This is possibly the longest of the extracts from Patrick Collins' essay on the Spirituality of Thomas Merton that we will be publishing. It is long because in this section Fr Patrick goes off scouring the correspondence of Merton in search of his views on different aspects of prayer and we thought it best to keep all these thoughts together in one commentary.
Part V: On prayer…
Merton related his intense awareness of the nearness of Heaven in The Seven Storey Mountain which seems quite in line with his later thoughts on the subject, namely, mysticism as a vision of love.
"It was something that made me realize, all of a sudden, not merely intellectually, but experimentally, the real uselessness of what I had been half deliberately looking for: the visions of the ceiba trees. And this experience opened another door, not a way to a kind of writing but a way into a world infinitely new, a world that was out of this world of ours entirely and which transcended it infinitely, and which was not a world, but which was God himself. But what a thing it was, this awareness: it was so intangible, and yet it struck me like a thunderclap. It was a light that was so bright that it had no relation to any visible light … And yet the thing that struck me most of all was that this light was in a certain sense 'ordinary' - it was a light (and this most of all was what took my breath away) that was offered to all, to everybody, and there was nothing fancy or strange about it. It was the light of faith deepened and reduced to an extreme and sudden obviousness. It was as if I had been suddenly illuminated by being blinded by the manifestation of God's presence. The reason why this light was blinding and neutralizing was that there was and could be simply nothing in it of sense or imagination … it disarmed all images, all metaphors, and cut through the whole skein of species and phantasms with which we naturally do our thinking. It ignored all sense experience in order to strike directly at the heart of truth … But this contact was not something speculative and abstract: it was concrete and experimental and belonged to the order of knowledge, yes, but more still to the order of love. Another thing about it was that this light was something far above and beyond the level of any desire or any appetite I had ever yet been aware of … It was love as clean and direct as vision … And the first articulate thought that came to my mind was: 'Heaven is right here in front of me: Heaven, Heaven!'" (Thomas Merton Reader, pp 81-82 from The Seven Storey Mountain)
Thomas Merton's approach to spirituality as the journey from the false self toward the True Self is grounded in the universalities and commonalities of the great contemplative traditions of the world. In his published letters the Trappist wrote extensively of his thoughts about contemplative prayer and the contemplative living which is the fruit of such praying. All of this was born, not just of his study, but of his own experience of prayer — about which he wrote very little. Dom Flavian Burns, in his funeral homily for Father Louis Merton, said that Merton wrote a great deal about prayer but his own prayer life remained largely a secret.
We do, however, have a description of a prayer experience of Merton's from his pilgrimage to Cuba as a lay person in 1939. While it was largely vocal prayer, the seeds of contemplative praying are clearly in evidence. "…my prayer continued to be largely vocal. And the mental prayer I made was not systematic, but the more or less spontaneous meditating and affective prayer that came and went, according to my reading, here and there. And most of the time my prayer was not so much prayer as a matter of anticipating, with hope and desire, my entrance into the Franciscan novitiate, and a certain amount of imagining as to what it was going to be like, so that often I was not praying at all but only daydreaming." (Thomas Merton Reader p 84, from The Seven Storey Mountain)
The gap in our understanding of what Thomas Merton's personal prayer was like is filled in to some extent in a 1966 letter to Abdul Aziz who had asked him about his experience in prayer. The monk said that his prayer was very simple. "It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say it is centered on faith by which alone we can know the presence of God... as 'being before God as if you saw Him.'" He added: "My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothingness and Silence.. It is not "thinking about' anything, but a direct seeking of the face of the Invisible. Which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is Invisible." (Abdul Aziz, January 2, 1966 HGL 63-64)
Merton's personal experience of prayer found him both in and out of time, in but not of this world, if you will. "In prayer we journey forward to our origin … We go to our place of prayer confident that in prayer we transcend both place and time … In prayer, we experience this going back to our origins as a going into the center of our self, where God holds both our origin and end in one eternal moment." (Ibid)
Praying — more than techniques and words!
