In the previous post, we noted Merton’s opinion that whatever the agenda of the culture we find ourselves in, the monastic would take her or his proper place by remaining a monastic–we are simply monks, simply what we are. Embedded in that state, unlike a career or identifying profession, is the call from God. We may all be called by God to our place in life, but in a secular society we presume, rightly or wrongly, that what we do is our choice. It is really impossible for the Christian monastic to omit the call from God, to side-step the essential reference to God. And Merton had also underlined that following such a call, yanks us out of society and, from the sidelines, we question the fraudulent claims of that society and culture. What could possibly empower a person to take such a step? How would such a person sustain his or herself, there on the margins, outside society’s comfort zone? How could anyone even begin that shift?
Thomas Merton says that we start by being critical with ourselves, facing the darkness within ourselves. That’s what differentiates the monastic from the student revolutionaries Merton met in Santa Barbara: they began by being critical of society. The monastic begins with his- or herself. As Merton wrote in a letter to Fr. Bruno Scott James:
All of us who are called to a serious way of life are called to face the blackness of ourselves and of our world. If we have to live the victory of the Risen Christ over death we have to pass through death. Or arise out of our own death. It means seeing death and hell in ourselves. I never imagined when I was a novice and when “His lamp shone over my head” what it would mean to suffer the darkness which He Himself suffers in me…[speaking of Staretz Silouan] The Lord said to him, “Keep they soul in hell and despair not.” At first it sounds a bit dreadful, or at least eccentric. Yet to me it is in a strange way comforting. Men still share deeply and silently the anguish of Christ abandoned by His Father (to be abandoned by God is to “be in hell”) and they “despair not.” How much better and saner it is to face despair and not to give in, than to work away at keeping up appearances and patching up our conviction that a bogus spirituality is real! that we are not totally facing dread! that we are all triumphantly advancing, “getting somewhere” (Where?), accomplishing great things for Christ and changing the face of the world.
Note how facing our own darkness is acting with Christ and not some Promethean effort of our own. That is to say, our part is to chose to go where Christ has already gone for our sake. For the monastic the invitation is, like Dante following Virgil, to go where Christ has gone before us (…He descended into hell…); the negative alternative is to flee that descent and fritter away life in purely external rituals and observances or distractions. As Merton describe in “The Inner Experience: Some Dangers in Contemplation”:
The regular communal life is usually lived at the tempo of those who are active and extroverted. Impatient of interior subtleties and intolerant of all that does not bring a tangible result, these people want to know at the end of the day, that they have done something in the service of God. Hence their life is geared to reassure them. The day is divided into many exercises, in which prayer is measured by the clock and by the exactitude with which the ceremonial is executed. Attention is concentrated on exterior performance…If regularity is a sign of love and spiritual liberty, it favors contemplation. But if it is a symptom of self-conscious and legalistic perfectionism, it kills the contemplative life at its source.
Our behavior is not just a question of what we do but how we do what we do. According to the above observation, the same behavior could express or kill contemplation. I must be a subtle and discerning judge of myself. But also note that Merton is implying that the monastic life is not just an ambience for prayer but that prayer is a state of being which defines monastic life. My monastic life will end when I die but that relationship with God that defines my being, my relatedness to God and God’s creation will not die when my body is consigned to the grave. Prayer is not just another agenda in the round of the day, measured by the clock. Prayer is discovering what I most deeply am, what I was created to be in the first place. Here I’d quote David Steindel-Rast’s essay “Man of Prayer” in the book, Thomas Merton: A Monastic Tribute:
In technology you have this horizontal progress where you must start at one point and move to another and then another. But that is not the way to build a life of prayer. In prayer we discover what we already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess.
to be continued…