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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Merton

A Zen Life – D.T. Suzuki

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A Zen Life

He’s probably the most culturally significant Japanese person, in international terms, in all of history.

—Gary Snyder

A Zen Life – D.T. Suzuki is a documentary about Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, Zen philosopher and one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. He is considered to be the person who single-handedly introduced Zen Buddhism to the West.

After saying that Zen is impossible to describe, he proceeds to write more than a hundred books about Zen. Lynn White, professor of medieval history at Princeton (and later at Stanford), says:

It may well be that the publication of D.T. Suzuki’s first Essays in Zen Buddhism in 1927 will seem in future generations as great an intellectual event as William of Moerbeke’s Latin translations of Aristotle in the thirteenth century or Marsiglio Ficino’s of Plato in the fifteenth.

Aside from writing books, he also traveled and lectured around the world.

He influenced many of the great Western intellectual figures of the 20th century. Among those who admitted the impact of D.T. Suzuki on their work and thought are: the psychologist Carl Jung, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, the psychoanalyst Eric Fromm, the writer Jack Kerouac, the poet Allen Ginsberg, and the Catholic monk Thomas Merton.

Martin Heidegger admits:

If I understand [Dr. Suzuki] correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.

On his deathbed Carl Jung was reading Charles Luk’s Ch’an and Zen Teachings: First Series. His secretary writes:

he was enthusiastic… When he read what Hsu Yun said, he sometimes felt as if he himself could have said exactly this! It was just ‘it’!

After meeting with D.T. Suzuki in New York, Thomas Merton writes in his journal:

These talks were very pleasant, profoundly important to me—to see and experience the fact that there really is a deep understanding between myself and this extraordinary, simple man whom I have been reading for about ten years with great attention.

The documentary is a vivid portrait of one of the most extraordinary intellectuals of the 20th century. It includes rare footages of D.T. Suzuki, as well as reminiscences of people he influenced.

To watch the trailer of the documentary click the link below:

A Zen Life – D.T. Suzuki

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

November 18, 2014 at 7:35 pm

What Are The Ten Books That Have Shaped You?

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Photo: samluce.com

Photo: samluce.com

List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. It’s not about the ‘right book’ or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Doesn’t have to be in order. Then share with 10 friends and me so I can see your list.

–Salman Azhar

Here’s my list:

1. How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler

The book that taught me not only to make the most out of reading books, but also how to think critically.

The three main questions are: What is the whole book about and how are its parts related to that whole? What, in detail, does the book say and what does the author mean by what he says? And the third question is, Is it true, and what of it?

– Mortimer Adler

2. The Bible

As a Christian, I consider it as God’s word and the most important book in my life.

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

– Psalm 119:105

3. The Gateless Gate, Yamada Koun Roshi

An incisive commentary on the classic book of koans by the modern-day Zen Master, Yamada Roshi.

You will feel as though the whole universe has totally collapsed. Strange as it may seem, this experience has the power to free you from the agonies of the world. It emancipates you from anxiety over all worldly suffering. You feel as though the heavy burdens you have been carrying in mind and body have suddenly fallen away. It is a great surprise. The joy and happiness at that time are beyond all words, and there are no philosophies or theories attached to it. This is the enlightenment, the satori of Zen.

– Yamada Koun Roshi

4. The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart

The book that contains the entire text of the vernacular talks of my favorite Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart.

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.

– Meister Eckhart

5. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, St. John of the Cross

A classic on contemplative spirituality by one of the greatest Christian mystics, St. John of the Cross.

My Beloved, the mountains,
And lonely wooded valleys,
Strange islands,
And resounding rivers,
The whistling of love-stirring breezes,
The tranquil night
At the time of the rising dawn,
Silent music,
Sounding solitude,
The supper that refreshes, and deepens love.

– St. John of the Cross

6. The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton

The autobiography of my favorite spiritual author and childhood hero, Thomas Merton. He was a great influence in my life.

The very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me.

– Thomas Merton

7. The Silent Life, Thomas Merton

A book which describes the different Catholic contemplative religious orders.

I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.

– Thomas Merton

8. New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

A modern-day classic on contemplative prayer.

