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Posts Tagged ‘Contemplation

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

An Invitation to a Zen Retreat

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Zen Retreat Invitation

An invitation to attend a Zen retreat 16 years ago from Sr. Perla Macapinlac, an ICM nun. Attended the 6-day retreat, and it changed my life. An account of what happened to me during that retreat is found in this blog post:

A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

April 16, 2015 at 2:44 pm

Healing The Divide: A Book Review

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Healing The Divide Cover

Amos Smith‘s Healing The Divide: Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots is a joy to read!

As a lay person who has studied our Christian mystical heritage (my favorites are Meister Eckhart, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and St. John of the Cross) for 40+ years now, I’ve come to almost similar conclusions as the author. The themes that he tackles in his book, like paradox as the key to understanding Jesus, the nondual approach to Christianity, the transformative power of contemplative prayer, compassion and social justice as the fruit of spiritual practice really resonates with me.

Our Christian theology since the Middle Ages has become over-analytical and too rational, leaving no room for paradox and mystery. This has resulted in a Christianity that is too intellectual, legalistic, formal and rigid – and for the most part irrelevant to the contemporary person. What the 21st century man or woman wants is a direct encounter with God. And this is what is meant by Christian mysticism – a direct experience of God through the person of Jesus, which results in personal transformation as well as the transformation of our society.

If I’m not mistaken, this is what the book advocates, based on a theology which sees the person of Jesus through the eyes of the Christian mystics, specifically the Alexandrian mystics. And herein lays the value of the book: it is not just a book only about mysticism but about Christian mysticism, solidly built on a Christology based on what the author refers to as the “Jesus Paradox.”

Like the author, I’m convinced that paradox is the key to understanding the deepest truths in life, and that includes the truth about Jesus. Another author puts it this way:

Paradox is the best form of language for expressing some of the fundamental truths of human existence.

Jesus is not only divine, neither is he only human. He is absolutely divine and relatively human! This is the key to understanding Christian mysticism. And for those who can absorb it– this could be a life-changing experience!

What the book offers us is a fresh approach to Christianity that is not only based on theology (although the book is very theologically sound), but one that is also based on a personal encounter with God – an encounter which leads to personal transformation.

Highly recommended!

–Matt

The Monastery

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Worth Abbey Church

Worth Abbey Church

A few years ago BBC asked a Benedictine monastery to open its doors to 5 ordinary men to share in the lifestyle of the monks. Does the 1500-year-old spiritual vision of the monks have relevance in our day and age? What does the monastery have to offer to our frenetic, materialistic, consumeristic society?

Abbot Christopher Jamison says:

We saw in this project an opportunity to discover what our way of life offers to people today who do not share our beliefs.

The 5 participants, although coming from different backgrounds, had a common desire to find out if life has meaning. The challenge for them is: Will they be able to follow the strict rules of the monastery? Will they be able to live a life of silence, simplicity, prayer, study, and manual labor for 40 days?

Tony Burke is 29 years old. He’s single, lives in London, and works in an ad agency, producing trailers for a sex chat line. He has recently questioned the materialistic and hedonistic life he’s living. He doesn’t believe in God, and has no religious background. Will he be able to turn around his life?

Gary McCormick is from Belfast. He is 36 years old and single. He currently lives in Cornwall, where he works as a painter and decorator. He struggles with his faith, and the emotional scars he carries from spending time in prison early in his life. Will he be able to cope with the pain in his life and move on?

Nick Buxton is 37 years old and single. Studying for a PhD in Buddhism at Cambridge University, he has been on a spiritual search for the past 10 years. Coming back recently to his Anglican roots, he’s questioning some of the tenets of his faith. Will he be able to make that leap of faith?

Anthoney Wright is a high-earning 32-year-old bachelor from London. He works for a legal publishing company. He has issues stemming from the fact that his mother abandoned him when he was a child. Will he be able to find inner peace?

Peter Gruffyd is a married published poet and a retired teacher, living in Bristol. Having rejected religion when he was a young man, he would like to know if life makes sense. Will he be able to find the answer to his question: “What is the meaning of life?”

To find out watch the episodes of “The Monastery” by clicking the links below:

The Monastery: Episode 1

The Monastery: Episode 2

The Monastery: Episode 3

The Monastery Revisited

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

October 2, 2014 at 1:10 pm

The Beauty In Ordinary Things

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Let us come alive to the splendor that is all around us, and see the beauty in ordinary things.

— Thomas Merton

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June 25, 2014 at 9:41 am

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A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen

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An old photo of Matt (far left) and some of his fellow retreatants with the Zen master Kubota Roshi (middle). (Circa 1999)

An old photo of Matt (far left) and some of his fellow retreatants during a Zen retreat conducted by the Zen Master Kubota Jiun Roshi (middle) in October of 1999.

