Tag Archives: Thomas Merton

A Prolonged Hesitation – Meeting God in the Spaces

Ireland Upland

Silence is God’s first language. – John of the Cross

Spaces captivate me. The spaces between things – pauses, silences, rests between notes, empty rooms, expanses of prairie, moors, and highlands.  A friend of mine from a large urban center once came to Kansas for a visit. I drove her out west on I70. The empty space terrified her. She much prefers the human made canyons of New York City, than places where the land itself dominates the environment and asserts its untamed, mysterious vitality.

In my work as a listener to the stories of others, I find the spaces between the words, the sudden silences, or the time a person takes for thinking to be where the treasures lie, where holiness abides.

flintyhills3

I recently found a friend in the poet, Rilke. I drove south through the stunning space of the Flint Hills to Wichita to The Magnificat Center. This haven of hospitality and spiritual nurture hosted a retreat led by Mark Burrows, scholar of medieval Christianity. Mark had recently translated some of German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s early poems.  Prayers of a Young Poet, Paraclete Press.

For an evening and a day Professor Burrows opened up Rilke’s poems like small packets of compressed holiness. Once set free by Burrows’ translation and our imagination, the poems awakened us to the immense and voluminous God this young poet had discovered.  In the spring of 1899 God had wooed Rilke during the Russian Orthodox holy week services at Moscow’s Cathedral of the Dormition.  By the end of our brief time together I felt the room we gathered in enveloped by presence and I, too, felt holiness pulsing in me.

The resonance of Rilke’s images and Mark Burrow’s masterful interpretation slowed me down, and ushered me into in the mystery of Rilke’s God. I was taken out beyond myself and the horrible cold I had brought with me to a more spacious place. The image Rilke used to express his desire to touch into God’s immensity was heath, the open, treeless landscape of moor and bog.

Whatever you yearn for, my soul, say it
Be heath, be heath, be wide.
. . . .
Be heath, be heath, be heath

Prayers of a Young Poet, translated by Mark Burrows, p 30.

Heath view

What is it in us that allows God to meet us with fullness, depth, and beauty? The potential is always present. Love or loss of love may do this, preaching may do this, sacraments, art, music, nature, beauty, may do this. Yet we must offer the space, the openness, the inner heath or expanse of Kansas Flint Hills to become the altar for this dancing God.

As the psalmists, prophets and Jesus knew, poetry may offer such an altar for the sacrament of presence.  Paul Valéry defined a poem as “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.” That is also not a bad definition for a parable. Parable and poem both dis-orient, surprise, stop us in our tracks, and expand our awareness beyond our previously known world.

Poetry invites, even demands that we hesitate, off balance, scratching our heads, to teeter between sound and sense. Most things which reveal Transcendence (that which is beyond our selves) require us to enter the unfamiliar and wait on the edge of not knowing, without having to rush in and fill the moment with a refutation, argument, praise, or anything to end the awkward, uncomfortable “dead” space. It seems to me that good art makes us hesitate and allows what we may perceive as dead to rise up before us. Surely good preaching, celebrating sacraments, and prayer ought to do the same.

Moor
Yet hesitation is seen as a flaw, a lack of confidence, or making someone have to wait. Thomas Merton wrote that we live in a time of no room, in which we are “obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within [us] by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, acceleration.” Thomas Merton, A Book of Hours, ed. Kathleen Deignan, p 32 

We live in a time of no room with no space for a soul’s edges to roll out, unconfined by agenda. Hemmed in by a culture which has convinced itself that time is a commodity, of which there is great scarcity, our souls become cramped, stunted, and deformed by the crushing weight of  having to produce and fill every moment with sound and human activity.

communion cup

Time is the sacred vessel of encounter with divine presence.  Where else do we think it is going to happen, if not here, now in this moment? We put little, if any, space between and within the words we speak to one another. We have little available “random access memory” in our minds.  Words pile upon words. Life is reduced to thirty second sound and image bites. Minds are crammed and obese with knowing, calendars booked solid, days filled with activity, and hearts full of oneself.