Contemplation 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. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source.

– Thomas Merton

9. The Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau

One of the best books on Zen practice written by a Western Zen teacher.

The world is one interdependent Whole and each separate one of us is that Whole.

– Philip Kapleau

10. Christian Zen, William Johnston

A book on Zen meditation written from a Christian perspective by a Jesuit priest and missionary.

In the twenty years that I have spent in Japan – so meaningful and rich that this land is almost my land – I have had some contact with Zen, whether by sitting in Zen meditation or through dialogue with my Buddhist friends. All this has been tremendously enriching; it has deepened and broadened my Christian faith more than I can say… Contact with Zen… has opened up new vistas, teaching me that there are possibilities in Christianity I never dreamed of.

— William Johnston

— Matt

 

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

Written by MattAndJojang

June 25, 2014 at 9:41 am

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The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton

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The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton

In Theaters 2015

 

 

Who is Thomas Merton?

In 1941, aspiring author Thomas Merton abandoned his bohemian life in New York City and ran away to the strictest observance of Catholic monasticism he could find—a Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky, where he took a lifelong vow of silence, poverty, obedience and stability.


Considering the moral laxity of his past life, Merton felt that writing would be at odds with his new monastic vocation. But while he vowed to put down his pen for good, his abbot recognized Merton’s literary talent and demanded he write his life story. In obedience, Merton hammered out 
his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which was published in 1948. To Merton’s surprise, the book became a blockbuster hit and shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It also sent scores of World War II veterans, students and even teenagers flocking to monasteries across the United States and around the world as they sought to follow Merton’s example. Despite his best efforts to submerge himself in the anonymity of his religious vocation, Thomas Merton had become an overnight celebrity.

Though bombarded with countless speaking requests and the other unwanted pressures of his newfound fame, Merton continued to write and publish many books on sacramental living, prayer and contemplation. As the Cold War and mounting fear of nuclear holocaust took center stage, Merton used his celebrity to speak out against war, violence, racism and other hot button issues of the 1960s. As a prominent peace activist and proponent of social justice amidst such turbulent times, Merton quickly became both loved and hated by many.

During his twenty-seven years as a monk, Merton published 56 books. Since then he has sold approximately 15 million books translated into dozens of languages. Merton’s influence has grown exponentially since his tragic and unexplained death by accidental electrocution in 1968. He is widely recognized as an important 20th-century Catholic mystic who forged new paths into both interfaith dialogue and non-violent peacemaking. In addition to the International Thomas Merton society, currently there are 57 local Thomas Merton chapters and societies around the globe dedicated to keeping his legacy alive.

 

About the Film

Synopsis

The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton is a feature film about world famous monk and peace activist Thomas Merton. In the summer of 1966, Merton falls in love with a nursing student half his age, plunging him into the most agonizing predicament of his life. As he endeavors to prevent his secret romance from being discovered by his abbot, James Fox, Merton is brought to the brink of despair, realizing he must finally choose between serving himself or serving the world.

Endorsements

“A beautiful portrayal of one of the great spiritual masters of our time, “The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton” highlights a period of tremendous creativity and volcanic change for the person who was, at the time, America’s most well known Catholic writer and sage. This lovely new screenplay ushers us into the often misunderstood world of monastic life, artfully showing the struggle of a man trying to remain faithful to his vows after having fallen in love. Both longtime fans of Merton and newcomers to his life will find it sensitive, nuanced and often deeply moving.”
James Martin, SJ, Jesuit priest and author of Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints

“Thomas Merton is serving history as a ‘Prime Attractor’. He excites, challenges, and educates the hardest of hearts and the most rigid of minds from so many different spheres of life. He seduces people into a future where there is room and compassion for so much more. You can jump into that future through this fully entertaining but profoundly true account of his life.”
— Richard Rohr, Founder, Center for Action and Contemplation

“I found it very gripping — read it in one bite!”
 — Jim Forest, friend of Merton, writer, peace activist