When you pick up the whole great earth, it is as small as a grain of rice.

–The Blue Cliff Record

It was sometime in March of 1999 when I attended a one-week Zen retreat. Up to that time I was practicing Zen meditation on-and-off, mostly by myself, for almost 20 years. I attended the retreat to simply jump start my Zen practice. Never did I expect that something wondrous was going to happen to me.

The retreat started uneventfully. The Zen teacher was late. She explained that the traffic was terrible. It started with an orientation talk. But, because I had attended Zen retreats in the past, I was already familiar with what she was saying.

It wasn’t easy sitting in meditation for about 5-6 hours daily. I spent most of the time putting up with the physical pain (at one point I was sweating because of the almost unbearable pain) and battling with mental distractions. I mentioned this to the Zen teacher. And she told me: “The reason you’re in pain is because you are fighting your thoughts.” Somehow when I followed her advice not to resist my thoughts, but, instead, just letting it be – letting it come and letting it go – I felt better.

By the 4th day I was achieving a certain level of stillness and depth during our meditation sessions. It was during this time, as I was holding a piece of biscuit, during our morning break, that something extraordinary happened to me.

In a flash, the world as I knew it collapsed! Time stood still, and space disappeared! There was no time and space, no I and you, no inside and outside! Touching a piece of biscuit, I had a glimpse of the world of Zen. I could only describe it as a thunder-and-lightning realization that the universe is a palpable Whole!

    Touching a piece of biscuit,
    Heaven and earth are recreated.
    Sipping a cup of coffee,
    Whole rivers are swallowed in a gulp.
    Emptied of notions of “self” and “other,”
    In a flash, the True Self revealed!

Initially, I was filled with trepidation and fear. I thought I was hallucinating, going crazy and losing my mind! I shared this with the Zen teacher. She reassured me: “This is as close as you can get to experiencing your True Self.”

After the experience, I viewed the world in a fresh way. It was as if scales were peeled off my eyes and I saw the world for the first time in all its splendor and beauty! Each object was luminous and charged with energy! And I saw each object as precious, and having an absolute value.

This was accompanied by a deep peace which I haven’t experienced before. To use biblical language, it is what probably what St.Paul meant by “the peace which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I experienced, too, a freedom and spaciousness in my life that is “as vast and boundless as the great empty firmament,” to borrow the words of one of the koans of The Gateless Gate.

The after-effects of the experience lasted for weeks. And just remembering those days gives me an exhilarating feeling of joy!

In the meantime, I began to ask myself what the experience meant to me as a Christian.

I had three questions:

1. What is the relationship of the Zen enlightenment experience to the Christian mystical experience?

2. Can we consider Zen meditation as a form of Christian prayer?

3. Is the Zen enlightenment experience similar to the mystical experiences of the great Christian mystics like St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross?

Fortunately, as I was surfing the internet I came across a website of a Christian theologian and Zen practitioner, Jim Arraj. (Later, I found out that he wrote a number of books addressing these issues – God, Zen and the Intuition of Being; Mysticism, Metaphysics and Maritain; Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue).

I started corresponding with him through email. And he was kind enough to accommodate me and answer my queries.

In a nutshell this is how he explained it to me:

Zen enlightenment is a deeply spiritual experience. We could even say from a Christian perspective that it is a mystical experience of God as the author of being. But it is not identical to the Christian mystical experience, as described by St.Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross. And it is not also good to call it prayer in the Christian sense of the term, either.

Zen enlightenment is a deep seeing into the isness, or existence of things. As such it is a certain contact and union beyond concepts and beyond the distinction between subject and object, between our own selves and these things, and with God who is the author and sustainer of their existence. We could say that it is a mystical experience of the very mystery of existence, and in some way embraces all that exists: ourselves, the piece of biscuit, and in an indirect but very real way, God who is existence Himself.

That sounds like a mouthful. But this is the way he puts it:

In the center of every soul, in the deepest part of our being, is that place where we come into existence. Somewhere in the depths of our self, in the depths of our souls, there’s a point where we touch God and God touches us. But we’re NOT talking about when God makes His presence felt in the center of the soul through grace and then this sharing of His own life.

Normally, we spend our time looking out, and we spend our time on the superficial level with all our ideas. We don’t even see the things around us clearly because our ideas are getting in the way and we are looking out through them. The Zen practitioner tries to quiet all this, but there are layers and layers of our ideas and thoughts and emotions, and he starts going down through these layers.

