The Yellow Room Class is reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. Merton (1915–1968) was an American Trappist monk, theologian, poet, social activist, ecumenical scholar, and one of the greatest mystical writers of our time. The last time I read him I was a 20-something backpacking around Europe between college and grad school, hopping trains and heightening sightseeing to a sort of self-discovery that is the luxury of the young. His words spoke to me profoundly:
“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. We are free beings and [children] of God. This means to say that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in His creative freedom, in our own lives and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth.”
And this: “The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. But whatever is in God is identical with him, for His infinite simplicity admits no division and no distinction. Therefore I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him.”
Huh?? Today, almost three decades later, in what I thought was a pretty faith-filled and aware life, I may as well be reading Greek. (Hey, I could read Greek then, too! Where did that go?). It speaks to me from another planet, a strange, mystical land where truth, simplicity, and time are still as they were created to be, and not dulled, dimmed, fragmented, “ordered” by I, who though I have realized fully in midlife I am not in control of my life, am happiest when I am trying to.
How to even comprehend the “contemplative” life in a modern context – busy days, purposeful moments, multiple distractions, dependents, lists, projects, routines--and all of it further fractured in the last generation by electronic devices. Merton didn’t counsel his followers to join a monastery or to remove themselves from the world. What, then, is a “contemplative” life? Is it simply being quiet? Is it being alone? Must we close a door and “pray to our Father in secret”? Merton doesn’t instruct us to go after God, to please or pursue him really. It’s actually a bit of conundrum: if we are to “work out our salvation” with the God of the universe, who will only indwell the hearts of those who have “emptied” themselves of self, but we are not obliged to DO anything, well then, where’s the box to check on my spiritual to-do list? In the deepest mystery of becoming, it is God who does the transforming!
“Our discovery of God is, in a way, God’s discovery of us….He looks for us from the depths of his own His own infinite actuality, which is everywhere, and His seeing gives us new being and a new mind in which we also discover Him. We only know God in so far as we are known by Him, and our contemplation of Him is participation in His contemplation of Himself.”
I want that! I want to be that known by the God who made me. But I hardly know where to start. As one wise soul in our class pointed out, the “only” thing left to us is prayer. Prayer is the only way. Prayer is the contemplative life. It is our soul’s only way to seek Him without the burden of self. This Lent, practice prayer.
“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.” ― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude