MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Posts Tagged ‘Prayer

Zen Christian Experience

leave a comment »

Fr. Robert Kennedy - Kamila Zarembska

Fr. Robert Kennedy (Photo: Kamila Zarembska)

So often I have been asked to explain why I, a Jesuit, am also a Zen teacher who conducts Zen retreats for Christians.

Let me try to answer: it began one spring morning in 1976 in Kamakura, Japan, standing with friends outside the Zen meditation hall of Yamada Roshi where we had just finished a five-day period of Zen meditation, I was so convinced of the value of the guided meditation and the experienced leadership of Zen training that I said to my Catholic companions, ‘This belongs in the Church!’ That I would make such a statement reflects my Jesuit orientation of bringing to the Church ‘gifts of greater worth’. I believed then, as I do now, that Zen was a great gift to bring to the Church, even though I knew I would have much to do to prepare the Church to receive such a gift. Concerns I had made me wonder to which Christians I would attempt to bring the gift of Zen since most Buddhists themselves were not interested in the Zen expression of Buddhism.

The practice of Zen began as an attempt by Chinese monks to intuit and enflesh the ideals of Buddhism which they had received from India. Hence their life of meditation and compassionate service as well as their interpretation of their Buddhist scriptures were by no means accepted by the majority of Buddhists. Even the beloved saint of Pure Land Buddhism, Shinran, was especially critical of the Zen ideal of urging people to strive for enlightenment. So I wondered, if the majority of Buddhists are not interested in Zen, how will most Christians appreciate my bringing them such a gift and how many will give this gift a welcome reception?

Let me explain the gift that Zen offers. It is an imageless way of responding to a truth we cannot imagine. Reflecting on this gift, I remember reading in the autobiography of St Therese, the Little Flower, that on her deathbed she suffered the temptation that there was no heaven waiting for her. I believe this is a way of saying she was tempted to think there was no God waiting for her either. Since St Therese is not only a saint but a Doctor of the Church, it is wise to pay attention to her experience.

I believe the temptation of St Therese was not a temptation at all, but for her and for some other Christians at least it is the natural evolution of the human mind. Accordingly the Benedictine and Zen Master, Willigis Jager, writes, ‘It is a decisive step when the individual in contemplation suddenly finds … God vanishing out of sight, or simply crumbling into pieces. This experience can at first give rise to great uncertainty. The Father’s hand is withdrawn, loneliness and a sense of lostness turn into a kind of abyss.’ Not only is the experience of the loss of God common to fervent Christians, I believe it is the experience that Christ himself suffered on the cross and we have still not fully understood his final words: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’

Contemplating Christ’s last words, I am reminded how Zen and the words of the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not put strange gods before me’, invite us to have no image of God: to discard not only all idols, but all conceptions and mental images of God as well. There is really nothing that we can say definitively about God. Not even that he is good. Given our limited language, we can say only what he is not. Meister Eckhart comes to mind: ‘Keep silent and don’t gape after God, for by gaping after him, you are lying, you are committing sin’. And later, ‘Hence I beg God that he relieve me of God’. To my thinking, Eckhart’s comment that ‘a man ought not to have a god who is just a product of his thought, nor should he be satisfied with that, because if the thought disappeared, God too would disappear’ clearly illustrates the commandment and Zen thinking.

It is true that most Christians do not journey on this arduous road of prayer, but for those who do, Zen contemplation can be of great help. The very purpose of Zen is to see into the emptiness of our concepts and emotions and into the emptiness of the culture which carries or expresses our faith. Zen reminds us of our own Christian truth that we need not subscribe to any philosophy or theology or any cultural expression of faith. Zen’s gift to us is to understand that often it is not belief in God that we lose but belief or interest in the philosophy, theology or culture that expresses this belief. Again I am reminded of the Little Flower who discontinued reciting the rosary when she did not find it helpful. The rosary, here, is but a symbol of any form of piety or thought in Christendom. Any cultural expression of faith is, in itself, not faith; let us not then cling to mere expressions of faith. Let us realize that to die and rise with Christ is quite enough.

