Personal reflections on Thomas Merton

I have been deeply influenced by Thomas Merton, thus my spirituality reflects, in large part, his spirituality. My spirituality begins with the assumption that God exists and desires to reveal Godself to all. Along with that assumption is the belief that God is revealing Godself in all places and at all times, the only major differences between people is our amount of awareness. Some people are more conscious of, or aware of God’s presence, goodness, love, and beauty, while most of us remain unaware the majority of the time. (And this has nothing to do with how religious a person is.)

Similar to Merton, I believe that an awareness of Gods presence and love is a gift given from God. We don’t do anything to earn it. God doesn’t withhold from some until they have put in a certain number of hours in prayer or contemplation. Yet (I suspect Merton would agree here), I think that contemplation allows us to be more receptive to this gift, or as Merton would say, to our true self. I want to be cautious here because while I do not think there is a direct link to the number of hours one spends in prayer or contemplation, I do believe that spending time in prayer or contemplation opens a person up in greater ways to more easily receive this gift. While I do believe that gift can also be received through numerous other ways, I have found contemplative practices to be the most beneficial for me on my spiritual journey. I find silence and stillness allows my true self to emerge. The noise, stress, and busyness of western life is one of greatest, if not the greatest major struggle for spirituality today. I also believe this is one of the reason why so many struggle with a lack of meaning, purpose, and contentment in life. We are all running around so busy and stressed, just skimming the surface of life, and living mostly unaware of the sacredness of every moment.

Contemplative practices allow one to find stillness in the midst of the chaos and allows a safe place for the true self to emerge.

It is clear that the goal of the Christian life is love. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he said it was to love God, others, and self. Jesus also said that people would be able to tell who his followers were by the love they had for each other. Like Merton, I do not believe that our love increases just by sheer will power, though it does take work. Spirituality then, leads us toward a greater connection with God, others, and self and thus increases our compassion for all. A spiritually mature person is a person with a great amount of compassion for self and others.

I believe that the primary way we grow in love is through experiencing Love.

Contemplative prayer – wordless prayer accompanied by stillness where one beholds God/the sacred – is the best way I have found to open oneself up to this Love. Merton would say this allows our true self to emerge – our self in union with God’s loving presence. I agree, and though I may use different words I believe we are conveying the same thing. Merton’s spirituality is perhaps even more relevant today than ever before. We cultivate compassion not by trying harder, but by finding stillness and allowing our self to be transformed by God’s loving embrace. The more aware we become of this Love, the more compassion we have for ourselves and others. The spiritual journey is paradoxically both external and internal.

It is through the journey inward that we are better equipped to extend compassion outward.

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 3 of 3

Last week I wrote about Merton’s view of salvation. If salvation is a gift from God, what does the role of prayer play if any?

Concerning this Merton writes:

The inner self is precisely that self which cannot be tricked or manipulated by anyone, even by the devil. He is like a very shy wild animal that never appears at all whenever an alien presence is at hand and comes out only when all is perfectly peaceful, in silence, when he is untroubled and alone. He cannot be lured out by anyone or anything.

For Merton, prayer is sitting in stillness to allow the true self to emerge. Merton compares the true self to a “shy wild animal,” and suggests that one must become silent and still and wait patiently for the true self to emerge. Prayer is not primarily something to be “accomplished,” but rather is something one does to wait for the “accomplishing,” which is always done by God.[1]

All that we can do with any spiritual discipline is produce within ourselves something of the silence, the humility, the detachment, the purity of heart and the indifference which are required if the inner self is to make some shy, unpredictable manifestation of his Presence.[2]

For Merton, there is no formula or outline in the discovery of the true self.[3] Discovery of the true self is a gift, given by God. However, one can help this process by quieting their soul to allow this gift to emerge. Contemplative prayer then, is the act of quieting oneself and waiting patiently. Contemplation is simple, but extremely difficult, especially in today’s busy world!

