Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Prayer is the freedom to say 'yes' or 'no'

Loretto Motherhouse - photo by Patricia Drury
On October 4, 1961, Merton addressed the novices at Loretto.  On this particular day he was talking to the novices about prayer and how to prepare yourself for it.  After he got home he began to think about it and he had more to say.  The following is from a letter that he wrote to Sr. Helen Jean, the novice master:
"I didn't say all I would like to have said about prayer.  I think prayer supposed some kind of training, some kind of training that would not be just theologically in a vacuum.  There must be some kind of basic training such as this way."

"In training for mental prayer, the real training, the ... discipline, and learning is how to exercise oneself in different ways.

"The purpose of the ascetical life, the disciplined life, is freedom.  Because as we begin to move through an ascetical life, it is so we can say 'yes' and 'no' when we want to." 
From Sr. Luke's commentary:
"The purpose of the ascetical life is freedom so that when we choose to say "no," we can say "no"; when we choose to say "yes", we can say "yes."  The addictive society in which we live today could learn a lot from that.  The ability to choose, the chance to choose and to say "yes" or "no" to opportunities offered -- it takes some kind of training and discipline to be able to do that.  That's what he is talking about.  He sort of laid it down as a first principle here.  So he wants them to have this ability."
from "Hidden in the Same Mystery - Thomas Merton and Loretto",  p. 68


  1. I think its important to add another part of that letter. "The danger is that in learning how to do these things they may get the impression that they know how to meditate. And also that they cling to the methods learned and really never learn when to let go. So really, while learning how to use the mind, the imagination, the will, etc., they also learn when to let go and when not to use them too much". I think this was his point in writing the letter.

    1. You're right, Mark ... I'm gonna get to that "on the other hand". But I kept this first part of the letter separate because it seems important enough to stand on its own.

      It seems to me that until one can form that ability to trust one's own judgements (say 'yes' or 'no'), one can't move on to the place where they can know when they've gone too far and need to fall back on scripture.

      Personally, when I ready this passage I had an "aha" moment. I know that place in me where I say "yes" and "no" to certain aspects of reality, and it is, indeed, a freedom to live my life as I see fit. Yes, I can go too far out on a limb here, but unless I know and acknowledge that place in myself, I'm just a robot at the whims of the culture.

      Maybe this is what free will is all about.

      And maybe we come at this from different angles. I kind of figured that this passage would resonate with different people in different ways, and many people not at all.

    2. you must have a copy of this book?

  2. Thanks for the reply Beth! First I regret that I have never personally thanked you for the blog. Thank you!! I have gotten so much from it.

    My perspective is unique in that I am a hatha yoga teacher who consistently meets spiritual atheists. They would say mantras all day long for a better life experience and frankly they are more productive and happy in their lives but they would never dare speak of God as having anything to do with this. I think it is actually an epidemic in the yoga world.

    I think sometimes when we get caught up in the practices we lose sight of the greater Good. I know that Merton is cited as influencing the centering prayer movement but I do not think this would be his movement (I say this with a slight cringe knowing that I have no right). It can too easily become a system, a "thing", we do to reach God. I consistently find in his writings something very different. The simplicity of the gospel is something he uses again and again. Jesus wants to be present and in fact chooses to be present in the Blessed Sacrament. We knock and he answers No methods needed. I personally have used mantras and I use the Jesus Prayer if my thoughts get the best of me but I honestly think that I feel God's love for me most when I come to Him just as I am. I feel that the letter itself was written to make certain that this was not lost.

    1. Oh and I look forward to getting that book but I was using The School of Charity

  3. [I just wrote a long reply to this and then lost it - ugh! - here goes again!]

    Last night, Mark, I read again and again this passage and I think that you are definitely right about Merton making a point that the novices not cling to a method of prayer. Sr. Luke insists that Merton, himself, did not have a particular way of praying.

    But I think that Merton is saying something important in the 'yes' or 'no' part. He is laying the foundation for prayer. The private and personal place in ourselves where we can say 'yes' or 'no' is very close to the place where we make contact with God. Unless and until one is able to access that place, prayer remains superficial, in the realm of addictive behavior.

    I'm not sure what Merton would make of the centering prayer movement, especially the way Fr. Keating teaches it. It's an interesting question. Merton was certainly passionate about teaching contemplative awareness - it's the theme of all of his writing.

    While he was in Asia he expressed interest in the various methods of meditation and even Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's school in Scotland. Of course, this was all in the moment recording in his journal, so I'm not sure how serious he would have been about "studying" meditation. I rather think that he would not have needed it. He had already discovered his own way, and that was essentially what he was conveying to the nuns. Prayer is deeper and more personal than a method.

    There is also the matter of "freedom" that runs through Merton's writings and teachings on prayer. Freedom and identity. Prayer is the freedom to be who you are.

    1. Just want to add one more thought on that 'yes' and 'no' place - it is the place where we are most authentically who we are, not influenced by others or culture. In prayer we access that place of utter authenticity - the place where we know and are known by God. Merton calls it our true self.


Christ in the Rubble

The Rev. Munther Isaac lighting a candle next to an improvised crèche this month in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Credit... Samar Hazboun...