To begin wrapping things up, we have already seen that authentic prayer is inseparable from authentic life choices and that they feed one another. Prayer is not another activity or option in my life but the life’s breath of my life that not only takes me out of myself but relates me to the mystery of God. This relationship with God, in which both myself and the unseen, unknowable God are both subjects, is essential to being truly human. Without considering any other decision, if I operate from that center, I’m already at odds with our mainstream culture.
Again and again, Thomas Merton underlined the importance of each of us appropriating our own darkness in order to free our prayer from idols of ourselves and reducing God to the accommodating idol of my own fancy and unhealthy needs. This work is accomplished “in the desert” that place where we are deprived of familiar hiding places and have no resource but God. In such a “place”, we have no option but to recognize that what unfolds is not our accomplishment but is the workings of grace, that is, the divine vitality, breaking into our lives. As early as his reflections on the Psalms, Bread in the Wilderness (1953), Merton wrote:
This is a death in which we have found Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We know that this darkness, which seems to annihilate us, is not the darkness of death but, if such an expression can be understood, the darkness of life…If the paradox may be allowed, this frightful death is our first taste of glory. Then we begin to discover that the night in which we seem to be lost is the protection of the shadow of God’s wings. If God had brought us into this darkness, it is because he wishes to guard us with extreme care and tenderness, or, in the words of the psalm, “like the apple of his eye.”
So this darkness is not gloom and this dying is not being snuffed out. As a more mature Merton wrote in the chapter, “The Contemplative and the Atheist” (Contemplation in a World of Action):
The Spirit utters in us the cry of recognition that we are sons in the Son (Rom. 8.15). This cry of admiration, of love. of praise, of everlasting joy is at once a cry of glad self annihilation on the part of the transient human ego, and an exultant shout of victory of the New Man raised from the dead in Christ by the Spirit who raised Christ himself from the dead.
That sounds great, but such a state of being does not spell “success” in our civilization, gives one no social advantage in our society, garners no prestige and is likely to blunt ones motivation for gain, prestige, influence and so forth. As we have seen earlier, it is not achieved by any technique, which to say, it is not accomplished by culture. Anyone one looking at such a life from our culture’s value system or from the co-ordinates of our technology could not recognize it as either an accomplishment or an achievement.
At this point, I’m reminded of two biblical texts. First, Hosea 2:16: That is why I am going to lure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart. God speaks in tender, erotic terms of removing a wayward Israel from her sophisticated and prosperous kingdom back to the uncertain wanderings of the Exodus through the wilderness. There in the desert and in those by-gone decades they enjoyed a connection uncluttered by the idols of wish-fulfillment. When Israel lacked not just luxuries but even the bare necessities, and was totally dependent on God, the relationship was immediate and whole-hearted. For our purposes, they also had no safety net in a society, a culture, a mainstream. They were exiles, wanderers on the fringes.
The second text is Colossians 3:3: …you have died and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God. This spiritual maturity is so different from where we began that it is a genuine death. There is no continuity with what went before. And dying is the ultimate marginality. However, unlike the viewpoint of the world around us, we are not gone but hidden with Christ in God. We have something to offer, we are still participants, still engaged with our sisters and brothers but not from the center. Rather we are engaged from what really counts.Again, from “The Contemplative and the Atheist”:
The heart of Christian mystical experience is that it experiences the ineffable reality of what is beyond experience. It “knows” the presence of God, not in a clear vision but as “unknown” (tamquam ignotum). Christian faith too, while of course concerning itself with certain truths that have ben revealed by God, does not terminate in the conceptual formulation of these truths. It goes beyond words and ideas and attains to God Himself. But the God who in a certain sense is “known” in the articles of faith is “known and unknown” beyond those articles. One might even say, with some of the Fathers of the Church, that while our concepts may tell us that “God is”, our knowledge of God beyond those concepts is a knowledge of him, “as though he were not” since His being is not accessible to us in direct experience. We are persuaded that many who consider themselves atheists are in fact persons who are disconcerted with a naïve idea of God which makes him appear to be an “object” or “thing”, or a person in a merely finite and human sense. Such people are perhaps weary of the complications of language which now surrounds the “problem of God” and find discussions of that problem fruitless: yet they are likely to be very intrigued by the direct and existential testimony of the contemplative experience.
Merton leaves us in company very different from most of our co-religionists, yet he would insist, far removed from delusion and so much closer to God. That’s quite a challenge.
There ended the original presentation. What followed were questions of some import. Surely, this experience and spirituality is not confined to monastics? But what context outside the monastery and in our noisy and distracted society allows us to enter the desert? What response can we make to the inexplicable violence of our world? And is their a way to be engaged in necessary service to the marginalized members of our society without falling into a mindless, delusional activism?
Some provisional–and inadequate–responses will be entertained in next week’s final post.
to be continued