In the last installment we were considering an insight from an essay on Thomas Merton (“Man of Prayer”) by Br. David Steindel-Rast. Cultivating a life of prayer is not a procedural technology. It is not getting from this starting point, constructing something new that will then function according to expectations and produce an anticipated result. Rather we already “have” and “are” what we “need” or are “looking for”. We just don’t know it. Or we are very busy dis-identifying ourselves from who we are, busily trying to be something or someone else, or attempting to re-invent who we are. And Steindel-Rast explicitly relates this criticism to prayer. I found this perspective connatural to Merton’s own thinking: prayer is not an activity among other activities but is rooted in what we live. We–not in the abstract, but we living the lives we lead–are the data, the “given” of prayer.
This brings us back to the nexus of knowing, owning our darkness. Although that darkness is manifest in our actual living, being self-justifying human beings means we must detach ourselves from our active choices and choose the challenge of solitude to see ourselves in perspective. However, Merton explained in The Sign of Jonas:
Solitude is not found so much by looking outside the boundaries of your dwelling, as by staying within. Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is the deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you’ll never find it.
But he also underlined in his book, Contemplative Prayer, that not every “being by myself” is solitude, is that condition of being apart that gives me an accurate perspective on my life:
Many serious and good monks, idealists, desire to make of their lives a work of God according to an approved pattern. This brings with it an instinct to study themselves, to shape their lives, to remodel themselves, to tune and re-tune all their inner dispositions–and this results in a full time meditation and contemplation of themselves. They may unfortunately find this so delightful and absorbing that they lose all interest in the invisible and unpredictable action of grace. In a word, they seek to build their own security, to avoid the risk and dread implied by submission to the unknown mystery of God’s will.
And, from his Wisdom of the Desert:
What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? For me to be a saint means to be myself, because the problem of sanctity and salvation is, in fact. the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.
If we risk delusion in our pursuit of solitude, its opposite, jovial human company, frenetic human activity are not solutions. What is wrong-headed in either direction is going there to get above it all. Merton wrote in The New Seeds of Contemplation (“Body of Broken Bones”):
As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another. Because of this, love is the resetting of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.
As he said to our nuns at Redwoods Abbey about authentic solitude:
One of the best things for me when I went to the hermitage was being attentive to the times of day, when the birds began to sing, and the deer came out of the morning fog, and the sun came up…The reason why we don’t take time is the feeling that we have to keep moving. This is a real sickness. Today time is a commodity, and for each of us time is mortgaged…we are threatened by a chain reaction: over work–over stimulation–overcompensation–over kill.
It is a pathetic commentary on the culture that infects us all that I can confidently address this question to myself and to you: sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What are our options? Again, as Fr. Louis said to our sisters:
The climate in which monastic prayer flowers is that of the desert, where the comfort of man is absent, where the secure routines of man’s city offer no support, and where prayer must be sustained by God in the purity of heart.
Now that’s a tall order!
to be continued…