Who among us will be bold to hesitate, to linger in the land of uncertainty on the shore of wisdom?   Who will offer shelter for silence to collect itself, curl up and hum to itself in the sun? Who will be heath?

________________________

Please note Praying Life Readers: I will be leading a retreat at the Magnificat Center in Wichita, Kansas on March 22-23, 2013.  For more information and to register: Retreat led by Loretta F Ross  It would be great to see you there!

Ain’t Nothin to Worry About

She is sitting on a chair in her bedroom. I show her the new pants and blouse. “Try them on mom. I got them for you.”

“Oh, I don’t need any new clothes.”  She gestures to a pile of folded shirts on her dresser.

“Mom, you are holding up your pants with safety pins. That blouse is worn thin.”

She slowly pulls on the new pants, then stands and hitches them over her narrow hips. I help her button the blouse. We both like the results. “You look great mom.”

She smiles, then announces, “After ninety the worst is over.” We observe a thoughtful silence, and then burst into laughter. Eyes twinkling, she says, “Then they dress you. They fix your breakfast.”

The good news from Irma: if you are over ninety, relax. The worst is over. If you are not, take heart, the best is yet to come.

When I was a child the word used for senile dementia was “childish.” Uncle Lou was “getting childish.” Grandpa “was childish.” That meant that they were older and acted young somehow. Because of this, we were to understand and watch over them a little more. It was a gentle term, a matter of fact acceptance. When mother returned from visiting blind Aunt Ethel in the rest home, who, after she broke her hip, never got out of bed again, mom would say, “Aunt Ethel told me to go out back and get a chicken and dress it and make her some chicken and noodles. She doesn’t know where she is. She’s getting childish.” Mom would fix chicken and noodles with a store bought chicken and take them to her anyway.

__________

The house I grew up in is the kind of place where God shuffles around in his jammies and house slippers like part of the family – deeply loved and cherished, but not made a big fuss over.  Mother grew up Quaker and married my Mennonite father, whose family descended from the Swiss Anabaptists of the Reformation period. In some kind of compromise they became Presbyterian. When I told a seminary professor about my parents’ religious pedigree, he remarked, “Well it confirms what I have always felt.  Presbyterianism is many people’s second choice.”

Mother’s pastor brings her communion. She is grateful for the fellowship, but I wonder if the sacrament seems redundant to this old Quaker, already immersed in the Light. When she prays for me and my daughter before our Christmas dinner, she draws the words up from some deep place and forms them with a conviction that leaves me shaken.

My mother’s house has many rooms of treasures. If you come to visit, some of her childishness may rub off on you – her simplicity, transparency, and sense of humor. When two hip twenty-something graphic designers from a big city came for Thanksgiving, they were entranced by the carvings, my deceased father’s fifty year old book on design, the advertising in old magazines, and the relics of native Americans my father found.

The young men rooted around with my daughter in closets and basement, amazed and delighted. Because they had been raised well, they recognized “childishness” and listened to Mom’s stories with kindness and gentleness. Mother showed the same politely curious interest in the tattoos, which covered most of one of the visitor’s arms, as he did in her apple dolls.

Then the visitors all went out to play across the street on the swings and toys in the school yard, snapping photos on their iphones to send to their friends. They arrived early and stayed late. It was nearly midnight before Mom and I turned in on that magical day.

A poem by Thomas Merton has been coming to me lately:

Come my love
pass through my will
as through a window
shine on my life
as on a meadow
I, like the grass,
to be consumed
by the rays of the sun
on a late summer’s morning.

The poem is based on St. Johnof the Cross’s poem, The Dark Night of the Soul. In the poem John compares the soul to a window. He sees the spiritual journey as the process of cleansing and removal of anything in us that might impede or distort the Light of Christ as it passes through our lives. In this process we become more and more transparent and childlike.

My mother drinks her tea this morning as she watches a squirrel and a cardinal at the feeder. “I am remembering,” she says. “I am remembering how when I was a kid and would get upset or complain about something, Pop would say, ‘Oh that ain’t nothing to worry about.’”

“Gosh mom, that doesn’t sound very empathic.”

