Tag Archives: contemplation

Calling to the contemplative

I’ve been reflecting on my life, my calling, my vocation. Am I called to be a husband? A father? A pastor? A spiritual director? Something else?

Well, all of those things are true, but none of them fully capture what is growing within me – the urge to cultivate a contemplative life.

What is the contemplative life you might ask. I am just beginning this journey so I have far more questions than answers. First, a few things of what it is not.

  1. It is not a withdrawal from the world – it’s a different form of engagement within the world.
  2. It is not going off to a monastery to live as a monk – though I have nothing against that. A contemplative life doesn’t  necessarily mean you are deciding to live within a cloistered community.
  3. It is not sitting at home and praying all day. Though it does involve setting up frequent times for silence, solitude, and stillness.
  4. It is not passive. Again, it’s a very different form of engagement.

What is contemplation then? I love Merton’s quote below:

Cultivating the contemplative life is cultivating an awareness of the sacred in all things, in all places, at all times.

It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

A contemplative life is a life lived to a different drum beat, to a different rhythm. If your experience is anything like mine, you feel pulled (almost sucked) into more. More busyness, more productivity, more achievement, more success. (By the way this is disguised within the Religious world and is often encouraged and rewarded as doing God’s work.) Our western consumerist culture baits us with shiny lures. We often cannot help but bit down hard, only to find that we are then being pulled in and feel entrapped by the very thing we desired.

Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Repent really means to see differently, to wake up. For me this has increasingly meant to see the many ways I have taken the bait. I have been pulled into the busyness, productivity, achievement orientation over and over again. Some have suggested that the kingdom of God is a consciousness that is available now. This makes the most sense to me. Taken together Jesus’ phrase means, “Wake up! See Reality and thus the illusions you are living into and change the way you are living because there is a new Reality, a new consciousness, a new way to live that brings healing and wholeness to your life and it’s available to all people right here, right now!”

The more I meditate on this text, the more potent it becomes to me.

The biggest thing I have learned about the contemplative life in the past month is that it isn’t just about contemplative practices, it involves my entire life. It isn’t just adding some practices, it’s about taking up a new set of lenses with which I the world. (Again, repent has connotations of changing the way you see.) It’s a new paradigm.

I’ve been engaging in contemplative practices going on three in a half years now, but I feel like I’m now just beginning to cultivate a contemplative life.

In my next post I will share some practical steps I am taking as I explore this calling live a contemplative life.

 

 

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.

The seminarian’s unexpected experience

It’s been five years since I went back to school. The goal was to finish up my undergrad so I could attend seminary. Now, three years into seminary and only 6 classes left, I have experienced some major shifts.

CST

I chose Claremont School of Theology (CST) for several reasons. First, I was attending a Methodist Church so it made sense. Second, I was attracted to Process Theology. Third, I wanted to attend a progressive seminary that was not only open but also inclusive of LGBTQ person’s. Fourth, I saw that CST was engaged in interreligious dialogue and education and felt this was important for any spiritual leader in the future.

The biggest part of that decision was attending a place that was open, diverse, and liberal leaning. I wanted to find a place where I could explore, question, and feel free to challenge and/or change any beliefs I needed to. I know this should be the goal of any religious education, but sadly it is not.

I have gone through a major theological shift since I first went back to complete my Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies five years ago. It seems like an eternity ago, but in the scheme of things five years is not all that long.

Yet, the theological shift has not been the most surprising to me. I had been on a journey for quite some time, and even though I was raised in a more conservative tradition, I had been drawn to people who were pushing the boundaries, asking tough questions, and inviting dialogue. Engaging in theology was not new.

The most surprising experience has been an introduction to contemplative spirituality and the idea and importance of spiritual formation. I had spent several years wrestling through many beliefs and views (my embedded theology) and had largely lived in my head. I think that was necessary for a time, as many of the beliefs I was given as a child no longer made sense to me. I grasped for something that worked and eventually realized that my beliefs, views, and ways of seeing the world will always be changing, evolving, and growing.  I think I’m coming to a point where I’m ok with that, and I think that is largely due to contemplative spirituality.

One of the first classes I took at CST was a class called Spiritual Practices. We engaged in different forms of prayer, meditation, and ways of engaging with Scripture that I had not done before. This opened up a lot for me. I always felt that meditation was for the few “elite” or those monks, and was never all that interested. Then I realized that true formation comes much more from surrender, from mystery, from experiencing wonder, and from releasing my attachment to all things (including my beliefs), than from developing a clear and systematic theology. My spiritual formation classes have become the one’s I have most enjoyed so far, and I look forward to taking a couple more before the end.

