Tag Archives: contemplative prayer

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.

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!