“Well that is what he would say. ‘Oh, that ain’t nothing to worry about.’” And she smiles out the window.

I want God to pass through me like a window, to shine on my life as on a meadow. I want to be consumed as the grass on a midsummer day.  I can ask for it, pray for it, but I think it ain’t nothing to worry about. In the end such childishness is given simply, quietly in the gracious surrender to growing old.

Mother puts down her tea cup and says, “After ninety three things get interesting. It is like reading a book backwards. I never understood before why people would look at the end of a book and read it first. It is smooth going. You can do what you want. People don’t expect much of you. They think you are childish. They try not to laugh, but you can see they are just dying.

I don’t let on I know.”

 

This post is adapted from Holy Ground, Vol. 19, No. 4  Winter  2009. Holy Ground is a quarterly reflection on the contemplative life, written by Loretta F. Ross, and published by The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer.  

 Go here to read the entire issue online.  Download a FREE copy of Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 2009. 

Exploring Solitude: Deadly Acedia, or Too Bored to Care

Sooner or later even the most devoted hermit or spiritual seeker will discover that this solitude and silence shtick does not seem to be all that it is cracked up to be.
Saintly souls and books far and wide, which recommend and extol solitude, may not include the whole truth of the experience. At some point the solitary pray-er is likely to ask this question:


What on earth do I think I am doing out here
in the middle 
of nowhere by myself!

Next the individual may pace back and forth in his holy abode, while the walls begin to close in. A suffocating boredom descends upon the person like a choking cloud. Her whole spiritual exploration takes on the character of a really bad afternoon spent as a child with an insufferably tedious old aunt. You sit fidgeting in the rocking chair with your feet wagging in the air looking at old Readers Digest magazines and listening to tiresome adults drone on and on about dead relatives.

Now your lovely hermitage grows dull and lifeless and smells faintly of mothballs and Vicks VapoRub. You are sure all your friends are going to wonderful places and having exciting experiences, while you are trapped at Great Aunt Hannah’s and doomed to a lackluster life of gradually increasing obscurity and dull mediocrity. Your back itches. Your tummy hurts. Your neck has a cramp in it. Your brother keeps sticking his tongue out at you. And you realize now that you actually hate him. Your mom ignores you, even when you fake a faint, slide off the rocker, and lie on the floor in a lump.

It can be like this, my friends, as some of you know. You pick up a Bible, read a verse, and it leaves a taste in your mouth like an open bottle of soda that has been in the fridge for a month. A kind of angsty horror rises up in your craw and an overpowering desire to get out of there floods your being.

If someone has not seriously questioned Love’s call, and has not encountered an all- encompassing indifference, even, perhaps at times, revulsion, toward the things of God, I would suggest they simply have not been at it very long. When we enter solitude, whether we find it in the bathroom or at the lovely cottage on the beach, we bring along our retreat provisions, books, journals, music, food, as well as our illusions, expectations, hopes and dreams of what this time will be like. Here we may be in for a rude confrontation of fantasy with Reality, or my will with the will of the One I am seeking.

When I hosted guests at The Sanctuary Foundation hermitage, I watched them haul bags of books and provisions up the slope to the cabin.

“I hope to plan my sermons for the next six months,” some would tell me brightly.

“I hope not.” I would say to myself.

We bring an agenda to our solitude: I want to deepen my awareness of God. I need help in discerning the next steps of my life. I am looking for peace and resolution of conflict.

We come hoping to accomplish some task, relieve pain, even to be entertained. Then lo and behold, we are met with dryness of spirit, dullness of mind and heart, a ho hum listlessness, and growing sense that nothing fun or good is going to happen to me here.

What we fail to see is that God comes to the hermitage as well us. And God has an agenda too. At some point God’s agenda may include a healthy dose of the demon of the noonday sun.

The name the early Christians gave for the dullness can settle over us is acedia.
The desert fathers and mothers called this oppressive state of spiritual apathy the demon of the noonday sun. Evagrius warned, AThis demon attacks the monk towards the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. He begins by giving the impression that the sun is hardly moving or not moving at all, and the day has at least forty hours. Ardor and passion for the things of God are replaced by indifference and boredom. The miserable soul is sick both of God and self.  