Forms of prayer were very secondary to Thomas Merton. Praying was what mattered and this was always more than techniques and words. When asked by John Harris in 1959 to recommend a form of prayer, Merton wrote about an Eastern form of meditation which is more mantra-like than verbal. He recommended the Russian and Greek approach "where you get off somewhere quiet, remember what you may have known about hatha-yoga, breathe quietly and rhythmically with the diaphragm, holding your breath for a bit each time and letting it out easily: and while holding it, saying 'in your heart' (aware of the place of your heart, as if the words were spoken in the very center of your being with all the sincerity you can muster): 'Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.' Just keep saying this for a while, of course with faith, and the awareness of the indwelling, etc. It is a simple form of prayer, and fundamental, and the breathing part makes it easier to keep your mind on what you are doing. That's about as far as I go with methods. After that, pray as the Spirit moves you, but of course I would say follow the Mass in a missal unless there is a good reason for doing something else, like floating suspended ten feet above the congregation."
The Trappist admitted that he liked praying the rosary. While he confessed to not being very articulate about his Marian devotion, he was "pretty much wound up in Our Lady, and have some Russian ideas about her too: that she is the most perfect expression of the mystery of the Wisdom of God. That is some way she is the Wisdom of God." (Harris, John 6.22.59 HGL 392)
From a theological perspective the Trappist wrote of prayer as grounded in the intercommunion that is the Trinity. To Etta Gullick, in 1965, he said that Trinitarian prayer dissolves the apparent 'I' — the individual ego self into unitive love. He said that words about Trinity can give the impression that it is about 'three objects' which one is experiencing. "The ancient way of looking at it, 'to the Father in the Son by the Holy Spirit,' reminds us of the unity and the un-objective character of it. And yet they are Three, or we are in their Three and One in the Three. The authenticity of the experience depends on the dissolution of the apparent 'I' that can seem to stand outside all this as subject and observe it from somewhere else." He thought that, among moderns, the most authentic expression of the experience is that of the Carmelite, Elizabeth of the Trinity. (Gullick, Etta 1.25.65 HGL 195-66)
In 1965 Merton wrote again to Gullick about the growing interest in prayer among people in the United States. But he questioned whether such a supposedly interior quest was well-founded. He saw this mostly in academic circles as a rather mixed-up context of psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism. "This is the area where people at the moment are most interested in our kind of contemplation. The Catholics are all hopped up about liturgy at the moment." (Gullick, Etta 11.1.65 HGL 373)
Merton on intercessory prayer…
Several times during 1965 the monk commented on intercessory prayer. It was not to him the most important sense of the prayer action or experience. As he wrote to Dom Francis Decroix, "…we must be careful not to present prayer as a mere formal duty or to emphasize the prayer of petition." (Decroix, Dom Francis 8.22.67 HGL 158-9) Regarding such intercession he told Marco Pallis in 1965 that it certainly was no problem to him whatever and never had been. In his writings he said he had never really dealt extensively with that question. Perhaps dealing with it might just make it more of a problem without helping those for whom it is a problem. (Pallis, Marco 6.17.65 HGL 470) To Etta Gullick, Merton wrote some very concrete advice about including specific persons and events in one's prayer. "…as to intercession: let each do what he likes. Sometimes I remember a lot of people by name, other times not... But obvious in one's meditation etc. one does not go dragging a lot of people in, unless it is an unusual situation." He thought that in this whole question of prayer we make too many problems out of what one should do and what one should not do. These are entirely personal matters. In the same person they vary from moment to moment. "The great thing is not to say that lists of names are bad or lists of names are good, but to let the person himself come to know by discernment of spirits when he should 'intercede' for people by name and when not." (Gullick, Etta 11.11.65 HGL 374)
How does one measure one's growth in prayer?
How does one measure one's growth in prayer? What would constitute "progress" according to Thomas Merton?