For me the meaning of contemplation has evolved over time, but it continues to be a vital part of my spirituality – perhaps the central part. I have heard that contemplation is a form of wordless prayer where one beholds the essence of God, particularly God’s love and goodness. Through contemplation we find stillness and silence – it is here that we find God in the deepest sense. Like stilling water, contemplation allows us to still the chaos of life so we are better able to see clearly. One author writes that, “contemplative practice nurtures interior silence, teaches us the art of letting go, and helps us experience our struggles with greater clarity and balance.”[4] I have experienced this to be true in my own life. Contemplative practices, such as centering prayer, have become the most important aspect of my spirituality because it opens me up to become more conscious of God’s loving presence in all things.

The result of the discovery of the true self for Merton is love. Merton writes:

All through the Verba Seniorum we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love in fact is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions.[5]

Love must always be the end, for it is the spiritual goal. For Merton, greater love cannot be obtain by sheer willpower or demands, which is why the path of the spiritual life runs through self-transformation.[6] One becomes more loving not by trying to be more loving, but by coming to a greater awareness that one is loved.[7] The true test of a maturity is if a person extends compassion to others, for Merton writes, “contemplation is out of the question for anyone who does not try to cultivate compassion for other men.”[8]

In summary, Merton’s spirituality suggests that the goal of the spiritual life is the transformation of the self, which happens when a person is awakened to their true self. Contemplative practices allow a safe and quiet place for the true self to emerge as a gift from God. The result of a person walking into their true self is greater love or compassion for others.

[1] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 296.

[2] Ibid., 298.

[3] Ibid., 297.

[4] Laird, Into the Silent Land, 5.

[5] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 275.

[6] Ibid., 274.

[7] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 75.

[8] Ibid., 77.

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 2 of 3

Sin & Salvation

Last post I introduced Thomas Merton and his spirituality. Today we will explore the role of sin and salvation from the perspective of Merton.

Sin, for Merton, is that which conceals our true self. “To say that I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask.”[1] Because Merton associates sin with the mask of the false self, salvation is exposing the false self and an allowing the true self to emerge. “To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God.”[2] Merton understands salvation to be a returning to the true self, here we experience union with God. Merton writes, “I shall find myself. I shall be ‘saved.’”[3] While salvation for many within western Christianity has become primarily about the afterlife, for Merton salvation involves realizing that you are beloved of God – you are already loved and accepted as you are – this realization will lead us to union with God in the present (this idea has most likely shaped my personal spirituality in more ways than anything else!).

In other words, salvation is a reality to be experienced in the here and now as we become aware that we are already inside of God’s love.

It may seem that Merton is suggesting that salvation is obtained through human effort, but this is actually a gift one receives. Merton writes:

And so the contemplation of which I speak is a religious and transcendent gift. It is not something to which we can attain alone, by intellectual effort, by perfecting our natural powers…It is not the fruit of our own efforts. It is the gift of God, Who, in His mercy, completes the hidden and mysterious work of creation in us by enlightening our minds and hearts by awakening in us the awareness that we are words spoken in His One Word, and that Creating Spirit dwells in us, and we in Him. That we are “in Christ” and that Christ lives in us.[4]

For many salvation is obtained by “believing the right things,” but for Merton, salvation is obtained by a growing awareness (or even experience) of reality. Salvation, a realization of our true self, is a gift given by God when God “enlightens our minds and hearts” to recognize that “we are in Christ.” For Merton, there is no massive gulf that needs to be bridged, there is no sacrifice to appease an angry God, there is no hoop’s you need to jump through. Salvation is resting in God’s loving presence as this love exposes our false self.

Note: think about the life of Jesus. Every single time he encountered someone who felt they were a “sinner,” or felt unworthy or ashamed, Jesus extended love, compassion, and grace. My greatest critique for the majority of the church in the west, is that it often seems to think that it is through shaming, then one will be “saved.” The only people Jesus consistently struggled with were those who tried to create extra barriers and hurtles along the spiritual journey.

I think it is through an encounter with love, compassion, forgiveness and grace that we are transformed. What else could the story of the prodigal son mean?