Acedia, engraving by Hieronymus Wierix, 16th c...

 

The purpose of this dry discontent is seen as part of the final purification of the will so that it may be merged without any reserve in God. Acedia abolishes spiritual gluttony as it strips us of our fascination with glamour, ease and sensory delights. Since God is spirit and must be worshiped in spirit, a soul’s worship of God grows over time to be less founded in the satisfaction and entertainment of the senses and more in the dark knowing called faith. Through the harsh succor of the demon of acedia the soul is weaned from its attachment to sensory gratifications to a more mature love.
From my book: Letters from the Holy Ground, Seeing God Where You Are (Chapter 24)

As unpleasant as it is, I believe that acedia helps to rid us of the three tendencies of our age, which militate against contemplation, according to Ronald Rolheiser. Rolheiser identifies these tendencies as our narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness. The Shattered Lantern – Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God  (Chapter 2)

The excessive self preoccupation of narcissism makes everything we encounter about us and our needs. The cult of the individual deifies the personal and encourages focus on our private concerns and preferences.

“Pragmatism,” Rolheiser writes, “asserts that the truth of an idea lies in its practical efficacy. What that means is that what is true is what works.” We become obsessed with what Thomas Merton identified as the leading spiritual disease of our time: efficiency.

Our unbridled restlessness fuels our driven, compulsive, hyper lifestyles of multi-tasking and instant gratification.


So what’s a body to do? You have come all the way out here. Are you going to turn tale and sneak back home?

Try this: Sit there or go for a walk. Watch your discomfort. Settle into your body. Be curious about your indifference and learn from it. Breathe deeply, as the anxiety and pain of withdrawal from narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness grip your soul and cramp your body.

Surrender your agenda. Stop demanding things to be different. Cease resisting what is so, what is real for you.

Gradually a shift will occur.

Perhaps you notice the splotch of light on the wall across from Great Aunt Hannah’s china hutch. Where did the light come from? The late afternoon sun is stretching its long arms across the carpet and up the china hutch, where it touches a crystal goblet which has sat there for thirty years, and just now catches fire as your eyes lay upon it, dazzling you with brightness. You lean back in the rocker, feeling your back sink into the cushion, and watch the dust motes moving lazily above the carpet. You notice the pictures woven into the carpet – a man on a white horse, a house with a red roof, people in olden clothes walking down a lane.

The light splotch on the wall moves and dances. Why? You look at the flaming goblet across from the wall and back to the wall. Then you see through the window in the wall tree branches swaying, sweeping back and forth covering and uncovering the path of the sun.

For a moment you and the dancing splotch and the fiery goblet and the man on the horse and the tree branches swaying, and your great aunt are all laced together with tiny tendrils of light and you yourself catch fire. And you say to yourself, oh this is the way the world is. Everything is all hooked up and intertwined together.

The grown ups are still talking. You feel safe. You see your brother reading his comic book. A sudden rush of love and gratitude for him pours over you. You decide to take a nap. As you doze off, you think, I really like that mothbally VapoRub smell.

Come to me all you who are weak and heavy burdened.
And I will give you rest.     Matthew 11:28

 

Solitude Practice:

  • Have you been afflicted by the demon of the noonday sun? How did it manifest in your life. How did you respond?

  • Does it help to learn that the negative experience of indifference might be a necessary part of your deepening love for God?

  • In the essay above what do you think happened as the child character moves from fidgeting to discovering peace. Do you see anything here that might help you in your acedia attacks?

  • How do narcisscism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness hinder your contemplation?

  • Want to learn more about acedia? Here is a good article: Acedia, Bane of Solitaries  See also Katheleen Norris’ book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude: Becoming Real

Exploring Solitude: The Wild Things Within

He said to the disciples, “Stay here while I go and pray over there.” When he took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, he began to feel sad and anxious. Then he said to them, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me.” Then he went a short distance farther and fell on his face and prayed . .              Matthew 26: 36- 38 (CEV)
 


The season of lent invites us into wilderness solitude to encounter the wild things and places within us.  In a world of extraversion, solitude allows space for introspection and encounters with untamed and little known parts of ourselves.