“Thomas Merton deserves to be known and read by a new generation, and Ben Eisner and Kevin Miller are creating an ideal vehicle to make the introduction. Those who have read Merton will find much here to deepen their understanding of the man, and those who haven’t read him will want to as soon as they leave the theater.
— Brian D. McLaren, author/speaker/activist (www.brianmclaren.net)

“The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton narrates with respect and humor significant events in the famous monk’s last years that challenged his personal integrity and his crucial relationship to his monastery’s abbot, James Fox. The screenplay realistically portrays the major role that Fox played in Merton’s life both as a down-to-earth spiritual mentor and as one of his literary career’s best friends. The screenplay follows Merton’s movement through personal challenges to his living out his vocation in a context of crisis that is mirrored in events of the Sixties that created turbulence for America’s own sense of its direction through world upheaval. This script deserves serious consideration for translation into a film that would attract a global audience.”
— Jonathan Montaldo, co-editor of The Intimate Merton

— Source: http://mertonmovie.com

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

Thomas Merton

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Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, to artists, Ruth and Owen Merton. His early years were spent in the south of France; later, he went to private school in England and then to Cambridge. Both of his parents were deceased by the time Merton was a young teen and he eventually moved to his grandparents’ home in the United States to finish his education at Columbia University in New York City. While a student there, he completed a thesis on William Blake who was to remain a lifelong influence on Merton’s thought and writings.

But Merton’s active social and political conscience was also informed by his conversion to Christianity and Catholicism in his early twenties. He worked for a time at Friendship House under the mentorship of Catherine Doherty and then began to sense a vocation in the priesthood. In December 1941, he resigned his teaching post at Bonaventure College, Olean, NY, and journeyed to the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, Kentucky. There, Merton undertook the life of a scholar and man of letters, in addition to his formation as a Cistercian monk.

The thoroughly secular man was about to undertake a lifelong spiritual journey into monasticism and the pursuit of his own spirituality. The more than 50 books, 2000 poems, and numerous essays, reviews, and lectures that have been recorded and published, now form the canon of Merton’s writings. His importance as a writer in the American literary tradition is becoming clear. His influence as a religious thinker and social critic is taking its place alongside such luminaries as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King. His explorations of the religions of the east initiated Merton’s entrance into inter-religious dialogue that puts him in the pioneering forefront of worldwide ecumenical movements. Merton died suddenly, electrocuted by a malfunctioning fan, while he was attending his first international monastic conference near Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968.

~Source: Thomas Merton Society of Canada

Click Here to Watch a Short Documentary about Thomas Merton

Written by MattAndJojang

November 29, 2013 at 10:23 am

Every Breath… Every Moment…

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Photo: mechtaniya/deviantART

Every breath we draw is a gift of God’s love; every moment of existence is a grace.

~ Thomas Merton

Written by MattAndJojang

May 9, 2012 at 9:10 am

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The Vision at Louisville

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Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were or could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream—a dream of my separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me in a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race, and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

~ Thomas Merton

Written by MattAndJojang

March 19, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Speaking of God

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Photo: TrueLight Expressions/Flickr

As we begin talking about God, I need to sound an important warning: We must be careful how we speak of seeking God. It is not the same as seeking some object, say, a new car or a new house. We must not reduce God to the status of an “object” or a “thing,” as if God were something that could be grasped or possessed in the way we possess riches or knowledge or some other created entity. Nor must we seek God outside ourselves…

For God is not an “object” or “thing.” God’s infinity, as the word implies, knows no boundaries; hence we cannot “define” God as we define things in the world… If we are to line up all the beings that exist or ever have existed, God would not be one of them. This is to say God is not one of the beings God created. Rather God is the Source from which all beings derive and the ground in which they are continually sustained.

In a letter to a young Indian student in Cracow, Poland, Merton writes of the naive atheism of nineteenth-century scientism:

“They think that religious people believe in a God who is simply a ‘being’ among other beings, part of a series of beings, an ‘object’ which can be discovered and demonstrated. This of course is a false notion of God, the Absolute, the source and origin of all Being, beyond all beings and transcending them all and hence not to be sought as one among them.”

As soon as we verify God’s presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.

