by Bro. David Steindl-Rast O.S.B.
"In prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there."
When I remember my last visit with Thomas Merton I see him standing in the forest, listening to the rain. Much later, when he began to talk, he was not breaking the silence, he was letting it come to word. And he continued to listen. “Talking is not the principal thing” he said.
A handful of men and women searching for ways of renewal in religious life, we had gone to meet him in California as he was leaving for the East, and we had asked him to speak to us on prayer. But he insisted that “Nothing that anyone says will be that important. The great thing is prayer. Prayer itself. If you want a life of prayer, the way to get to it is by praying.
“As you know, I have been living as a sort of hermit. And now I have been out of that atmosphere for about three or four weeks, and talking a lot, and I get the feeling that so much talking goes on that is utterly useless. Something has been said perfectly well in five minutes and then you spend the next five hours saying the same thing over and over again. But here you do not have to feel that much needs to be said. We already know a great deal about it all. Now we need to grasp it.
“The most important thing is that we are here, at this place, in a home of prayer. There is here a true and authentic realization of the Cistercian spirit, an atmosphere of prayer. Enjoy this. Drink it all in. Everything, the redwood forests, the sea, the sky, the waves, the birds, the sea-lions. It is in all this that you will find your answers. Here is where everything connects.” (The idea of “connection” was charged with mysterious significance for Thomas Merton.)
Three sides of the chapel were concrete block walls. The fourth wall, all glass, opened on a small clearing surrounded by redwood trees, so tall that even this high window limited the view of the nearby trees to the mammoth columns of their trunks. The branches above could only be guessed from the way in which they were filtering shafts of sunlight down onto the forest floor. Yes, even the natural setting of Our Lady of the Redwoods provided an atmosphere of prayer, to say nothing of the women who pray there and of their charismatic abbess. On the day we had listened to the Gospel of the Great Wedding Feast, flying ants began to swarm all across the forest clearing just as the communion procession began, tens of thousands of glittering wings in a wedding procession. Everything “connected.”
To start where you are and to become aware of the connections, that was Thomas Merton’s approach to prayer. “We were indoctrinated so much into means and ends,” he said, “that we don’t realize that there is a different dimension in the life of prayer. In technology you have this horizontal progress, where you must start at one point and move to another and then another. But that is not the way to build a life of prayer. In prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess.
"We must slow down to a human tempo and we’ll begin to have time to listen."
”The trouble is, we aren’t taking time to do so.” The idea of taking time to experience, to savor, to let life fully come to itself in us, was a key idea in Thomas Merton’s reflections on prayer. “If we really want prayer, we’ll have to give it time. We must slow down to a human tempo and we’ll begin to have time to listen. And as soon as we listen to what’s going on, things will begin to take shape by themselves. But for this we have to experience time in a new way.
“One of the best things for me when I went to the hermitage was being attentive to the times of the day: when the birds began to sing, and the deer came out of the morning fog, and the sun came up – while in the monastery, summer or winter, Lauds is at the same hour. The reason why we don’t take time is a feeling that we have to keep moving. This is a real sickness. Today time is commodity, and for each one of us time is mortgaged. We experience time as unlimited indebtedness. We are sharecroppers of time. We are threatened by a chain reaction: overwork–overstimulation–overcompensation–overkill.
“We must approach the whole idea of time in a new way. We are free to love. And you must get free from all imaginary claims. We live in the fullness of time. Every moment is God’s own good time, his kairos. The whole thing boils down to giving ourselves in prayer a chance to realize that we have what we seek. We don’t have to rush after it. It is there all the time, and if we give it time it will make itself known to us.”
In contrast to the person whose time is mortgaged, the monk is to “feel free to do nothing, without feeling guilty.” All this reminded me of Suzuki Roshi, the Buddhist abbot of Tassajara, who had said that a Zen student must learn “to waste time conscientiously.” I was not surprised, then, to hear Thomas Merton refer explicitly to Zen in this connection. “This is what the Zen people do. They give a great deal of time to doing whatever they need to do. That’s what we have to learn when it comes to prayer. We have to give it time.” There is, in all this, a sense of the unfolding mystery in time, a reverence for gradual growth.