In 1965 Etta Gullick asked him how one can judge one's progress in prayer. He warned her, in response, about the danger of too much self-focus in this matter of "measuring" one's prayer. He contended that it is a ticklish subject because the chief obstacle to progress is too much self-awareness and to talk about 'how to make progress' is a good way to make people too aware of themselves. "In the long run I think progress in prayer comes from the Cross and humiliation and whatever makes us really experience our total poverty and nothingness, and also gets our mind off ourselves." He concluded by saying he had a certain repugnance in telling people specifically what do in the realm of the spiritual. (Gullick, Etta 8.1.66 HGL 376)
Perhaps one of Thomas Merton's most profound theological reflections on prayer expressed in his published letters is contained in a 1967 letter to Dom Francis Decroix. It is thoroughly Trinitarian in its roots and focus. First he cautioned against presenting prayer as a mere formal duty or to emphasize the prayer of petition. "We should bear in mind that Marx taught an interesting doctrine about religious alienation, which is a consequence of regarding God as distant and purely transcendent and putting all our hope for every good in the future life, not realizing God's presence to us in this life, and not realizing that prayer means contact with the deepest reality of life, our own truth in Him."
He claimed that prayer is the truest guarantee of personal freedom. "We are most truly free in the free encounter of our heart with God in His word and in receiving His Spirit which is the Spirit of sonship, truth and freedom. The Truth that makes us free is not merely a matter of information about God but the presence in us of a divine person by love and grace, bringing us into the intimate personal life of God as His Sons by adoption. This is the basis of all prayer and all prayer should be oriented to this mystery of sonship in which the Spirit in us recognizes the Father. The cry of the Spirit in us, the cry of recognition that we are Sons in the Son, is the heart of our prayer and the great motive of prayer. Hence recollection is not the exclusion of material things but attentiveness to the Spirit in our inmost heart."
He concluded by insisting that the contemplative life should not be regarded as the exclusive prerogative of those who dwell in monastic walls. All persons can seek and find this intimate awareness and awakening which is a gift of love and a vivifying touch of creative and redemptive power. "Far from being the cause of alienation, true religion in spirit is a liberating force that helps man to find himself in God." (Decroix, Dom Francis 8.22.67 HGL 158-9)
Meditation's role in prayer…
The final words about prayer found in Thomas Merton's published letters date from January, 1968. He wrote some very practical advice to Abdul Aziz about the role of meditation in prayer. In learning to meditate he said that people must learn to get along without any support external to his own heart and the gifts of God. He suggested remaining in silence without reading or even using vocal prayers sometimes. This is not a universal rule, however, since there are times when it is necessary to read, and even to read quite a lot, in order to store up material and get new perspectives. He sensed that in the solitary life, though one has a lot of time for reading, it becomes difficult to read a great deal. In a couple of hours one may read only a few pages. The rest of the time is spent in reflection and prayer. It becomes difficult to absorb more than this. "Someone in solitude who would read voraciously all the time might perhaps be considered in the wrong place. Moderate reading is, however, normal. Provided that more time is spent in prayer and meditation than in reading…" (Abdul Aziz 1.16.68 HGL 66)
Much can be learned about contemplation from Thomas Merton's uncensored writing about this subject in his published letters. Interestingly - and perhaps sadly — most of his best correspondence about contemplation is not with "official" contemplatives — like those in Holy Orders or in religious vows. It is with the laity and usually with persons who were not in the Roman Catholic community. One question which Merton addressed many times is that of the extent of God's call to contemplation. Is it a vocation for a few favored persons? Or are all of the baptized called to contemplation? The answer depends upon what means by contemplation. At times, depending upon the meaning of the word and the context of the correspondence, the Trappist says it is a special gift and yet he also says all persons are called to contemplative living. In fact he wrote in one place: "Christ came on earth to form contemplatives."
