Still a contemplative voice in the modern world
Still a call to balance contemplation and action
In our first blog on the subject of contemplation, we began by noting Laurence Freeman and his reminder of the necessary elements of contemplative prayer.
* Interiority: going into “our inner room” (Mt 6:6)
* Silence: prayer is about brevity, simplicity, and trust
* Calmness: freedom from anxiety and obsession with material things
* Mindfulness: focusing on God’s Kingdom before all else
* Presentness: living in present moment, free from fear of the future
With Father James Martin (Jesuit author, editor-at-large American Magazine) and I dare say countless others, I can honestly say that it’s no stretch of the imagination that Thomas Merton changed my life. As a young coed I devoured his books and followed the path of authors and ideas where his books led. I determined to go to meet him in Kentucky after graduating, but just before I left I learned that he had died two years prior (He died 27 years to the day after his entrance into the monastery while on a visit to Thailand to speak at an international meeting of monks). I did go to the monastery anyway. At the time, I was actually angry with him for dying, as if he had died purposely just to frustrate me. Initially I stayed a week and while there I struck up a friendship with one of the monks who was a contemporary of Merton. That friendship was a treasure to me until Brother Cassian died some 30 years later.
Before his conversion, entrance into the Trappists’ Order and while still a young man and rising academic, he established a special relationship with the Servant of God, Dorothy Day. Day encouraged him to dare to act on the deepest urgings of the Spirit. For him, she modeled the contemplative acting in the modern world. But he felt drawn to a radical silence. Ironically, his voice would be heard around the world and, in fact, is still resounding today. That really is the whole point of my comments here today. Merton’s voice, the message of his words and life are more meaningful today than ever. The choice along our various paths to holiness is not essentially between the Active and Contemplative life, but the blending of those elements in the unique manner of our personal response to the Call to Holiness.
“If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives.
Let us not fear the responsibilities and the inevitable distractions of the work
appointed for us by the will of God.” (Thoughts in Solitude)
Merton knew the struggle of integrating his involvement in and sense of responsibility for the world with his attraction to and need for a solitary, intellectual, contemplative life. Being by nature a man of extremes, at least in his youth, he felt the pull of both and fought both internal and external forces that pulled him toward one and then the other throughout his life. Finding a balance was a theme of his life. In the early years at the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane he wrote of the battle between Brother Louis and Tom Merton; he was, fact, both of them and each represented the antagonism he experienced in his search for the balance.
“A purely mental life may be destructive if it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for actions. The activity proper to man is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.” (Thoughts in Solitude)
His conviction that solitude is a prerequisite for contemplation and that solitude then gives rise to the expression of goodness in Action was emphatically expressed in these words…
“When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude
it can no longer be held together by love:
and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority.
But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due,
then society in which they live becomes putrid,
it festers with servility, resentment and hate.” (Thoughts in Solitude)
While still at the threshold of this New Year it is well to be reminded of the need for solitude and contemplation in the midst of our busy lives and a world that so needs healing. Let us renew our pursuit of holiness through the integration of Contemplation and Action.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Prayer by Thomas Merton
Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.
Freeman, Laurence. “Jesus.” Journey to the Heart: Christian Contemplation through the Centuries,” Edited by Kim Nataraja, Orbis Books, 2011, pp. 1-20.
Merton, Thomas. Thoughts In Solitude. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.