Zen’s gift to us is by no means a foreign one. Our own Catholic tradition has long supported the truth that recommends the abandonment of all confrontational understanding of God that would line up opinions, whether Christian, Greek or any other against one another like horses at the starting line. Our tradition advocates a way of understanding God that transcends all differences. Among the Doctors of the Church, St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, in The life of Moses asserts, ‘The man who thinks that God can be known does not really have life; for he has been diverted from true being to something devised by his own imagination.’

Here you may be asking yourself; if Christian thought itself has long taught us not to cling to any ideas about God, why should we now tum to Zen Buddhism? Why should we undertake a long training to end up where we were fifteen centuries ago? The answer to this question is that it is not the only goal of Christianity to keep repeating truths we were taught fifteen centuries ago. The Second Vatican Council and recently the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus stress that Jesuits, and analogously all Christian people, according to their personality and situation in life, must foster interreligious dialogue not just on the level of thought but also on the level of religious experience. Both urge us to share with one another spiritual experiences with regard to prayer, faith, and ‘ways of searching for God or the Absolute.’

To share our experience with others according to the 34th General Congregation implies two important principles. First, genuine dialogue with believers of other religions requires that we deepen our own Christian faith and commitment because real inter-faith dialogue takes place only between those rooted in their own identity. The goal of inter-faith dialogue is not to convert one another but to be converted to an attitude of listening to the other that can lead to mutual respect and admiration at how truth manifests itself in different cultures and personalities. Even more than admiration, true listening can lead to the astonishment of Jesus who listened to the centurion and exclaimed, ‘I have not found such faith in Israel.’

The second principle implied in sharing religious experience with others reminds us that Vatican II exhorted all Catholics to a dialogue with others to ‘acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods found in other religions and the values in their society and culture.’ This principle underlines how far we have come from going to war with our brothers and sisters of other faiths! We are now exhorted not merely to tolerate their otherness, not merely to accept their truth, but to promote it. And if we are called to promote this truth, then surely we are called to seek it with all our mind and heart and strength.

Zen Buddhism has an extraordinary appeal for contemporary men and women seeking a true, personal spiritual experience. It has had a powerful hold on the Catholic mind. According to Robert Aitken, a Zen master in Hawaii, all the Zen centres in Europe, except one in France, have been started by Catholics. To my way of thinking this attraction to Zen practice is a God-given opportunity to practise the very exhortations that come to us from Vatican II, from the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, and finally from our own good common sense.

I view my having trained to be a Zen teacher and conducting inter­ faith retreats for Zen Buddhists and Christians as a response to Vatican II and to the 34th General Congregation’s statement which concluded that ‘to be religious today is to be interreligious in a sense that a positive relationship with believers of other faiths is a requirement in a world of religious pluralism.’ Although some Jesuits have already been trained for this work, the Congregation continuously encourages each assistancy to prepare Jesuits for interreligious dialogue and to understand and appreciate the urgency of this task in today’s pluralistic world.

My interest in Zen Buddhism stems from my attempt to reach out to Zen Buddhism, not uncritically, but with a reverence for the truth which the Church admits is there, and to integrate these truths with our own truths for the benefit of all concerned. Let me now demonstrate what we do when Zen and Christian students come to sit together. Let me give an example of the Zen teaching that Zen and Christian students practise together. This teaching is taken from the 11th Koan of the Book of Serenity, one of the major books of Zen teaching which is familiar to Zen students and which teaches us to experience life free from preconceived concepts.

The Zen Master Yunmen states that when light does not penetrate freely, there are three types of sicknesses that grow in the dark. The first sickness is not to get on the donkey. I understand this sickness to apply to those who do not engage in practice but remain on the level of theory or thinking or dogmatic conviction. Practising Zen we overcome this sickness. Zen aims at doing, not just thinking. It is the doing, breathing and living that transform the practitioner and make him or her useful in this world. Zen teaches that the self is not different from its function in a world of action. Kathleen Raine, a contemporary British poet, apparently agrees with this Zen teaching. She writes:

Each creature is the signature of its action.
The gull swoops, shaped by wind and hunger,
Eyes and avenging beak, and strong with wings
Turned to a fine edge of beauty and power by wind and water.
Scream and wing-beat utter the holy truth of its being. Man acts amiss: pure only the song
That breaks from the lips of love…

