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.

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