One of his frequent correspondents on the topic was Anglican laywoman, Etta Gullick, who apparently wrote to Merton frequently about contemplation. In 1961 Merton seemed to judge that contemplation is not for everyone. "I do not think strictly that contemplation should be the goal of 'all devout souls,' ... In reality I think a lot of them should be very good and forget themselves in virtuous action and love and let the contemplation come in the window unheeded, so to speak. They will be contemplatives without ever really knowing it. I feel that in the monastery here those who are too keen on being contemplatives with a capital C make of contemplation an 'object' from which they are eternally separated, because they are always holding it at arms' length in order to see if it is there."
He commented on how we are called to love God more than anything yet at the same time there must be "a measure of self-preservation." We learn to love God in and through all that exists. "We must not hold them apart one from the other. But He must be One in all and Is. There comes a time when one loses everything, even love. Apparently. Even oneself, above all oneself. And this will take care of the rapture and all the rest because who will there be to be rapt?" (Gullick Etta 9.9.61 HGL 345-346)
Contemplation cannot be explained — it can only be hinted at or suggested…
Contemplation, the Trappist contended, cannot be explained. It can only be hinted at or suggested. It is only "known" in the doing of contemplative praying and living. He wrote to Gullick in 1962 of the inadequacy of all explanatory words. "The nothingness and emptiness are more important than their explanations, and I think you will find eventually that explanations are not needed... And at the other end of it all, the least thing is to understand oneself, at least to feel that one understands himself well." (Gullick, Etta 3.30.62 HGL 351)
How does one learn contemplative prayer and living? Thomas Merton says it cannot be taught. No one teaches contemplation but God. He wrote of this to Gullick in 1964. While not taught, a certain aptitude for it can be awakened. He judged that many have such an aptitude and readiness. "The important thing is that this be made real and credible by someone who knows by experience what it is, and who can make it real to those in whom it begins to awaken. In a word it is a question of showing them in a mysterious way by example how to proceed. Not by the example of doing, but the example of being, and by one's attitude toward life and things." Merton noted that Gullick had such an aptitude and a vocation to help others awaken. He advised her to let God use here in whatever way He wills. "…and be sure you do not get in his way with misplaced initiatives." (Gullick, Etta 6.15.64 HGL 367)
Later in that same summer of 1964 Merton expressed himself to Gullick in terms which perhaps reflect some growing Zen influence in his understanding of contemplation: "I have greater and greater confidence in the reality of the path that is no path at all, and to see people follow it in spite of everything is comforting. By rights they should all have forgotten and lost their way long ago. If they keep on it without really knowing what it is, this is because God keeps them there." (Gullick, Etta 9.12.64 HGL 367)
A few months later in 1964 the Trappist wrote to his long-time friend in New York, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, about the impossibility of "obtaining" contemplation through human efforts or techniques. Forgetting the self is the avenue to follow. Those immature in the spiritual life are very centered on a 'self' for which they want to attain the best of ends. "…they want to possess 'contemplation' and 'God.' But to think contemplation is something that one can 'attain' and 'possess' is just to get off on the wrong road from the very beginning. What they really need is … to shut up and stop all their speculation and get down to living a simple laborious life in which they forget themselves." (Catherine de Hueck Doherty, November 21, 1964 HGL 22)
Contemplation is not meant to remove persons from the world. It is to make them ever more present to concrete, historical realities. But a contemplative becomes engaged in such external actions at a much more profound level of awarness and presence. In his first years in monastic life Father Louis had emphasized the withdrawal from action in the world in favor of what he understood to be contemplation. But later he realized that contemplation has to be integrated into an active life. He told the Jesuit, Daniel Berrigan, in 1963 that he had gone through the whole gamut in this business. "In the beginning I was all pro-contemplation, because I was against the kind of trivial and meaningless activism, the futile running around in circles that Superiors, including contemplative Superiors, promote at the drop of a hat." (Daniel Berrigan June.25.63 HGL 78)
Dr Patrick W Collins
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©2007Patrick W Collins