Friday, July 6, 2007

he does not demand light

brush drawing by Thomas Merton, "Untitled"
image size: 4" h x 3 1/4" w
Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. And yet in a certain sense, we must truly begin to hear God when we have ceased to listen. What is the explanation of this paradox? Perhaps only that there is a higher kind of listening, which is not an attentiveness to some special wave length, a receptivity to a certain kind of message, but a general emptiness that waits to realize the fullness of the message of God within its own apparent void. In other words, the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is answered,” it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God.” (“The Climate of Monastic Prayer, p. 90)

Notes from Roger Lipsey:

“… one of Merton’s most impressive images, is mysterious. Although it looks as if it could be a sketched model for a monumental sculpture, perhaps a fountain for a public space, it is factually a small image brushed onto what seems more like leftover paper than a deliberately chosen, fine surface. …

“I am slow to interpret the image, but a few observations may increase its visibility, and that is always the point. It stands firmly on two legs, has a clear and rather constructed vertical / horizontal design, and reaches for the sky. The two uppermost elements, dry-brushed, are lighter and less dense than the supporting structure. Most of the vertical elements are topped by horizontal platforms that also give the impression of opening to the sky. How to “read” this work, once all of these forms are duly registered in our minds? We should willingly come under Merton’s stricture not “seek meaning on the level of convention or concept”, and not to “categorize these marks.” The miage must come from a place without words, or very nearly without words, and goes to that place in us. And yet … this is a prayerful image. Its planted weight and poignant lift to the heavens surely reflect something of the prayerful seeker’s life.

"The hermit in our context is purely and simply a man of God. This should be clear. But what prayer! What meditation! Nothing more like bread and water than this interior prayer of his! Utter poverty. Often an incapacity to pray, to see, to hope. Not the sweet passivity which the books extol, but a bitter, arid struggle to press forward through a blinging sandstorm. The hermit, all day and all night, beats his head against a wall of doubt. That is his contemplation." (Thomas Merton, “The Solitary Life”, in The Monastic Journey, p. 206)

(“Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton”, by Roger Lipsey, pp. 48)


  1. Very powerful quotes. And very honest and real, I suspect.

  2. These words really speak to me now, Barbara. They hit the spot!



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