On her way out of church one Sunday morning, a member told me a story about her granddaughter, who had come with her that day. My custom is to invite the congregation to a period of silent prayer before I offer the pastoral prayer. At the conclusion of my prayer, five year old Lindy whispered to her grandma, “Loretta took so long before she started praying, that I had to start praying for people I didn’t even like.”

Yes. Silence does that to us, doesn’t it? It brings us to the end of the list of our own needs and concerns and opens out our prayerful awareness of people and inner realities, which we do not even like. Many avoid solitude for this reason. When I stop doing, accomplishing, distracting, and numbing myself with various opiates, I am left with my wounds, enemies, and alienation. The wilderness of the self opens before us and we reach for the phone, turn on the television, or pour ourselves a glass of wine. 

He came back to the disciples and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you stay alert one hour with me? Stay alert and pray so that you won’t give in to temptation. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26: 40-41 (CEV)

The work of solitude includes the slow, patient task of befriending the darkness, of being present with compassion to my inner wildness, and of staying awake one hour with ourselves in our misery, as Jesus asked his disciples to do for him.

The followers of Jesus were unable to offer him such companionship. It is likewise very difficult for us to offer ourselves such gentle, present love. Yet if one can manage it, if only for a few minutes, that ache, that knife in the heart, the sick all encompassing grief  will begin to lessen just a bit, and a peace will slowly seep into the space of your silence.

This is where the deep work of contemplative transformation begins. The pleasant, consoling moments of contemplative prayer are important to our growth and infect us with the love of God. Sometimes they arrive unbidden, unexpected as sheer gifts. Other times we enter deeper communion with God through the ongoing practice of contemplation in some form: centering prayer, lectio divina, prayer of quiet, meditation.

Several years ago a friend confessed to me, “I am so over spiritual “disciplines.” She had reached a point beyond practicing prayer, because she wanted something from God, or because she ought to, or because it was interesting, or helpful to her daily life. Prayer for her was becoming much more demanding than a nice idea or exercise in personal improvement.

Thomas Merton wrote, “True prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes intolerable and the heart has turned to stone.” The deeper work begins when silence and solitude may be the last thing we want and the only thing we cannot live without. When just sitting still reveals to us a pervasive sadness, or the reality of a loss or truth we are denying or running from, silence is not some syrupy, cozy me-and-Jesus picnic. Silence is a summons to face into who I am and who God is becoming for me in a perilous confrontation with the truths of my life and who God will or will not be for me.

Again he came and found them sleeping.
Their eyes were heavy with sleep.
But he left them and again went
and prayed the same words for the third time.
Matthew 26: 43-44 (CEV)

Yet it is here – when facing fear, betrayal, or deep sorrow– that the encompassing and spreading love of God begins to open within us with its healing balm. Sometimes we need a companion to help us, as Jesus asked for from his friends in his hour of need. We may need to enter the silence in small doses at first. Tiny little sips of God may be all we can manage. Gradually that contact with God will begin to soothe our souls and bring a peace that will exceed our understanding.

It may not seem like much, this tiny bite of calm. You are still in your wilderness, up against a wall, facing an impasse, with little hope. Yet you keep going back for little sips of silence, as quiet fills you and you surrender to the moment.

My Forty Days in the Wilderness
One autumn over twenty years ago I spent forty days in the wilderness. I was sick and doctors were unable to diagnose or treat whatever was causing the unrelenting headaches and fatigue. Weary of the tests and drugs, I went off alone each day and several nights. I did not watch television, use the computer, talk on the phone, read mail or much of anything, except scripture. My only human interaction was with my immediate family.

Day after day and into the night I waited for that little sip of calm, that spark of life and hope. I learned to tend the spark, gather kindling, shavings, combustible scraps of living goodness: birdsong, the quail feeding along the lakeshore, the way a spider walked up the side of my tea cup. These and the stars over my head began to fuel the flame, which grew and illuminated the way for me.