So what happens is if the Zen practitioner practices long enough and hard enough, that house of cards is like all these different layers, and they begin to collapse and are no longer operative in the same way. And he gets down, and finally, when all the collapse is done, when all the layers have fallen, he experiences what is at the center.

What’s at the center? Existence is at the center. What does that mean? At the very center is the point where God as the author of existence is touching the soul and bringing it into existence. If we could get back to that point, dig down far enough where we no longer have any ideas, and we get back to simply THAT – that THAT is the very point where God is infusing existence into the soul. Or put another way, that very center point is the existence of the soul inasmuch as it is springing forth from the hand of God.

On the other hand, the heart of Christian mystical experience is a contact with God who as a loving person makes himself present to us, and calls us to share in his own life through Jesus. It is the experience of the Father and lover of the soul who wants to transform the soul by love so it shares in his own nature.

In other words, in the Christian mystical experience God is transforming us into Himself, so that we are becoming God – certainly not like our nature, our being, because we are just limited creatures – but by being transformed in knowledge and love. We are directed towards God because He is where our knowledge and love are going. So there is this tremendous mystery of transformation we hear about all the time, and St. John of the Cross is trying to say that in the Christian life we actually experience this becoming God. That’s the only way you could put it – participation in God’s nature.

You don’t get to contact with God by this kind of contact through Zen practice. You don’t arrive there by technique. No matter how elevated and spiritual the technique is of controlling the mind, or controlling the breath, and concentrating, you can’t arrive at God’s inner nature.

Why? Because there’s such a difference between the level of our being and the level of God’s being. The only way you can arrive there is not because it is due to us. That would make us God by nature, and we know enough about ourselves to see that’s not true. The only way you arrive is through God’s gift and through the transformation that comes through knowledge and love, that transformation that comes from grace.

The whole Christian mystery revolves around that distinction. Zen is not Christian mysticism in that sense. It doesn’t sound like it. And the Zen practitioner doesn’t go around praying and thinking about God and trying to be transformed into God.

This is why the accounts of Zen enlightenment and Christian mystical experience do not sound alike.

There certainly cannot be any opposition between Zen enlightenment and the Christian mystical experience because to oppose them would be to oppose God as the author of being, and the Trinitarian God that the Scriptures teach us about. But at the same time we have to make a distinction between these two kinds of mystical experience, and I think there is a need to because they demand different means to arrive at them.

I’m profoundly grateful to Jim for his insightful explanation. He has helped me to reflect on my Zen experience in a way that makes sense to me as a Christian.

This happened many years ago, and looking back now I can see that my Zen experience has transformed my life in a way that I could not have imagined. In the end, what Zen means to me is summarized in these words of Goto Zuigan Roshi:

What is Zen? Simple, simple, so simple. Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.

— Matt

Note: Seven months later, during a one-week Zen retreat, this experience was confirmed by the Zen Master Kubota Jiun Roshi as kensho, i.e., a Zen enlightenment experience.

Written by MattAndJojang

February 27, 2014 at 9:30 am

New Seeds of Contemplation

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Thomas Merton's Hermitage (Photo: Thomas Merton)

Thomas Merton’s Hermitage (Photo: Thomas Merton)

I OPENED New Seeds of Contemplation for the first time during the winter of 1988 while visiting Thomas Merton’s hermitage in the Kentucky woods about a mile from the Abbey of Gethsemani. I’d made several trips to the monastery, but this was my first to the small, cinder-block house where Merton lived for the last few years of his life. I doubt there could be a more ideal location in which to read Merton’s masterpiece on the contemplative life, but I’m pretty sure I could have read the book on a bench in a shopping mall and it would have affected me similarly— as an occasion of awe and awakening. As an event that changed me…

When I made my pilgrimage to the hermitage, I was thirty -nine years old, flailing about in a profusion of busyness, struggling to balance my roles as mother, wife and writer, and keep pace with what seemed like a preposterous assortment of demands. People were often surprised by my gravitation to monasteries. I joked to them that my maiden name was, after all, Monk, and they joked that I was just tired and wanted to go off somewhere and lie down. My guide that day was a thin, amiable monk with horn-rimmed glasses. As we set off from the monastery through the empty trees, he inquired how I’d become interested in Merton.

“Reading The Seven Storey Mountain,” I told him. When he smiled, I added: “That’s practically a religious cliche, isn’t it?”

I’d read the autobiographical account of Merton becoming a Trappist monk ten years earlier at the age of twenty-nine. The book fairly stunned me. Having grown up in a Baptist family in a small town in the South, I’d had no religious orientation to the contemplative life, no idea about monasteries or what sort of infectious mystery might compel someone to actually go to one. Merton, himself, wrote about literature that “initiates” the reader into “the ultimate cause of things,” calling it “wisdom literature,” and applying the term to the work of Faulkner, for one.