I think it is important to note here that salvation is an ongoing process, not an instantaneous act where one becomes enlightened and then remains in that state from then on. It is more accurate to state that Merton believed it was a progressive movement by which a person becomes increasingly aware of their true self.

Next post I will conclude with Merton’s teaching on the role of contemplation in the process of spiritual formation.

 

 

 

[1] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 33.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid., 4-5.

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 1 of 3

Thomas Merton has deeply influenced my spiritual journey. Since I think many who are seeking a different, more authentic way of being Christian today will find him compelling, I thought I would write a little about the spirituality of Thomas Merton as an introduction.

Thomas Merton was one of the greatest Catholic spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, and is one of the most well known authors of the contemplative life. While his life led him to become a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, he was a writer by nature and has authored over sixty books and hundreds of articles and poems. One writer once introduced him as “a monk by vocation, a theologian by conviction, and a writer by instinct.”[1] While he may have been all of these things, he is best known as a spiritual guide, a mystic, and a contemplative. His writings have inspired many who continue to find them relevant and insightful for their own spiritual journeys. In following  posts, I will explore Merton’s spirituality, his view of the goal of the Christian life, sin, and salvation.

Transformation of Self

Merton’s spirituality is fascinating. While his view of God, the world, and creation are not all that different from the Easter Christian tradition, his views are new for many in the West which tends to emphasize doctrine and theology over experience. For Merton, the goal of the Christian life is not an accumulation of information or correct doctrines, which is often the case for western Christianity. Reflecting upon Merton, one author writes, “He understood the interior transformation as the meaning and goal of the monastic life and of its solitude and contemplation.”[2] Concerning the inner journey Merton writes, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.”[3] Clearly the transformation of the self, or as Merton states this “inner voyage” is central to his view of spiritual formation.

Merton often contrasted what he called the “true self” with the “false self.” For Merton, exposing the false self and walking into the true self (or realizing one’s true self) is what leads to transformation. Merton defines the false self in the following way:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him…My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life.[4]

The false self is an illusion, it is not who we actually are. I think what Merton is saying here is that people put on masks and then mistakenly identify themselves with that mask. Merton writes, “The creative and mysterious inner self must be delivered from the wasteful, hedonistic and destructive ego that seeks only to cover itself with disguises.”[5] The major problem is that this mask tells us we are outside of God’s reach, that we are not loved, valued, and accepted as we are. (Notice many forms of religion will capitalize on the feelings of shame and unworthiness that is brought on by the false self.)

If the false self is an illusory mask, the true self is “the true, secret self in which the Believer and Christ were ‘one Spirit.’”[6] It is precisely in realizing our true self that we experience union with God. According to Merton, our true self is who we actually are; our true self is our self “hidden in the love and mercy of God.”[7] As we expose the illusion of the false self, it is at this moment where we are receptive to God’s love and presence in our lives. This is available at all times and all places and for all people.

True Self/False Self

My spirituality has been so shaped by the idea of the true self and false self I’m not sure I can explain it any better than Merton. I view the false self as the part of us that feels unworthy of love and is full of shame – something I believe every human experiences (for more on shame explore Brene Brown’s work). Unhealthy religion will capitalize on this by pointing out our sin, separation, and unworthiness – often suggesting we need to believe all the correct things or do all the correct things in order to be loved and accepted by God. Healthy religion will allow us to transcend this shame, because we are already accepted as we are.

The false self is that part of us outside of God’s love because we don’t feel like we deserve God’s love. When we step into our true self, we realize that we are deeply loved by God regardless of whether or not we feel worthy. The spiritual path helps us walk into our true self by exposing the illusion of the false self – that part of us that feels outside of God’s loving union, that says I’m not good enough or worthy enough. In other words, the spiritual path allows us to become more aware of reality – the reality that we are already in loving union with God!

For me, this is everything!

 

 

 

[1] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 32.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 271.

[4] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 267.

[7] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 35.