Here is some of what happened as I tell it in my book, Letters from the Holy Ground:

I came to the wilderness in part because I heard Jesus crying and saying he was lonely for us.  I came out of a growing sense of God’s hunger and need for us and for one who would stay with him one hour.  I came to discover how it would be to delight in and enjoy God for God, and not for what God could do for me or the world.

And I found along with my brother, Simon Peter,  that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  And to pray with Christ is more difficult than praying to Christ.

Are there some among us who are willing to watch with Christ one hour? Are there some willing to turn in radical trust toward God and away from the forces within and without that seek to deny Christ?

Is there one willing to pay the cost of staying one hour, of tasting and knowing God’s suffering in her bones, of being bereft of all mortal assistance, of contending with a near constant onslaught of devils, of serving as a bridge between heaven and earth and thereby, bearing in his body, mind, and psyche on the one hand, the immaculate tenderness and the surging ferocity of Divine Love; and on the other hand, the immense ocean of mortal sorrow?

Like Peter, I couldn’t do it. For along with my good intentions I brought my weariness and poverty and dependence on God’s mercy.  And my eyes grew heavy and I slept.

But God slept too.  Christ rested too.  For Christ brought to the wilderness the same as I:  weariness and poverty and dependence on my mercy.  And so like two homeless children huddled in an alley, like two lovers entwined, we slept while the owl hooted and the bullfrogs boomed and the little grey mouse nibbled bread in the corner.

In the wilderness of solitude our suffering becomes bound up with, informed by, and transformed by the suffering of Jesus in his solitude.

By such fierce mercy and vulnerable love are we redeemed.

 

Solitude Practice:

  •  Have you had the experience of hurting too much to pray? Or have you avoided praying because you do not want to be still long enough to start feeling your pain?

  • What are some of the ways you distract yourself from entering silence and solitude?

  •  Have you found that place of peace in the midst of your chaos and suffering? How do you describe that experience? What would you tell someone who has never been there and is afraid to be alone in seeking it?

  •  Take some time today to be still and alone. Be with yourself with all the gentleness and love you can muster. Be with yourself as you would want to be with Jesus in his suffering. What do you notice or learn?

Next post in this series:
Exploring Solitude: Deadly Acedia, or Too Bored to Care 

I would love to hear about your experience of silence and facing the wild things within yourself, what you have learned, what helped ease your suffering and what did not. We offer our companionship to others as we tell our stories. You may comment below, on our Facebook Page, or email me at lross@fromholyground.org

Exploring Solitude: Why Bother?

Come away by yourselves to a lonely place,” Jesus

 What is said here about solitude is not just a recipe for hermits.
It has a bearing on the whole future of humankind and the world:
and especially, of course, on the future of religion. Thomas Merton

 

Over the next several weeks I will be reflecting on selected passages from Thomas Merton’s little book, Thoughts in Solitude. First published in 1956 the book is a collection of Merton’s musings about time he spent alone in a hermitage at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky. Merton had been a monk for a while before he finally gained the Abbot’s permission to spend an extended time alone. An outgoing, gregarious fellow, he struggled throughout his life with finding a balance between his need for solitude and for community. His prolific, engaging writing brought seekers to the monastery and his ability to teach about the spiritual life attracted many followers.

If you have a copy of the book, you might want to get it out and follow along. You can easily find a used copy online, or check your local library for Thoughts in Solitude.

I confess that my relationship with this Trappist priest has been rocky. He has both deeply inspired and deeply disappointed me. There is much I admire in his life and writing and a few things I do not. Just as I decide I am finished with the man, I am drawn back. Like us all, Father Tom, as a friend calls him, has his sin and warts, yet God has used him mightily. We may all give thanks that falling short of the aim which God intends for us (the literal meaning of sin) has never been a road block to the power of God working through human lives.

I choose this book, not because I consider it among the best on the subject. We have over 2500 years of excellent material on the spiritual practice of solitude. I hope you will share your favorite resources in the comments section below, or on the Sanctuary Foundation Face Book Page, or email me. I will be happy to compile your suggestions with others and make them available to The Praying Life readers.

Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton (Photo credit: jimforest)

So let’s begin with the Preface. Here Merton lays out what he is up to in this book and makes his disclaimers. He tells us his “thoughts here are simply thoughts on the contemplative life, fundamental intuitions which seemed, at the time, to have a basic importance.” His writing comes from his “relationship with God in solitude and silence and that “interrelation of our personal solitudes with one another,” which are for Merton “essential to his own peculiar way of life.”

Then he launches into a broad societal justification for such peculiarity. A number of internal and external obstacles make it difficult for most of us to develop and nurture a practice of spiritual solitude. I have listened to many people who struggle to claim the “legitimacy” of the practice, to respond to this call of God, and to be consistent in the “coming away to a lonely place” with Jesus.

I feel guilty. Isn’t it selfish? Shouldn’t  I be doing something – working at the mission, helping out at church, serving on committees? My friends don’t understand. My pastor doesn’t get it. I can’t even explain why I do this or even what happens. Am I only fooling myself and being lazy and wasting time?

I hope this series will offer some support for your practice and a rationale which gives permission and value to a pursuit largely neglected in our culture and religious institutions, but sorely needed. In the end, though, you must come to your own rationale and your own “thoughts in solitude.” For each of us will experience solitude in different ways at different times, and God will speak within you the language of the unique nature of the intimacy you share. And each must make his or her own witness to the truth.

Merton begins his book by looking at the larger culture in which he found himself in 1956:

In an age when totalitarianism has striven, in every way, to devaluate and degrade the human person, we hope it is right to demand a hearing for any – and every sane reaction in favor of man’s [ok, from now on in this blog series I will make Merton’s gender nouns and pronouns neutral] inalienable solitude and interior freedom. The murderous din of our materialism cannot be allowed to silence the independent voices which will never cease to speak: whether they are the voices of Christian saints, Oriental sages like Lao-Tse or the Zen Masters, or the voices of persons like Thoreau, or Martin Buber, or Max Picard. It is all very well to insist that people are “social animals” – the fact is obvious enough. But that is no justification for making them into a mere cog in a totalitarian machine—or a religious one for that matter.”

Thomas Merton's hermitage at The Abbey of Our ...

Hermitage of Thomas Merton at Gethsemane Abbey

Society, for Merton, depends for its very existence on the inviolable solitude of its members. This is because, as he writes, “to be a person is to possess responsibility and freedom, and both of these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s own ability to give oneself to society – or to refuse that gift.”

He ends his preface with: “What is said here about solitude is not just a recipe for hermits. It has a bearing on the whole future of humankind and the world: and especially, of course, on the future of religion.”

One of my pet peeves about Merton, especially in his early writing, is his penchant for sweeping generalizations and pronouncements. I happen to agree with this one. How might such a claim be true?  Is there really a relationship between the time you take to create some space and time to be alone with God and our future as a race and the future of religion? I think so. And I am not alone.

When there is a crisis in the church, it is always a crisis of contemplation. The church wants to feel able to explain about her spouse even when she has lost sight of him; even when, although she has not been divorced, she no longer knows his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for other people and other things.
Carlo Carretto

 

Might part of our struggle with keeping solitude be because we have our arms around the wrong lover?

Solitude Practice:

  • Ask the lover of your soul to show what you are hugging closer to yourself than the Holy One.

  • Identify competing lovers.

  • What might it take for you rediscover God’s embrace and forsake all others? It might be easier than you think.

As Paul Simon sang to us, there are fifty ways to leave your lover.

Next Post: The Wilderness of Solitude

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The Fullness of Emptiness

This day

my cup is

empty,

my page

blank,

my mouth absent

of speech.

Here – receive the fullness of this emptiness:

the bottom of a pail

falling,

the obscurity of a veil

lifting.

Stillness,
carrying you rapidly

down an endless river to nowhere. 

 

This is the best I will ever have to offer. 

 

Take a drink.

Be filled.


This is what it means to seek God perfectly: to withdraw from illusion and pleasure, from worldly anxieties and desires, from the works that God does not want, from a glory that is only human display; to keep my mind free from confusion in order that my liberty may be always at the disposal of his will; to entertain silence in my heart and listen for the voice of God. 

