively, he cries out:“Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,…Jerusalem….” In his poem Merton pictures himself as an exile seeking the land of promise and makes the vow:

May my bones burn and ravens eat my flesh,
If I forget thee, contemplation.

Though this poem was written early in his monastic life (1949), I believe it can be said that he remained faithful to its commitment to the very end. And that commitment involved not only making his own life contemplative but helping others to do the same.

Contemplation: The Impossible Dream?

As I write this, I wonder when you, the reader, first heard about contemplation? Was it in connection with certain extraordinary people (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila) who achieved a life of contemplation? If this was the case, did your reading about them help you to see contemplation as a viable experience for yourself? Or was it something to admire in these unusual people, but hardly something that could find a place in your own life? I ask these questions because I believe that many people in the not-too-distant past thought of contemplation as an elitist experience given only to a few and not even to be thought of by the rest of us. And many today, I believe, still think that way. I quite readily admit that that was my thinking for all too long a time in my life. What changed my attitude and encouraged me to think that contemplation was a possibility for me was my reading Merton and studying his writings.

Contemplation: Dangerous Involvement?

In fact, I can remember the first talk I gave inviting people to look to contemplation as the ordinary flowering of the baptismal vocation. It was sometime in the early 1970s. I was then a member of the liturgical commission of our diocese and was invited to address the commission at its annual day of retreat. It was the time in my life when I was beginning to study Merton’s writings in earnest, especially what he had to say about contemplation. I decided to throw discretion to the wind and talk about “The Contemplative Dimensions of the Sacraments.” My talk was followed by a rather heated discussion. One of the commission members was quite uneasy about what I had said. “My concern,” he told us, “is that contemplation is a dangerous thing to get involved in. It means delving into areas of our lives that are deep and ambiguous and confusing. Encouraging people to be contemplatives could easily lead them astray.”

I was quite willing to admit that talking about contemplation (at least at that time) was a bit daring and getting involved in it (at practically any time) could easily be dangerous. It’s dangerous because it leads me into unexplored areas of my person. It is dangerous because it puts me into contact with my contingency, my utter dependence, my nothingness. Contemplation is, to quote Merton, “An awareness of our contingent reality as received, as a present from God, as a free gift of love.” My ego gets pushed out of the central place in my life, for that place belongs only to God. In Merton’s words:“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own self-hood … and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.”

More than all this, contemplation undoes my perception of God. I come to realize that I do not know who God is at all. Up to then I had thought that my language was adequate to deal with God. But in contemplation I am in the presence of a Reality I do not understand, I am Jacob struggling through the night and demanding of his “Adversary”:“What is your name?” and receiving no answer. I am like Zachary in the temple, struck dumb by what he experienced. The words I used to use so glibly now stick in my throat. I thought I knew how to say: “God.” Now I am reduced to silence. No matter what I say about God it is so far from the divine Reality that I am forced to unsay it. I find myself blinded by the dazzling light of a Reality I thought I knew.

Fallen Idols Along the Contemplative Way

All along the contemplative way lie fallen images of the false gods that I had created or my culture or my religion had created for me and that now I have to give up, for they are no more than idols. A few examples: the god who is “up there,” not “here”; the god who is an object or a being (even supreme being) among other beings; the god with whom I carry on friendly, cozy conversations; the god made in the image of my own prejudices (who is probably white, male and American); the god who rewards and punishes; the god who is so obviously male and paternalistic. Contemplation, Merton says, “is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply ‘is.’ In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is.”

When contemplation begins to “take hold” in our lives, we are conscious, without fully understanding it, that we are in this God whom we can no longer name and that this God is in us. Distinct from God, we are yet not separate from God. We feel scorched by the terrifying immediacy of the presence of One whom we had thought we could keep at a safe and comfortable distance. We find that this God cannot be kept in a secure or predetermined place: This God is everywhere.

Getting back to my talk to the diocesan liturgical commission, I readily confess I would not have given that talk (in fact would not even have thought of giving it), were it not for Thomas Merton. He was writing a chunk of American history when he wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain: “America is discovering the contemplative life.” And for many (myself included) he was the spiritual master who led the way to that discovery. As I have said on many occasions, Thomas Merton made “contemplation” a household word.

Teach Contemplation?

This is not to say that he was a teacher of contemplation. As he himself put it, it is as impossible to attempt to teach people “how to be a contemplative,” as it would be to teach them “how to be an angel.” For contemplation is an awakening to a whole new level of reality, which cannot even be clearly explained. “It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized.” He did believe, however, that an aptitude for contemplation can be awakened in people. But this is possible only if they have already had good human experiences. Only those who have learned to see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears, taste with their own tongues and experience with their whole being are apt candidates for the contemplative life. Television addicts, people whose lives continually need external stimulation, who have never opened themselves to their own inner truth, live lives so low in authenticity that a contemplative life would simply be out of their reach. They need to have opportunities for normal wholesome human experiences before it makes any sense even to talk to them about contemplation. And let us face the fact that the culture we live in, with its emphasis on the external and the superficial, its penchant for pleasure and ease, its production-driven mentality, its tendency to emphasize rights over responsibilities, does not provide good soil in which the good seed of contemplation can grow and develop.