Now if God is not to be sought among the beings we know in this life, it follows that we cannot know God as we know created things. This makes sense does it not? Yet at the same time it is true that what we know about God we can know only through created things. For created things, insofar as they are real, participate in a limited way in the qualities and perfections of the One who alone is Absolutely Real. There is, as it were, “something of God” in every creature that exists. In experiencing creatures, we experience that “something of God.”

The words we use to describe creatures, therefore, can serve as metaphors or symbols that enable us to have some knowledge of God. As I write this, I can look out the window of my office and through that window I can get some very limited understanding of the universe. Compared to the immensity of the universe, what I know by looking out that window is practically nothing. Even if I looked through many windows and in different directions, the knowledge of the universe I would attain will be skimpy at best. Modern technology has made it possible for astronauts  to see the earth from out in space. Even that is meager knowledge compared to the entire universe, and while their knowledge increases quantitatively (they see more), it decreases qualitatively (they see less clearly). They cannot from their place in space see the earth in detail that I can see through my window.

The ideas, the concepts, the images, the symbols, the metaphors we use to describe God are like those windows through which we look out through the universe. They are images of created things  which, because there is “something of God” in them, can tell us something about God. Thus, in the image we have of a person we call “father” we can see something of God and hence can speak of God as “father.” (though some people have poor experiences of  “father” and for this reason find it difficult to describe God as “father”). In someone we call “mother” we can also experience “something of God” and, therefore, we can use the name “mother” to describe God. And there are many other images we can use, lover, spouse, guide, helper, to name a few. In a certain sense we can say “the more the merrier,” since each image, each concept, can give a different insight into God we can never know in any total sort of way.

Our language about God, then, is always inadequate. One way of putting this is to say that our experience of God is continually outstripping what we are able to say about the experience. Listen to Merton:

“As soon as we light these small matches which are our concepts: ‘intelligence,’ ‘love,’ ‘power,’ the tremendous reality of God Who infinitely exceeds all concepts suddenly bears down upon us like a dark storm and blows out all their flames.”

At the same time we must not underestimate the value and importance of the rich imagery that the Bible and our culture offer us. The richer the imagery, the more deeply will we be able to know about God through God’s creation. But let us be very clear: there is a huge difference between knowing about God through God’s creation and knowing God as God is in the divine Self. Knowing about God is “mediated” knowledge, that is, we know God through an intermediary. This normally is what we think of when we speak of God. And some would say: This is enough. Short of heaven and the beatific vision, we can only know God through the medium of creatures God made.

But there is a long tradition, the contemplative or mystical tradition – a tradition that was most congenial to Thomas Merton’s approach to spirituality – which claims we can know God immediately. This is to say that we can know the divine reality as It is in Itself, and not simply through the medium of images, metaphors, ideas, concepts. But to do this we have to turn off the lights of our mind, that is, we have to go beyond concepts and ideas. This means going into darkness. For when you turn off light you are in darkness. It also means going beyond words that would try to describe God. But to go beyond words is to go in silence. In darkness and silence the only light we have is faith, whereby we grasp God or rather we are grasped by God. Thus, when all of our concepts and images admit that they cannot truly know God, love cries out: “I know God!”

To put this another way, in contemplation we come to know that our very being is penetrated through and through with God’s love. God is the hidden ground of love in all that is. Hence as Merton puts it:

“Our knowledge of God is paradoxically a knowledge not of God as the object of scrutiny, but of ourselves as utterly dependent on his saving and merciful knowledge of us… We know him in and through ourselves in so far as his truth is the source of our being and his merciful love is the very heart of our life and existence.”

Knowing God in the darkness of a love that goes beyond all that human reason can know is the greatest joy and happiness  possible in this life.

~ William H. Shannon

Written by MattAndJojang

March 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm

The Joy of Quiet

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Photo: alex_joffe/Flickr

About a year ago, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marc Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow”.

Soon after I arrived, the chief executive of the agency that had invited us took me aside. What he was most interested in, he began – I braced myself for mention of some next-generation stealth campaign – was stillness.

A few months later, I read an interview with the perennially cutting-edge designer Philippe Starck. What allowed him to remain so consistently ahead of the curve? “I never read any magazines or watch TV,” he said, perhaps a little hyperbolically. “Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.” He lived outside conventional ideas, he implied, because “I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere”.