The second sickness that grows in the dark where light does not penetrate freely is not getting off the donkey. I understand this statement to express a warning to those students who cling to the forms and rules of practice when these forms and rules have ceased to serve their purpose and no longer serve life. One Zen story tells of a monk far advanced in training who comes to a master for further instruction. He comes to him loaded down with Zen scripture, Zen customs, Zen language, Zen clothes; in other words he stinks of Zen. The Master asks him if he has had his breakfast. ‘Yes, I have,’ responds the monk. ‘Then go wash your bowl,’ says the Master. He means there is no such thing as Zen apart from our very life as we live it moment by moment. We are to live freely and not to be caught by forms that once had their place but no longer serve an adult and insightful life.

Concerning this, Dogen, a Japanese Zen philosopher of the thirteenth century, wrote:

Suchness is the real form of truth as it appears throughout the world – it is fluid and differs from any static substance. Our body is not really ours. Our life is easily changed by life and circumstances and never remains static. Countless things pass, and we will never see them again. Our mind is also continually changing. Some people wonder ‘If this is true on what can we rely?’ But others who have the resolve to seek enlightenment, use this constant flux to deepen their enlightenment.

My understanding of the second sickness is that when we cling to forms that we have outgrown, we stay on the donkey and we stink of Zen.

The third sickness, that grows where the light does not penetrate freely, is to say, ‘What donkey?’ Zen training is not meant to lead us into a vacuum called emptiness but to prepare us to return to the market place laden with wine and fish or with whatever those in front of us need at this moment. For Dogen and for the Mahayana tradition generally, doctrinal expressions and ritual forms must correspond to the suffering and ignorance of the world. Buddhist thought is true and its forms are authentic when they alleviate suffering and enlighten ignorance. We cannot say ‘What donkey is there?’ or ‘What world is there?’ We must turn to life with full hands and hearts, again and again and again.

Catholics legitimately want, and respond to, what Merton calls ‘the hardheaded spiritual realism (of Zen)… non-charged with melodrama’. The proof of this is in the large numbers of Christians who show up regularly for zen retreats in the New York area alone. ‘Why haven’t we been taught this before?’ or, ‘We’ve always known that God is unknowable – this practice gives us lay people an opportunity to experience this’ or ‘It’s great to know we can practise Zen without compromising our Christianity’ are the kinds of comments that come up repeatedly. A non-conceptual approach to prayer is of value, in itself and to balance out the whole spectrum of Christian prayer forms and retreats as well.

In summary, I am attracted to inter-faith work between Zen Buddhists and Christians because it is the work of the imagination. I have no better way of describing what I mean by imagination than to end with a poem by a contemporary American poet, Denise Levertov.

Imagine this blur of chill, white, gray, vague, sadness burned off.

Imagine a landscape
of dry clear sunlight, precise shadows,
forms of pure color.

Imagine two neighbouring hills, and
your house, my house, looking across, friendly:
imagine ourselves
meeting each other,
bringing gifts, bringing news.

Yes we need the heat
of imagination’s sun
to cut through our bonds of cloud.

And oh, can the great and golden light
warm our flesh that has grown so cold?

–Fr. Robert Kennedy, SJ

Robert Kennedy, SJ, born in New York, was ordained priest in Japan where he first practised Zen and studied with the Japanese Zen Master Yamada Roshi. He continued his study on returning to the United States and in 1998 he became the first Catholic priest in the country to receive inka whereby he received the honorary title of Roshi. He is Chair of the Theology Department at St Peter’s College, Jersey City, where he teaches theology and Japanese, a practising psychotherapist in New York City, and the author of Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit (Continuum 1995, 1998).

Written by MattAndJojang

February 19, 2020 at 12:31 pm

A Week at the Hermitage: A Trappist Monk’s Sojourn at Thomas Merton’s Hermitage

leave a comment »

 

Mertons Hermitage

Thomas Merton’s Hermitage (Photo: Thomas Merton)

Moonlight awakened me from sleep on the porch of the hermitage. The high moon enhanced the trees with vertical light accentuating lines of the tall trunks. This quiet assembly stood as elegant aristocrats, softly drenched in descending, silvery gauze of courtesy and graciousness.