 

And then to wait in peace and emptiness and oblivion of all things.

Thomas Merton


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Eating God

I have been on study leave the past month in order to work on a new book. The generosity of Crestview United Methodist Church, where I work part time, and several generous donors to the Sanctuary Fund have made this gift of time and space possible. I have prayed, listened, written, and rested in the stunning abundance and goodness of God. Did I make progress on the book? Oh yes. I also discovered how much more there is to do. My goal is to complete it by the end of  this January. I tell you this so you will hold my feet to the fire. All of you are in my heart and thoughts. Thank you so much for your support and presence in this conversation about our lives together in God.

Here is a sneak preview of the work in progress:

God is voluptuous and delicious. Meister Eckhart
O taste and see that the Lord is good, promises the psalmist. (Psalm 34:8) Yet many people find God hard to swallow, not to mention the side dishes served up with God: religion, piety, doctrine, rules, austerity, judgment, conflict, and war. According to contemporary research quite a few people are not swallowing Christianity.
Over one third of the people in this country looking at Christianity from the outside have a bad impression. Researcher David Kinnaman writes, “The growing hostility for Christians is very much a reflection of what outsiders feel they receive from believers. One outsider I met put it this way: ‘Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical empire builders; they want to convert everyone and generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe as they do.’
In a time when faith didn’t have such a bad image, Thomas Merton, teaching a group of monks about swallowing God, used this approach, recorded in a poem by Ron Seitz:
So, you see, it’s something like this, to use an image or a metaphor.
…In total inhalation, in the act of the Eucharist, you eat the Mystical Body,
the Cosmic Christ by accepting, by participating, by celebrating, in joy
the total charity of your Being in creation! …
And in total exhalation you offer up, give back, go home in redemption.
You do this by curing the inner spirit between you and God the Incarnate Creator,
what we oftentimes call in Mystical Theology, original sin.
That’s why you go to the monastery, the primary reason anyway.
It’s to do that, to heal the illusion of separation, the separation of you from your true person,
from the world in creation, and especially from God.
It’s all, we’re all one. So relax. Quit apologizing.
We really don’t have anything to be afraid of, now do we?
If Merton is too abstract for you, try this: Seeing the communion elements being passed down the row the little girl exclaims, “O look Grandma, we are getting snacks!”
Holiness seeks intimacy, asks to be consumed, taken in and digested by us in a fundamental, earthy way as food. Fruit of the vine, wheat from the fields grown in the soil, watered by rain, tempered by wind, kissed by the sun. Simple ordinary food becomes transformed by the presence of the one who said, “Here, this bread, this wine is my body. Drink it and it will become your body too.” We get snacks.
Merton continues,
See. Either we are one with the Holy Spirit or not, eh.
And if the incarnation, the Word make flesh is a living reality,
then the whole cosmos is sacramentalized, is sacred and holy.
Is really church,
see (laughing) and you cannot get out, eh, can’t escape that, even if you wanted to.
Not everyone understands God as Merton. A friend and long time church member once confided that one Sunday when the pastor tore off a chunk of bread and handed it to her with the words, This is the body of Christ, “Something happened. I almost gagged and suddenly this seemed like some primitive cannibalistic ritual of eating the body of some person to gain his prana. It seemed repulsive.” She hasn’t been back to a communion service since. Another friend, victimized by a satanic cult, has excruciating flash backs when she goes to receive the Eucharist. Add a few verses of the old hymn “Nothing But the Blood,” and one can imagine most any curious new comer beating a path out the door before the pastor gets out the benediction.
As one of my daughters would say when she was little with her hands on her hips, “Mom, you have a lot of splaining to do about this.”
For starters let’s take a larger, metaphorical view. God invites us to eat what is before us, the fundamental reality of our lives, no matter how unsatisfactory. As we taste and see, chew and digest our experience and truth, we are nourished and transformed by the sacred reality of this world. We grow into the likeness of God, holiness itself. In placing us in this life, God has asked us to swallow this world and one another with an inclusive unconditional love.
Many times I have preferred to spit it all out.
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racking Holiness – Newsletter
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