Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Merton’

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Glimpses of Light

March 13, 2012

Car lights brighten the night

“To know anything at all of God’s will we have to participate, in some manner, in the vision of the prophets: men and women who were always alive to the divine light concealed in the opacity of things and events, and who sometimes saw glimpses of that light where other men saw nothing but ordinary happenings.”

No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton

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Spiritual Temperaments: Contemplative (8of9)

May 2, 2010

 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)

 

Contemplatives follow in this ancient tradition of spending time at the ‘feet of God’ (so to speak) listening to the whispers and intimations of the voice of divine wisdom. In the story from the Gospel of Luke quoted above, the two sisters of Mary and Martha are contrasted in their responses to the presence of Jesus in their home. One sister, Martha, takes on the typical role of Jewish matriarch and hostess energetically using her time to prepare a meal for her honoured guest – the teacher and rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, who, according to the gospel accounts of his life, had become something of a prominent celebrity in their region of Israel at that time.

 The other sister, Mary, takes upon herself not the role of hostess, but that of devotee or disciple. She sits at the teacher’s feet, perhaps gazing into his face, listening to his words. As I understand it, Mary’s actions were quite controversial at the time as the place of sitting at a Rabbi’s feet was usually reserved only for disciples of that teacher and disciples would be men not women. Yet here in this early gospel text, the author describes a woman paying focused attention not on Jesus’ practical needs of food and drink, but to his words. Words that we might imagine could have been delivered softly, gently, seriously, thoughtfully, humourously as in intimate conversation, in contrast to Jesus’ usual preaching voice shouting out to the  gathered crowds.

This short passage illustrates in many ways the contemplative’s heartfelt desire and longing for communion with God – intimacy, relationship, time, devotion, prayer, listening. The contemplative is almost driven to put aside the business of daily life and find time and space to set aside to contemplating the wonder, and majesty, tenderness and love of the Divinity. Usually in the history of world religions the contemplative vocation has been considered a ‘high’ one. Yet, to be a contemplative is in some ways an anti-social, rejection of ordinary life. In stead it is a choice to find the insights of transcendence in solitude, quiet and inactivity (although this should not be confused with passivity, as contemplation is an active engagement with the mysteries of God and the Universe).

One famous modern writer who explored in-depth the contemplative lifestyle was Thomas Merton (31 January 1915 – 10 December 1968). His writings have been very popular with thoughtful, prayerful people from many walks of life. They can be difficult to read and somewhat densely written, but they contain many gems of insight and wisdom into the life of simplicity, prayer and social action for modern people, both women and men.  I have found a picture of Merton in colour below, dressed in simple denim clothes and posed sitting on a bare stool with the trees of his beloved forest arround him. I have also found some quotes by Merton at http://www.octanecreative.com/merton/quotes.html.

  • What do you think about Merton’s words written in the nineteen fifties and sixties do they still speak to us today?
  • Do you resonate with the place of Mary in the gospel story at the home of Martha and Mary? Or do you relate more to Martha – the diligent, active and caring  hostess?
  • It is worth noting that Jesus did not criticise Martha’s active behaviour, which of course practically helps to create a hospitable atmosphere for her no doubt hungry and thirsty guests. However, he refuses to ‘take away’ from Mary – the contemplative – what she has chosen in those precious moments of closeness with an extraordinary teacher. She chooses simple stillness, devotion and loving attention to the presence and words of a unique divine messenger. She shows herself to be a contemplative at heart.

“There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it.

Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semiattention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite ‘thinking,’ not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are ‘part of’ something – although we are not quite able to define what that something is – and probably wouldn’t want to define it even if we could. We just float along in the general noise. Resigned and indifferent, we share semiconsciously in the mindless mind of Muzak and radio commercials which passes for ‘reality.’”

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings

 

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded. At best, we will receive a scrambled and partial message, one that will deceive and confuse us. We will never be fully real until we let ourselves fall in love – either with another human person or with God.” Love and Living, Thomas Merton

 

“If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity. It is closely allied to sanctity. You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have social order without saints, mystics, and prophets.” A Thomas Merton Reader

“What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can. Indeed, that is one of the most significant things about the power of love. There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved – if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved – he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him.”  Disputed Questions by Thomas Merton

“There must be a time of day when the man who makes plans forgets his plans, and acts as if he had no plans at all.There must be a time of day when the man who has to speak falls very silent. And his mind forms no more propositions, and he asks himself: Did they have a meaning?

There must be a time when the man of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in his life he had ever prayed; when the man of resolutions puts his resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and he learns a different wisdom: distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill.”  No Man is an Island