Nearby, a lone cricket kept careful track of all this while a distant, sustained note spread widely over the fields. This late August coolness has silenced nightly katydids who can rack and vibrate the air from all sides, especially in this close grove, or what is slowly crowding into one. Years ago this yard opened to the sky, with hardy saplings planted to become the sheltering presences they are today.

Settling In

I came here for a week of retreat after a loud morning of heat and bother in the kitchen, of pressure and song at Mass with the community and Sunday crowd. After packing in and setting up, I sat on the chair marked “the Bench of Dreams” and got over my life, with eyes closed, wanting nothing but to be stayed interiorly within what stays you.

Stillness lasted about an hour, and finally my reopened eyes showed the afternoon had gathered to shades of evening. Time moves, and I am moved along. But here there is no urgency to get to the next thing. I pursue no schedule except one of my own devising. I decided to push Vespers back an hour. To be free of a schedule looks attractive, but to have no schedule at all can be as obsessive as having one too rigid. Total freedom leaves me wondering what to do next. I forget that question if I allow the sun to determine my actions.

I would do well to have more of the spirit of the late Br. Harold of fond memory—my peer in the novitiate. He had what might be called “the gift of leisure.” During this hour of my staying, something of Harold’s face moved close and merged with mine. It felt good company, and I don’t know why I thought of him after so many years since his death. I guess I needed it. There was something imperturbable about Harold, and he was a natural for the Buddhism he was long interested in. If there is an aristocracy of souls, he would be toasted in their gentle company.

Harold remained serene even as he gradually slipped into dementia, and I will always remember him sitting contentedly under the cherry tree, with blossoms falling around and upon his head, he not bothering to brush them off. From the hermitage I later heard a saw roaring and soon discovered they had cut down that very tree Harold sat under. It was dying, withered by deep winter freezes. Not far off was a Washington cherry, also slowly dying, planted sideways at a steep angle on a quirk by Br. Donald, who planted both cherries. The slant proved to be stylish.

Walking Prayer

I said the Divine Office at the hermitage while strolling through the grass with my feet bare. Sometime after Lauds I took up with dance or was taken up with it. In that rather isolated sward and wood, the time, space, and privacy allowed for such freedom. Short grass in the big yard remained covered with dew as the sun grew stronger. With feet contacting and feeling ground, I explored the world for what it presented at the moment. Each step, each movement, a bend, a turn, a leap disclosed something delightful to my eyes—colored points of light in the grass, prisms of dew changing hue as I swayed. With legs stretched, back lowered, bending, finding sights at every stride. Blue flowers crouched below grass level, their blue intensified by blue sky; yet lower still, an underlayer of miniature three-leaf green in the thousands, smaller than the clovers you know. The sky is a color too pure to be believed, and trees contrast with bold green against blue. A body must simply stretch to this, must bow to know this realm of honor. My flesh took on the freshness of air and light, and sadness washed out of muscles and bones. I gathered this moment into a poem:

Arriving sun stretched
through pillars of trees
carpets of color
before my feet.

Day, in this hidden hall of fame,
is celebrating day,
with my company alone
present to honor being.

In honor of being I dance
while robin concurs
with steady, steady chirps—
famous, persistent chirps.

Lectio Divina

Reading during this annual week here is usually long and deep, copious enough to set me on course for the following months. That enables me later to survive better with the shorter spans of reading at the monastery. Hermitage time also allows for serious effort at memorization, and a few years ago I got two or three long poems by Rilke under my belt. It is not enough to get poetry inside your skull. It has physicality and sound that require putting it under your belt, ingesting and getting it inside your body. It takes a lot of work, and I remembered those poems for a year or so. Eventually, left unvisited, unused, they evaporated—gone where? However, if I put my mind to tugging and coaxing one, back it comes, ready to stay awhile for having once been at home in me.

Usually I memorize a poem one line or two at a time. The best hour at the monastery is in the morning, getting ready for Lauds. I read a line, go shave, return to the page, tend to some other detail, return to the page, then repeat the words as I walk to Lauds. Perhaps after the services I revisit the memory. Within a week or so I complete the work, but this is merely the mental part. The next stage is to recite it aloud. That doesn’t come so easily, and harder yet is to recite something in the presence of another person. That almost seems like having to start over again. But once I can recite it to someone else, I have truly mastered the poem. I often used poor Fr. Matthew Kelty as my audience, and with all patience, he bore with hearing me stumble along.