It was easy for me to apply the term to The Seven Storey Mountain. My experience of reading it initiated me into my first real awareness of the interior life, igniting an impulse toward being that I still felt a decade later.

I’d gone on to read other of Merton’s books, mostly his journals, but somehow, inexplicably, I hadn’t yet read New Seeds of Contemplation, which was tucked in my purse, along with a small journal.

“So, for you, Merton was essentially a contemplative?” the monk said.

I nodded, startled slightly by the notion that Merton might be viewed as anything else. (Later I would wonder if that wasn’t what my guide had in mind.) I’d understood Merton almost exclusively as a man drawn by prayer, solitude and silence, the real essence of his life and work rooted in his pull toward being.

As I would discover, however , the light of Merton can be both wave and particle, one’s vision of him highly influenced by one’s own experience, need and initiation. Merton was, in fact, multi-faceted, complex, even self-contradictory, meaning he was able to hold within his extravagant personality a wide range of ambiguities, paradoxes and selves . Out of the great fertility and imagination of his soul rose a contemplative, monk, hermit, writer, poet, artist, intellectual, cultural critic, dissident, peace activist, ecumenical seeker, lover of nature and ordinary guy. A kind of Everysoul, he possessed an extraordinary ability to connect with deep, universal places inside of people. His life became a remarkably clear lens through which others glimpse their own self, especially the self their soul most demands. So, even before we reached the hermitage, it occurred to me I may have sculpted a personal image of Merton that had as much to do with my own longing to be, as it did with his.

The hermitage was enclosed by drifting floes of brown leaves, its cement-slab porch laden with firewood. I walked slowly through each room: a small kitchen; a bedroom with a quilt-draped bed pushed against the wall; a tiny room used for a chapel, its altar adorned with origami-shaped seed pods; a living room with a fireplace, a shelf of books, a wooden rocker (was this where Jacques sat on his visit here?), walking sticks propped in a corner, and an oil lamp on a desk before the front window. It smelled heavily of wood smoke.

With a stretch of time to myself, I settled at the desk and pulled New Seeds of Contemplation from my bag. In its pages I discovered Merton’s powerful evocations on the true self.

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny.… To work out our identity in God.

I’ve never attempted to describe the experience I had upon reading that passage. Even now, so many years later, I don’t know what to say about it except that it caused something hidden at the core of me to flare up and become known. If my reading of The Seven Storey Mountain inducted me into the mysteries of the interior life, waking an urge to be, New Seeds of Contemplation initiated me into the secrets of my true identity and woke in me an urge toward realness.

While seated at the desk, I copied a number of sentences from the book into the journal, which I recently dug out of its long obscurity in the back of a closet in order to read again. The lines I chose to write down reveal my own subjective experience with the book. They seem to me now like tiny panes through which I can glimpse the intimate yearnings of an earlier self.

I copied this rather telling passage:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self … We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.

And this one:

Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of this external self. There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular.

And this, which is written on a page by itself, surrounded by astonished, blank space:

Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness … We can rise above this unreality and recover our hidden identity….  God Himself begins to live in me not only as my Creator but as my other and true self.

My last excerpt captured the polarity I felt inside.

We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real … and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.

As I read, my understanding of Merton and the spiritual life began to pivot. Who am I? Who is my real self? How shall I become that self? The questions suddenly seemed to form the nucleus of Merton, and somehow, the nucleus of me, too. The shift that occurred in me had to do with discovering an intention of contemplation previously unknown to me— the process of confronting the false self, the illusions and tenacity of the ego, and finding and surrendering to the true self. Merton poetically referred to it as a movement from opaqueness to transparency.

Again Merton’s wisdom literature had taken me into the ultimate cause of things. The encounter has impacted my spirituality and my writing to this day.

Not long ago, as I recovered the little journal containing the passages I’d inscribed, a photograph tumbled from inside the cover. It was a picture of me standing on the hermitage porch, burrowed in a white coat, looking young and noviciate. Gazing at it nearly twenty years later, I was struck by the realization that I’d read New Seeds of Contemplation several times since then, experiencing the book differently each time: as a classical, theological work on the nature of contemplation, as a collection of personal meditations that tend the soul, as a mystical vision of what Merton called the “cosmic dance.” Yet, I savor most that reading in 1988 when my first awareness of the true self appeared in the portal of a winter afternoon.

— Sue Monk Kidd

Written by MattAndJojang

January 20, 2014 at 8:22 am