Thomas Merton is a good example of the power of the ancient monastic path. Like all of us, he was captive to a tainted ancestry of human selfishness, greed, and violence. In the monastery, he learned the way to root out the thicket of Western culture’s materialism that was lodged in his heart, and discovered a way toward selflessness, generosity, and nonviolence.
James Finley, a former Trappist monk and novice under Merton, left Gethsemani after five years. When he left the monastery, his question was: “How can I live, out here in the world, the contemplative way of life I lived in the monastery?”
That is my question too, and one of the primary questions that I hope to explore in this blog.
One thing is clear – a contemplative practice is essential. Something that is done, day in, and day out.
In his book, “The Contemplative Heart”, Finley advises that one find their “contemplative practice” and practice it! He defines a contemplative practice as “any act, habitually entered into with your whole heart, as a way of deepening and sustaining a contemplative experience of the inherent holiness of the present moment.” (p.46)
Some examples of contemplative practice that he gives are meditation, slow reading of scripture, a simple heart-felt prayer, gardening, writing or reading poetry, drawing or painting, or perhaps running or taking long walks. Being alone, really alone, with no distractions or diversions, could be a contemplative practice.
Or perhaps being with the person with whom you are called to a deeper place. Making love.
The important thing is not so much what the practice is, as “the extent to which the practice incarnates an utterly sincere stance of awakening and surrendering to the Godly nature of the present moment.” (p. 46)
Finley suggests that we will probably not have a single contemplative practice but rather a constellation of practices, and that these practices will change and evolve over time. However, it is very easy for the day’s events to drown out their importance in our lives.
It is faithfulness and commitedness to these simple acts which will make the difference.
In his introduction to "Dialogues with Silence" Jonathan Montaldo beautifully captures the rewards of Merton's faithful commitment to his monastic vocation:
Thomas Merton remained committed to his monastic vocation for 27 years because he could never stop loving becoming a monk. In spite of decades of monastic routine (or indeed precisely because of it), he could must a poet’s concentrated joy for the smallest turns of differences in time or temperature that marked a day as singular and new. Merton’s joy – often muffled below the voicing of his public cares and concerns – situated him among those rare human beings who love the life they are leading and who have found their own true place. He reflects his typical joy as a monk in this journal entry dated May 21, 1963:
“Marvelous vision of the hills at 7:45 A.M. The same hills as always, as in the afternoon, but now catching the light in a totally new way, at once very earthly and very ethereal, with delicate cups of shadow and dark ripples and crinkles where I had never seen them before, the whole slightly veiled in mist so that it seemed to be a tropical shore, a newly discovered continent. A voice in me seemed to be crying, “Look! Look!” For these are the discoveries, and it is for this that I am high on the mast of my ship (have always been) and I know that we are on the right course, for all around is the sea of paradise.” (from the introduction of “Dialogues with Silence”, by Jonathan Montaldo, p. xii)