Another essential component in my yearly week of solitude is reading Merton’s private journals. This makes for good company, and eases into a mutual, shared, living solitude—not only because he lived here, but more because his writings sound the depths of what it is to be alone, reflective, and left to the unseen presence of God who does not need to be seen. To sit is enough, to read and watch early autumn leaf-fall swept down from the maples, to feel the fragrant air, to hear faint bells marking time in the distance.

Merton captured such moments and put them on paper. I need to capture them too, but not to commit them to a page. Yet, thanks to reading Merton, I can better see what they are for all their worth.

The Place Is Your Meditation

Meditation, strange to say, seems less a need at the hermitage. Some days I forget it completely since the whole environment seems a meditation. Quiet activity and changing hours easily slide into meditation and ease off again to an awareness of this place itself. The place is alive. A gray lizard crawls with short stops along the sunlit edge of the porch. His serious, angular head bears notions impenetrable, ancestral memories of dinosaur days. My presence represents a novelty to his long, lonely days, and he shows no doubt I am a mere transient. This porch belongs to him. A mud-dauber wasp buzzes in the window where the channel of the frame forms a perfect canal for her mud tunnel. It proved futile to knock that out, since she rebuilt it the next day. Living with such wee creatures invites the mind to enjoy an intimate sense of belonging. You have to set your mind to this intimacy with other wild and living things. You can also get the creeps about it. Wildlife reminds me there are vital differences and distances where I do not belong, as when the red-tailed hawk “schrees,” asserting territory.

Writing either comes spontaneously or not at all. It seems enough to keep a short, daily chronicle, if nothing more, unless a poem comes along begging to be written. A good number of monks and writers who stay here get passionate and find this cottage irresistible for writing and have turned out whole books on the experience—John Howard Griffin; Fr. John Dear; and Fr. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.; to name three.

Urge to Dance

I am often inclined while here to express inspiration in dance. Later this week, the sky moved my feet. Looking up, I discovered the half-moon dancing in a circle, forgetting I was stepping and swaying in a circle myself. A jet tracer struck a straight line through tree curves and clouds; cirrus horsetails stretched layer below layer to the horizon. As above, so below do I—toss my white shirt, stretch it as a cloud—lifting and pulling, tossing and dropping, working hands, stretching arms. My body draws down to earth, drifts up to sky, each movement unplanned, a surprising, flowing symphony of what the heart wants to do next, then next, then next. At last the shirt is tossed high, a wannabe cloud, caught and tossed, released to a life of its own in the breeze, the flight, the falling and catching.

I came to the hermitage in need of cutting free again, as I often once did, starting in 1973 when I attended a workshop in symbolism. One of the practices was called “motion to music.” Dancing was not the point, or watching anyone dance. It was to let the motion be what it would be in you. I continued this practice through many years—great for exercise, great for morale. As things developed, I eventually took to it with a twenty-pound weight in each hand.

These days, all too rarely am I caught up in this kind of misbehavior, and usually only at the hermitage. Last year, I really pushed my limits by dancing to a long scherzo by Anton Bruckner. I always carry him in to help my retreat.

Surprise Visitor

Invariably at the hermitage there will be an unexpected surprise, and this year it was the appearance down the road of a tall man who stopped at a distance once he noticed me sitting there. I waved and beckoned him forward. My philosophy is to let the Lord teach me by interruptions. In this case it was not so strange at all—no stranger he was, but the friendly and familiar Bill Chapman, a Quaker I met a year ago. He is review editor of Friends Journal, a leader, teacher, and organizer. He is very concerned that young people are not joining the Society of Friends, and that America has only one hundred thousand Quakers today. He was a friend of Dan Berrigan’s since days he spent as his student at Berkeley decades ago. Bill stopped by, and we exchanged some stories about John Dear, our mutual friend, a strong, vocal opponent of war who is in many ways carrying on the late Fr. Berrigan’s legacy.

Thunderstorm

A retreat is not complete without a good thunderstorm. This broad porch serves as shelter to watch it all develop. Then, the seclusion allows you to go out like a fool and get drenched.

