“After all, some of the basic themes of the existentialism of Heidegger, laying stress as they do on the ineluctable fact of death, on man’s need for authenticity, and on a kind of spiritual liberation, can remind us that the climate in which monastic prayer flourished is not altogether absent from our modern world. Quite the contrary: this is an age that, by its very nature as a time of crisis, of revolution, of struggle, calls for the special searching and questioning which are the work of the monk in his meditation and prayer. For the monk searches not only his own heart: he plunges deep into the heart of that world of which he remains a part although he seems to have ‘left’ it. In reality the monk abandons the world only in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed from its inner depth.
This is why the term ‘contemplation’ is both insufficient and ambiguous when it is applied to the highest forms of Christian prayer. Nothing is more foreign to authentic monastic and ‘contemplative’ (e.g. Carmelite) tradition in the Church than a kind of Gnosticism which would elevate the contemplative above the ordinary struggles and sufferings of human existence, and elevate him to a privileged state among the spiritually pure, as if he were almost an angel, untouched by matter and passion, and no longer familiar with the economy of sacraments, charity and the Cross. The way of monastic prayer is not a subtle escape from the Christian economy of incarnation and redemption. It is a special way of following Christ, of sharing in his passion and resurrection and in his redemption of the world. For that very reason the dimensions of prayer in solitude are those of man’s ordinary anguish, his self-searching, his moments of nausea at his own vanity, falsity and capacity for betrayal. Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face to face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the ‘consolation of prayer’ for its own sake. This ‘self’ is pure illusion, and ultimately he who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or madness.
On the other hand, we must admit that social life, so-called ‘worldly life,’ in its own way promotes this illusory and narcissistic existence to the very limit. The curious state of alienation and confusion of man in modern society is perhaps more ‘bearable’ because it is lived in common, with a multitude of distractions and escapes – and also with opportunities for fruitful action and genuine Christian self-forgetfulness. But underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self-questioning which sooner or later must bring us face to face with the ultimate meaning of our life. This self-questioning can never be without a certain existential ‘dread’ – a sense of insecurity, of ‘lostness,’ of exile, of sin. A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth.”
Recently I’ve been re-reading some Thomas Merton. I have never read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, but know him only through some of his shorter works – New Seeds of Contemplation, The Inner Experience, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and Contemplative Prayer. Merton is an author who I feel differently about depending on which of his works I’m reading. At times, he seems overly harsh (for instance in some portions of The Inner Experience), and this may stem from the fact that he often writes to other monastics. A true monastic life is one that I will likely never experience and some of the advice given by Christian monastics don’t seem to fit readers who are “in the world.” I feel the same way when I read St. John of the Cross and he advises his readers to “reject attachment to all creatures.” Nevertheless, there is hardly a more well-known Christian contemplative in modern times than Merton and overall I find him extremely edifying. He is also clearly well-versed in modern biblical scholarship, seemingly falling much more on the liberal end of things, and is open to other religious traditions which I also resonate with.
In this series, I’d like to post some excerpts from Merton’s Contemplative Prayer. In it, he documents a variety of his opinions on the spiritual life, writing mainly to other monks. The reader gets to overhear this advice and decide how it may or may not apply to the life of the novice.
In this first excerpt, Merton introduces the work and writes about the earliest form of Christian monasticism, that of the “Desert Fathers.”
“The monk is a Christian who has responded to a special call from God, and has withdrawn from the more active concerns of a worldly life, in order to devote himself completely to repentance, ‘conversion,’ metanoia, renunciation and prayer. In positive terms, we must understand the monastic life above all as a life of prayer. The negative elements, solitude, fasting, obedience, penance, renunciation of property and ambition, are all intended to clear the way so that prayer, meditation and contemplation may fill the space created by the abandonment of other concerns.
What is written about prayer in these pages is written primarily for monks. However, just as a book about psychoanalysis by an analyst and primarily for analysts may also (if not too technical) appeal to a layman interested in these matters, so a practical non-academic study of monastic prayer should be of interest to all Christians, since every Christian is bound to be in some sense a man of prayer. Though few have either the desire for solitude or the vocation to monastic life, all Christians ought, theoretically at least, to have enough interest in prayer to be able to read and make use of what is here said for monks, adapting to the circumstances of their own vocation. Certainly, in the pressures of modern urban life, many will face the need for a certain interior silence and discipline simply to keep themselves together, to maintain their human and Christian identity and their spiritual freedom. To promote this they may often look for moments of retreat and prayer in which to deepen their meditative life. These pages discuss prayer in its very nature, rather than special restricted techniques. What is said here is therefore applicable to the prayer of any Christian, though perhaps with a little less emphasis on the intensity of certain trials which are proper to life in solitude.
Monastic prayer is, first of all, essentially simple. In primitive monasticism prayer was not necessarily liturgical, though liturgy soon came to be regarded as a specialty of monks and canons. Actually, the first monks in Egypt and Syria had only the most rudimentary liturgy, and their personal prayer was direct and uncomplicated. For example, we read in the sayings of the Desert Fathers that a monk asked St. Marcarius how to pray. The latter replied: ‘It is not necessary to use many words. Only stretch out your arms and say: Lord, have pity on me as you desire and as you well know how! And if the enemy presses you hard, say: Lord, come to my aid!’ In John Cassian’s Conferences on Prayer we see great stress laid by the early monks on simple prayer made up of short phrases drawn from the Psalms or other parts of Scripture. One of the most frequently used was Deus in adjutorium meum intende, ‘O God, come to my aid!’
At first sight one might wonder what such simple prayers would have to do with a life of ‘contemplation.’ The Desert Fathers did not imagine themselves, in the first place, to be mystics, though in fact they often were. They were careful not to go looking for extraordinary experiences, and contented themselves with the struggle for ‘purity of heart’ and for control of their thoughts, to keep their minds and hearts empty of care and concern, so that they might altogether forget themselves and apply themselves entirely to the love and service of God.”