Around the same time, I noticed that those who part with US$2,285 (S$2,965) a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts”, which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.

Has it really come to this?

In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them – often in order to make more time.

The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.

Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen. Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago.

Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers. (The average office worker today, researchers have found, enjoys no more than three minutes at a time at his or her desk without interruption.) During this period the workers were not allowed to use the phone or send email, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think. A majority of Intel’s trial group recommended that the policy be extended to others.

URGENCY OF SLOWING DOWN

The average American spends at least eight-and-a-half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr notes in his eye-opening book The Shallows, in part because the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009 (and the number of hours spent in front of a television screen, often simultaneously, is also steadily increasing).

The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, though one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month. Since luxury, as any economist will tell you, is a function of scarcity, the children of tomorrow, I heard myself tell the marketers in Singapore, will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once.

The urgency of slowing down – to find the time and space to think – is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context.

“Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

When telegraphs and trains brought in the idea that convenience was more important than content – and speedier means could make up for unimproved ends – Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages”.

Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest”, but by also acting on it, and stepping out of the rat race and into a Cistercian cloister.

LESS AND LESS TO SAY

Yet few of those voices can be heard these days, precisely because “breaking news” is coming through (perpetually) on CNN and Debbie is just posting images of her summer vacation and the phone is ringing. We barely have enough time to see how little time we have (most Web pages, researchers find, are visited for 10 seconds or less).

And the more that floods in on us (the Kardashians, Obamacare, Dancing with the Stars), the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet. All we notice is that the distinctions that used to guide and steady us – between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there – are gone.

We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And – as he might also have said – we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.

So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual.

All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.

‘INTERNET SABBATH’

Maybe that’s why more and more people I know, even if they have no religious commitment, seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi; these aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age.

Two journalist friends of mine observe an “Internet sabbath” every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation. Finding myself at breakfast with a group of lawyers in Oxford four months ago, I noticed that all their talk was of sailing – or riding or bridge: Anything that would allow them to get out of radio contact for a few hours.

Other friends try to go on long walks every Sunday, or to “forget” their mobile phones at home. A series of tests in recent years has shown, Mr Carr points out, that after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper”.

More than that, empathy, as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow”. The very ones our high-speed lives have little time for.

BENEFIT OF DISTANCE

In my own case, I turn to eccentric and often extreme measures to try to keep my sanity and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all (which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time).

I’ve yet to use a mobile phone and I’ve never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.

None of this is a matter of principle or asceticism; it’s just pure selfishness. Nothing makes me feel better – calmer, clearer and happier – than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: It’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens”.

It’s vital, of course, to stay in touch with the world, and to know what’s going on; I took pains this past year to make separate trips to Jerusalem and Hyderabad and Oman and St Petersburg, to rural Arkansas and Thailand and the stricken nuclear plant in Fukushima and Dubai. But it’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.

For more than 20 years, therefore, I’ve been going several times a year – often for no longer than three days – to a Benedictine hermitage, 40 minutes down the road, as it happens, from the Post Ranch Inn. I don’t attend services when I’m there, and I’ve never meditated, there or anywhere; I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness, recalling that it’s only by stepping briefly away from my wife and bosses and friends that I’ll have anything useful to bring to them.

The last time I was in the hermitage, three months ago, I happened to pass, on the monastery road, a youngish-looking man with a three-year-old around his shoulders.

“You’re Pico, aren’t you?” the man said, and introduced himself as Larry; we’d met, I gathered, 19 years before, when he’d been living in the cloister as an assistant to one of the monks.

“What are you doing now?” I asked.

“I work for MTV. Down in LA.”

We smiled. No words were necessary.

“I try to bring my kids here as often as I can,” he went on, as he looked out at the great blue expanse of the Pacific on one side of us, the high, brown hills of the Central Coast on the other. “My oldest son” – he pointed at a seven-year-old running along the deserted, radiant mountain road in front of his mother – “this is his third time”.

The child of tomorrow, I realised, may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.

~ Pico Iyer

Written by MattAndJojang

February 21, 2012 at 8:19 pm