This retreat, no rain came all week long until the last day, late afternoon, and then the downpour was gratifying and robust. Eventually clouds broke and sun came through while rain continued, showering sunlight and rain together. I cartwheeled, became a child again, back in my home yard, knowing only this yard as the whole world, suddenly changed into something wondrous. Rain glistened, backlit by the sun, showing every falling drop for all its worth. Rain appeared to be falling from the sun itself. This rain was meant for this space, felt like something made for only here and now. The narrow yonder of the field where trees attend Our Lady’s statue took on a magical, silver sheen where air misted—a lost wilderness, reverting to some ancient, mythical epoch.

The shower lasted long enough to really cleanse me. The hermitage had been swept and cleaned, and I made ready to depart for Vespers and to return to the monastery totally refreshed.

That evening there happened something of a sign. While laying out bedding as usual on the lumber-shed porch, I saw something I had never seen before, something so unusual I will probably never see it again. The clouds in the east were piled high, lit pink-rose by the setting sun in the west. Suddenly lightning flashed outward in a curious circular array, spreading from a center, coming from no cloud, but from midair in empty space. Soundless, jagged lines stretched out in all directions like a baroque eucharistic monstrance, a wrought-silver sunburst, a complex web of jagged, brilliant netting, briefly seen and gone. All I could do was tell myself that had to be a once-in-a-lifetime apparition. Heaven and earth had kept company with me.

–Br. Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., an excerpt from his book “In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir”

The Inner Journey: Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Spirituality

with 7 comments

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

Written by MattAndJojang

September 26, 2018 at 3:49 pm

The Gift of Silence

with 2 comments

Landscape

Ando Hiroshige’s “Evening Bell at Mii Temple”

Let me seek then the gift of silence…
where the sky is my prayer,
the birds are my prayer,
the wind in the trees is my prayer,
for God is in all.

–Thomas Merton

 

 

Written by MattAndJojang

July 3, 2018 at 5:19 pm

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , , , , , ,

Prayer

with 6 comments

 

Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important
calls for my attention—the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage
I need to buy for the trip.
Even now I can hardly sit here
among the falling piles of paper and clothing, the garbage trucks outside
already screeching and banging.
The mystics say you are as close as my own breath.
Why do I flee from you?
My days and nights pour through me like complaints
and become a story I forgot to tell.
Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.

–Marie Howe

Written by MattAndJojang

April 17, 2018 at 5:42 pm

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

Where Does It Hurt, O City of Light

leave a comment »

Photo: Jim Roberts

Photo: Jim Roberts

Upon receiving the news from Paris, I did what I often do in moments of crisis. I turned off the TV — and sat with the grief. I turned, as I often do, to poetry, nature, scripture, and prayer. I retreated to solitude, leaving time for sorrow to sit with me before having to answer the inevitable crush of media speculation.

In those early hours there is no real analysis, only a parroting of ideological perspectives. I find it more fully human to welcome grief, and connect with the humanity of those for whom these tragedies are even more personal, more intimately destructive.

The poem that I turned to was yet again from the amazing Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Everywhere, everywhere. Everybody hurts. It hurts everywhere.

I watched the outpouring of grief from all over the world, including most of my Muslim friends. I saw hundreds of Facebook profiles being changed to the French flag-themed profile pictures, and thousands of #prayerforParis and #Prayers4Paris tweets.

I also saw, as I knew would come, wounded cries of the heart from friends in Beirut wondering why their own atrocity (43 dead) just one day before — also at the hands of ISIS — had not received any such similar outpouring of grief; friends from Pakistan wondering why there was no option to “check in as safe” during their experiences with violent attacks; friends from Central African Republic wondering why their dead — in the thousands — are the subject of no one’s global solidarity.

Somewhere in the midst of grief and devastation, here was the cry that I also heard again and again: What about my pain?

In some of the news coverage, we get told that “bombings are nothing new” to Beirut. I cannot help but read this as implying not that some countries are witnessing more violence than others, but that some lives matter more than others. Some outposts have been even more forthright, talking about our selective outrage masking a two-tiered model of human life, and outright racism.

It is a subtle shift, but I think there is a difference in tone between recognizing someone else’s tragedy and saying, “But what about mine?” and saying, “Yes, I see your tragedy, and I offer you my condolences and sympathy. And I see your tragedy and mine as connected.” It is the second that strikes me as more spiritually and morally mature.