I understand that everything forms us. Education forms us deeply, and that has been a large part of my spiritual formation, one I am very grateful for at CST. How one is educated is a part of spiritual formation, and I have been educated alongside of those with diverse views, diverse ethnic and geographic areas, as well as people of different religions than mine. Surely this has all shaped me deeply. My beliefs have shaped me, my experiences have shaped me, my lifestyle (including diet) has shaped me, my friendships have shaped me and the list goes on and on. Yet, at the center of all this is contemplative spirituality, and I am becoming more convinced that this is perhaps the most needed thing in our polarized world of conservative/liberal, religious/non-religious, republican/democrat, etc. At the very least, it is what I seem to most need.

The idea of trying to “convert” others to my way of thinking is less and less interesting. The idea of arguing or debating about the correct doctrine, belief, or religion is less and less interesting. Sure, I still think there are destructive views out there that should be exposed, but what I am finding even more interesting is the idea of becoming a more healthy, whole, and compassionate human and helping others do the same. Instead of seeing different religions as either right or wrong, I see within each system either healthy or unhealthy – mature or immature – ways of being. The healthy or mature ways bring about a more loving, whole, and compassionate human…no matter what religion, belief, or world view they come from. My experience also suggests this to be true. I have met plenty of prickly, judgemental, and self-righteous Christians and some loving and compassionate people who are not Christian.

So, despite a theological shift, the thing that has most surprised me has been a curiosity and formational experience with contemplative spirituality. I went to an education center to realize that education, while being a part of formation, is not the only part or even the main part of spiritual formation.

I plan to write in the near future why I believe contemplative spirituality is so important.

The False Self

We all have both a True Self and a False Self.

Being able to tell the difference is everything.

Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves…There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness.               – Thomas Merton

falseself

My spiritual journey has lead me to contemplation, which seems to be the best route (the only route I have found) that exposes the False Self and helps you walk into your True Self – the core of spirituality.

According to one of my favorite authors, Fr. Richard Rohr, In contemplative prayer we move beyond language to experience God as Mystery. We let go of our need to judge, defend, or evaluate…During contemplation we come to know that there is no separation between sacred and secular. All is one with Divine Reality.

The spiritual journey is meant to be a pathway to discover our True Self – that self that is hidden within, often behind the mask of our False Self. The False Self is that part of us that we prop up that makes us look good to others, hence the image of a mask. It is not actually who we are (our True Self), it is something we hide behind, but it is something we unconsciously fight to keep propped up so we don’t have to deal with all the junk within. If I can’t be as good, smart, or successful as I want to be, I at least want others to think that I am.

The path to uncovering the False Self means we have to be honest and vulnerable in order to expose the weak part of us – no one likes this!

In The Gift of Being Yourself, Psychologist David Benner writes Our false self is built on an inordinate attachment to an image of our self that we think makes us special…Initially the masks we adopt reflect how we want others to see us…Few things are more difficult to discern and dismantle than our most cherished illusions. And none of our illusions are harder to identify than those that lie at the heart of our false self. The false self is like the air we breathe. We have become so accustomed to its presence that we are no longer aware of it.”

The False Self is an illusion, an illusion that is prevalent in every person, and is largely unrecognized. While many non religious people are unaware, religion can actually be a place that bolsters the False Self. I think this happens more times than not.

Immature or lower levels of religion prop up the False Self by creating more labels, divisions, doctrines, and dual (either/or) ways of thinking. Contemplation slowly breaks down these walls and divisions and brings a non dual (both/and) awareness. Often the False Self is that part that feeds off certainty and security. No wonder the False Self is well fed in the religious mind!

  • How do you expose the False Self?

Ask yourself what you feel the need to constantly defend and there you will find the False Self.

Those things, ideas, beliefs, images we are attached to are sure signs of our False Self, hidden within. Dr. Benner writes, “the false self needs constant bolstering. Touchiness dependably points us to false ways of being. And the more prickly a person you are, the more you are investing in the defense of a false self.”

Do you feel the need to consistently defend your own self-importance, self-worth, intelligence, success, views, or beliefs?

Those things we are attached to  are obstacles to finding our True Self – that part that doesn’t need to defend, compare, divide, or fight against. These attachments keep us from becoming vulnerable and keep us from dealing with our own shame, insecurities, and feelings of inadequacy.

My own journey as lead me to uncover my False Self in unexpected ways – in my own insecurities and feelings of inadequacies. I want so badly to appear smart, intelligent, accomplished, and put together. I constantly, and most often unconsciously, compare myself to others who are smarter than I, more charismatic than I, and the list can go on and on.

One of the most helpful tools I have discovered along the way is something called the Enneagram (I will share more about this in the future). I will also share steps to take to enter more fully into your True Self, or at least the path I am on, which is largely a path of knowing and accepting.

Stay tuned!