We Are All Contemplatives!

Yet that seed is really present in all of us. There is a sense in which it can be said that we are all contemplatives, because whether we know it or not we are in God. This interiority and depth are present in all of us and can be reached by those who are willing to submit to the discipline that a contemplative way of life demands. While this discipline may require a change in behavior, its principal aim is to achieve a transformation of consciousness whereby we view reality differently. We discover the true God at the very center of our being and ourselves as nothing apart from God. With this discovery a new life dawns. We are liberated from selfishness. The egoself (which in reality is a false self) is discarded like “an old snake skin” (to use Merton’s words) and we come to recognize our true self which all the while had been hidden in God. The true self is not a separate or isolated reality, but one with everyone and everything in God. Thus we find not only our own identity, but also our inextricable link with all our sisters and brothers in God. This is the contemplative vision. It begets compassion and nonviolent love.

Contemplation: Awakening to the Real in All Reality

This is why Merton tells us over and over that contemplation is a state of heightened consciousness. “Contemplation,” he writes, “is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.” One is reminded of Evelyn Underhill’s words: “Only the mystic can be called a whole man, since in others half the powers of the self always sleep.”

Contemplation, Merton tells us, is “an awakening to the Real in all that is real.” The word “real” is an important word in the Merton vocabulary. If you look to the Oxford English Dictionary, you will find “real” described as applying “to whatever is regarded as having an existence in fact and not merely in appearance, thought or language or as having an absolute, a necessary, in contrast to a merely contingent, existence.” Now that definition of “real” may not make you jump up and down with joy. Not many definitions do! But this OED statement makes an important distinction. The word “real” has two meanings. It may mean that which exists in fact, but contingently. To exist contingently indicates dependence: it means existing not on one’s own, but derivatively. It means deriving one’s existence from another. The second meaning of “real” designates that which not only exists in fact, but exists absolutely and necessarily. What exists absolutely and necessarily exists in its own right, totally independent of anything or anyone else. Since the contingently “real” depends on the absolutely “Real,” to see the first aright one must see the second. In other words, you do not see the “contingently real” as it truly is, until you see it in the absolutely “Real.” When you achieve this vision, you have achieved the contemplative vision. This is the meaning of Merton’s words which I quoted at the beginning of this paragraph: “Contemplation is an awakening to the [absolutely] Real in all that is [contingently] real.” To be unaware of God at the heart of all reality, as the Source and Sustainer of all that is, is to fail to see reality as it is. It is to pretend that the contingently real can exist without the absolutely Real. It is going through life half-awake, or even worse, it is to live a contradiction.

On January 15, 1966, Merton responds to a correspondent who was involved in helping people make career changes, and who asks Merton if he has any advice for such people. Merton replies that, whatever the changes may be that we make in life, “We should decide not in view of better pay, higher rank, ‘getting ahead,’ but in view of becoming more real, entering more authentically into direct contact with life.” Direct contact with life means recognizing the derivative existence of everything that is and awakening to the presence of God, from whom all reality derives. It is to awaken to the contemplative dimension of reality. It is the discovery of God within us.

Two Ways of Prayer

In 1961 Thomas Merton put together a fifty-three-page collection of prayers for the novices at Gethsemani. It includes selections from the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the Cistercian Fathers of the thirteenth century, the English mystics and others. The most interesting part of the book for me is the one-page introduction that Merton himself wrote. In this introduction, he speaks of two kinds of prayer:“Prayer is not only the ‘lifting up of the mind and heart to God,’ but also the response to God within us, the discovery of God within us.” The first type of prayer is probably the one we are most accustomed to: lifting the mind and heart to God, generally with words. This is often called vocal prayer, prayer in which we use words to praise, thank and petition God as well as to express our repentance. The second type of prayer to which Merton refers, “response to God within, the discovery of God within us,” is a way of prayer that is less familiar to most people. This is the prayer of silence, when we try simply to be in the presence of God, without words, thoughts, ideas. It is sometimes called “centering prayer” or “prayer of the heart” or “prayer of awareness.”

Contemplation as the Highest Degree of Awareness of God

There are various degrees of awareness of God’s presence in our lives or of our “discovery of God within us.” The highest degree is what we call contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer, which is so total an awareness of God that nothing can distract us from the divine presence, is not something we can earn. It is not something we do. It is always God’s special gift, given not on demand, but when and as often as God wills it. Yet our God is a generous God who does not withhold gifts when we are ready for them. Merton writes in that page of introduction to the Selections of Prayer:

Prayer is an expression of our complete dependence on a hidden and mysterious God. It is therefore nourished by humility….We should never seek to reach some supposed “summit of prayer” out of spiritual ambition. We should seek to enter deep into the life of prayer, not in order that we may glory in it as an “achievement,” but because in this way we can come close to the Lord Who seeks to do us good, Who seeks to give us His mercy, and to surround us with His love. To love prayer is, then, to love our own poverty and His mercy.

What a great sentence that is: To love prayer is to love our own poverty and God’s mercy!

Daily Perseverance

If we are to prepare ourselves for this total awareness of God’s presence which is contemplation, we need to spend time in silence and quiet, simply being in God’s presence. This needs to be a daily practice. Perseverance is the key; humility is the disposition—a willingness to admit how distracted we so often are, yet the determination to be more attentive, realizing that God wills our attentiveness so much more than we do or ever could.

Perseverance will inevitably effect changes in the way we live our lives. Experiencing our oneness with God brings the realization that what is true of us is true of all our sisters and brothers: They too are one with God. This makes it possible for us to experience our oneness with them and indeed with all that is. We are more alert to treat people with love and concern, because we experience that oneness.

Methods of Prayer?

After several years as novice master, Merton was pleased with the way his novices were “progressing” in prayer. He was not overly directive regarding their prayer lives. On the contrary, writing in September of 1964, he said to one of his correspondents (and what he says is a helpful word for us too):

I must say that there is a good proportion of contemplative prayer in the novitiate. I don’t use special methods. I try to make them love the freedom and peace of being with God alone in faith and simplicity, to abolish all divisiveness and diminish all useless strain and concentration on one’s own efforts…

This is a good text on which to close our reflection on contemplation. “Getting our minds off ourselves” is key. As Merton wrote in The Sign of Jonas:“If we would find God in the depths of our souls we have to leave everybody else outside, including ourselves.” Even more emphatically in an earlier text in that journal, he puts it very simply: “[T]he important thing is not to live for contemplation, but to live for God.”

–William Shannon

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Written by MattAndJojang

September 26, 2018 at 3:49 pm

7 Responses

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  1. O Beauty ever ancient, ever true! Thanks much for that reminder which now I hold in my heart: Jesus, lead me to a deeper love of prayer– to love my own poverty and God’s mercy!

    Sr. Sonia Punzalan, r.c.

    September 28, 2018 at 1:31 pm

  2. Sr. Sonia, nowadays I also find myself praying, “O God, teach me to truly pray. May I know you, may I know myself…”

    Thank you for sharing…

    Gassho,
    Matt

    MattAndJojang

    September 28, 2018 at 4:40 pm

  3. Hi Matt,

    This is awesome, and I’m only halfway through reading it! I alway like something you said to me some time ago… “it’s not about finding answers, it’s about paying attention”.

    When it comes to finding stuff, I have to admit I cheat a bit as I try and get as much of TM’s work on my computer so I can find things and leave lots of notes, however if a concordance comes out, I’d like to see it.

    God bless you loads

    Senan

    Sena of Somerset

    September 30, 2018 at 2:55 pm

  4. Hi, Senan!

    I’m happy that you like the post.

    Paying attention is becoming a lost art in our times. Nowadays, due to the influence of technology, we are encouraged to pay attention to many things at the same time. In the end, though, we end up not paying attention to anything at all. Personally, I like to single-task, doing one thing at a time, rather than to multitask, which probably makes me a dinosaur in our noisy and fast-paced society.

    But I believe if we are to follow a spiritual path, we have to learn to slow down and pay attention to one thing at a time. Prayer and meditation is not possible if our attention is scattered and fragmented. Besides, living in the present moment — without any regrets about the past and without anxieties about the future — and just paying attention to the task at hand is in itself a form of prayer. In the words of the French philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil:

    Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

    As to our unresolved questions, it’s better to have patience, heeding the words of the German poet, Rainier Maria Rilke:

    I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

    Would love to get hold, too, of that concordance of Thomas Merton’s works. Unfortunately, it still has to be written…

    Blessings,
    Matt

    MattAndJojang

    October 1, 2018 at 4:39 pm

  5. Hearing the Rainier quote reminded me of this; I’m not sure who said it, but…

    “Patience is not about waiting, but how you wait.”

    (Just put that on as my Shared Cell image for this new month.)

    God bless you loads

    Senan

    Senan of Somerset

    October 1, 2018 at 5:54 pm

  6. How awesome, Matt and Jojang, that you are given to live your way into the answer. By choosing to single-task, your life simply is. Here, now. This is the single blaze that turns the grain of sand into a conflagration that swallows the universe! Look now here, then gone! We’ll yet come to our next koan….perhaps by internet?

    Sr. Sonia Punzalan, r.c.

    November 20, 2018 at 5:23 pm

  7. Sr. Sonia, I once read a Vipassana teacher state that attention is life’s fundamental skill. Upon reflection, I also realized that it’s also one way of describing our practice — it’s a life of attention.

    Yes, when we live in the here and now, and are truly attentive, a whole new realm opens up — the world of Nonseparation… Boundlessness… Wholeness… Oneness… And we begin, to borrow the words from The Blue Cliff Record, to see that:

    When a flower blooms, the world springs forth.

    Thank you for sharing. Thank you for the encouraging words. Above all, thank you for helping us to see things as they really are…

    Gassho,

    Matt

    MattAndJojang

    November 20, 2018 at 7:45 pm


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