Having sat with grief for a day of silence, here are a few thoughts that come to my mind:

Need to Grieve, Need to Mourn.
When I got the news and had a chance to catch up with the grief, I then made a point of turning down media interview requests and actually took the time to mourn. I hope more of us do take this necessary time. How sad it is to see analysts on TV opining, when we have not yet buried the dead and mourned the loss of life. I am concerned when our response in times of crisis is to strike out, lash out, and express rage before we have had time to sit with, and process, sadness and grief. Unprocessed grief always lashes out in ignorant, unhelpful ways.

My heart and prayers go to the families of the deceased, and to all who have felt the impact of this horrific attack. I wish we could extend the time to sit in solitude, hold each other, wipe each others’ tears, and mourn together.

Yes, Paris Is a Dazzling, Beautiful (Global) City of Lights.
Paris is charming almost beyond what a heart can bear. But no, Paris is not unique. Today, Paris is a global city. The very same global process of colonialism has brought the children of the colonies, largely North Africans, into the metropole. Today, Muslims are the most visible minority population in France, and they are both racially and economically marginalized.

Today, Paris is part of the global narrative. New York, Madrid, London, Ankara, Bombay, Damascus have all witnessed grotesque acts of terrorism. The primary victims of terrorism by ISIS are Muslims in places like Iraq and Syria. Muslims have been killed on a magnitude hundreds of times the scale of the Paris atrocity. Remember that, according to a recent United Nations report, some 8,493 Iraqi civilians were killed and 15,782 Iraqis were injured by ISIS in the summer of 2014 alone. According to credible reports, approximately one million people have been killed in Iraq since the start of the U.S. occupation.

ISIS and Islam.
As has been the case with previous tragedies, national Muslim organizations extended their sympathies and their condemnations of the horrific acts of terrorism. But I wonder if now, almost 15 years after 9/11, if we should still have to. I don’t know how many times we have to keep saying that acts of violence on civilians can never be justified, no matter who is the victim and who is the perpetrator.

Simply put, when Muslims condemn acts of violence from extremists, and they get asked again and again why don’t they condemn terrorism, I wonder if is because some of us are not listening. And perhaps that we don’t want to listen. There is a sad place deep in my soul that has to admit this: there are some in our midst who do not want to believe that faithful, pious Muslims could find and do find acts of violence morally repugnant. That attitude, as common as it is, tells me nothing about the humanity of Muslims that I know, or about Islam. It does tell me a lot about a xenophobic spirit of ignorance that is rampant in our society.

Ultimately, this spirit of ignorance and racism is a common enemy, just as much as state-sponsored violence and violence committed by groups like ISIS is an enemy. All of these stand in opposition to the dignity of all of us.

I don’t know how to say it more directly than this: Yes, the members of ISIS come from Muslim backgrounds. No, their actions cannot be justified on the basis of the 1400 years of Islamic tradition. Every serious scholar of Islam has confirmed this clearly, and unambiguously. ISIS is about as Muslim as the KKK is Christian. If you don’t look to the KKK to tell you about God’s message of love as expressed through Jesus, don’t look to ISIS to tell you about God’s mercy as expressed through Muhammad.

Avoiding the Trap of Divisiveness.
The ISIS terrorist attacks are precisely intended to create a divide, a false divide between Muslims and the West. Acts of terrorism are not only about the violence and mayhem created. They are also anticipating, and bringing about, a backlash from the societies that have experienced violence. This goes back to the days preceding 9/11, where al-Qaeda hoped to bring about a U.S. attack on Afghanistan. It succeeded.

ISIS, as well, is hoping to create a culture of backlash against Muslims in Europe, to foster a situation of persecution of Muslims there that will bolster future recruitment of extremists. And, Western attacks on Iraq/Syria will, in turn, lead to further extremism. To put it simply, we can’t bomb our way out of the ISIS mess. Military campaigns are part of the solution, but they cannot be the whole solution. Diplomacy, including with parties that we have political differences of opinion with, have to be part of the answer.

If we are to confront ISIS, we have to confront the sources of their funding as well as their ideology, which will force us to ask difficult and challenging questions from many of their Wahhabi and Gulf area supporters — who are also American allies.

The Mythic “Attack on Universal Values.”
President Obama released a statement regarding the terrorist attacks:

Once again we’ve seen an outrageous attempt to terrorize innocent civilians. This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.

As a humanist and a person of color, and as a person critical of both Western colonial conceit and violent extremism, I can only half-applaud the President’s statement. On one hand, both the Qur’an (5:32) and the Mishnah [Sanhedrin 4:5] tell us that to take one human life is as if to take the life of whole humanity, and to save one human life is as if to save the life of all humanity. True, from that perspective the attack on Paris is an attack on all humanity.

What I question is the selectivity of the “universal values” part in President Obama’s statement. I don’t know what that means. Liberté, égalité, fraternité were not, ever, universal values. The Europeans never intended for the values of the Enlightenment to be applied to the whole of humanity. The Enlightenment — which gave birth to both the French and the American revolutions — was also a profoundly exclusionary principle that never applied to the victims of the empire: not to native Americans, not to the humans stolen from West Africa and brought to the Americas as slaves, not to women, and not to the French colonies. The “universal” values were never universal.

I would love for compassion, dignity, and the sanctity of each and every human life to be a universal human value. If it is to be, that day is in our future. I will believe that we have arrived when the atrocities in Syria, in Palestine/Israel, in Central African Republic, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Myanmar, in inner-city America are all treated as attacks on “universal values.” When these atrocities are treated as global and universal human atrocities on par with attacks on Paris and New York, I will believe the declarations. When we see politicians marching for African lives, Afghan lives, Palestinian lives, and Black lives, I will believe their statements.

Watch Out for Trolls.
No sooner had the atrocity in Paris happened, before the bodies were buried, out came the trolls. There was Richard Dawkins, who came out against Islam yet again:

 

There was Donald Trump, who somehow managed to turn the Paris tragedy into a stump speech for the NRA, stating,“Nobody had guns but the bad guys.” As if the solution to violence is somehow more guns.

Franklin Graham was at it again, stating that “Islam” was at war with the West:

He spent just as much time on Twitter bashing Islam as he did offering prayers for the victims. In collapsing ISIS and Islam, Graham is actually granting ISIS the very Islamic legitimacy that it so craves — and does not deserve.

No, the answer to ISIS’s violence and hatred cannot be more hatred and more ignorance. We have to transcend this hatred through something more beautiful and loftier: a call for universal love, and a holistic sense of justice.

We cannot curse our way out of this darkness. This fragile and broken world needs more light, more light.

Protect the Refugees.
The news out of Paris indicates that one of the assailants has been identified as a Syrian. The fear on many people’s part is that this will lead to a backlash against all Syrian refugees. That would be a humanitarian catastrophe of immense scale. Let us remember this: the Syrian refugees are fleeing the brutality of the very same ISIS that has now unleashed its savagery on Paris (and Beirut). In short, the millions of Syrian refugees are themselves the primary victims of ISIS. Let us not doubly punish these desperate people by associating them with the atrocity of their own tormentors.

In the afternoon I took my children out for a long, slow walk in the woods. We took time to reflect on the trees, the light, the fallen leaves. In the midst of grief, there is still time to hold a friend’s hand, to hold a beloved in the heart, and go for a gentle stroll.

I don’t have the answers to ISIS, or how to defeat them. But I do know this: at the end of the day, love and unity will have the victory. If we are to get there, we have to remain fully human.

If we close our hearts to love, to each other, to nature, to God, we have already lost. If we close our hearts to one another, we have already lost.

There is grief in the city of light, and in so many cities of light. In the midst of the grief, in the late hour of a Fall, a beauty lingers. Love shall have the victory at the end of days.

Let there be light inside our hearts.
Let there be light around us.
Let the light permeate us.
Let’s rebuild the City of Lights, one illuminated heart after another.

The City of Light needs no more darkness. Let us welcome light into our hearts, and be agents of healing.

–Omid Safi

The author, Omid Safi, is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Written by MattAndJojang

November 16, 2015 at 8:49 am

Prayers For Paris

with one comment

Prayers For Paris

Praying for Paris… Praying for France… Praying for peace…

Written by MattAndJojang

November 15, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , , , ,