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Mental Prayer

Excerpt from
The New Seeds of Contemplation



Spacer Since contemplation is the union of our mind and will with God in an act of pure love that brings us into obscure contact with Him as He really is, the way to contemplation is to develop and perfect our mind and will and our whole soul. Infused contemplation begins when the direct intervention of God raises this whole process of development above the level of our nature: and then He perfects our faculties by seeming to defeat all their activity in the suffering and darkness of His infused light and love.
Spacer But before this begins, we ordinarily have to labor to prepare ourselves in our own way and with the help of His grace, by deepening our knowledge and love of God in meditation and active forms of prayer, as well as by setting our wills free from attachment to created things.
Spacer About all these things many books have been written. There are all kinds of techniques and methods of meditation and mental prayer, and it would be hard to begin to talk about them all. That is why I shall talk about none of them except to say that they are all good for those who can use them and everyone who can get profit out of systematic meditation should not fail to do so, as long as he is not afraid to lay the method aside and do a little thinking for himself once in a while.
Spacer The trouble with all these methods is not that they are too systematic and too formal: they need to be both these things, and it is good that they are. There is nothing wrong with methods. The trouble lies in the way people use them -- or fail to use them.
The purpose of a book of meditations is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because your meditation has begun. To think that you are somehow obliged to follow the author of the book to his own particular conclusion would be a great mistake. It may happen that his conclusion does not apply to you. God may want you to end up somewhere else. He may have planned to give you quite a different grace than the one the author suggests you might be needing. And then there are people who only think of meditating when the book is explicitly called "Meditations." If you called it something else they would assume they were just supposed to read it without attempting to think.
Spacer The best thing beginners in the spiritual life can do, after they have already acquired the discipline of mind that enables them to concentrate on a spiritual subject and get below the surface of its meaning and incorporate it into their own lives, is to acquire the agility and freedom of mind that will help them to find light and warmth and ideas and love for God everywhere they go and in all that they do. People who only know how to think about God during fixed periods of the day will never get very far in the spiritual life. In fact, they will not even think of Him in the moments they have religiously marked off for "mental prayer."

Spacer LEARN how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of meditation. Learn how to contemplate works of art. Learn how to pray in the streets or in the country. Know how to meditate not only when you have a book in your hand but when you are waiting for a bus or riding in a train. Above all, enter into the Church's liturgy and make the liturgical cycle part of your life -- let its rhythm work its way into your body and soul.
Spacer The reason why meditation and mental prayer do not serve their true purpose in the lives of so many who practice them is that their true purpose is not really understood.
Spacer Some people seem to think that the only reason for meditating on God is to get some interesting ideas about Him. It is true that one of the elementary purposes of meditation is to strengthen all our religious convictions and give them a deeper foundation of faith and understanding: but that is only the beginning. That is only the threshold of meditation.
Spacer Others suppose that the function of meditation is to show us the necessity for practicing virtues and to produce in us the courage and determination to go ahead and do something about it. That is true. This is another elementary fruit of meditation. But it is only another step on the way.
Spacer A less serious error -- for now we come closer to the truth -- is that meditation is supposed to produce in us greater love for God. Whether or not this concept is satisfactory depends on what you mean by loving God. If you think meditation has done its work when it has made you 'say' you love God or 'feel' that you love God, then you are still wrong.

Spacer MEDITATION is a twofold discipline that has a twofold function. First it is supposed to give you sufficient control over your mind and memory and will to enable you to recollect yourself and withdraw from exterior things and the business and activities and thoughts and concerns of temporal existence, and second -- this is the real end of meditation -- it teaches you how to become aware of the presence of God; and most of all it aims at bringing you to a state of almost constant loving attention to God, and dependence on Him. The real purpose of meditation is this: to teach a man how to work himself free of created things and temporal concerns, in which he finds only confusion and sorrow, and enter into a conscious and loving contact with God in which he is disposed to receive from God the help he knows he needs so badly, and to pay to God the praise and honor and thanksgiving and love which it has now become his joy to give.
Spacer The success of your meditation will not be measured by the brilliant ideas you get or the great resolutions you make or the feelings and emotions that are produced in your exterior senses. You have only really meditated well when you have come, to some extent, to realize God. Yet even that is not quite the thing. After all, anyone who has tried it is aware that the closer you get to God, the less question there can be of realizing Him or anything about Him.
Spacer And so, suppose your meditation takes you to the point where you are baffled and repelled by the cloud that surrounds God, "Who maketh darkness His covert." Far from realizing Him, you begin to realize nothing more than your own helplessness to know Him, and you begin to think that meditation is something altogether hopeless and impossible. And yet the more helpless you are, the more you seem to desire to see Him and to know Him. The tension between your desires and your failure generate in you a painful longing for God which nothing seems able to satisfy.
Spacer Do you think your meditation has failed? On the contrary; this bafflement, this darkness, this anguish of helpless desire is a fulfillment of meditation. For if meditation aims above all at establishing in your soul a vital contact of love with the living God, then as long as it only produces images and ideas and affections that you can understand, feel and appreciate, it is not yet doing its full quota of work. But when it gets beyond the level of your understanding and your imagination, it is really bringing you close to God, for it introduces you into the darkness where you can no longer think of Him, and are consequently forced to reach out for Him by blind faith and hope and love.
Spacer It is then that you should strengthen yourself against the thought of giving up mental prayer; you should return to it at your appointed time each day, in spite of the difficulty and dryness and pain you feel. Eventually your own suffering and the secret work of grace will teach you what to do.
Spacer You may perhaps be led into a completely simple form of affective prayer in which your will, with few words or none, reaches out into the darkness where God is hidden, with a kind of mute, half-hopeless and yet supernaturally confident desire of knowing and loving Him. Or else, perhaps, knowing by faith that He is present to you and realizing the utter hopelessness of trying to think intelligibly about this immense reality and all that it can mean, you relax in a simple contemplative gaze that keeps your attention peacefully aware of Him hidden somewhere in this deep cloud into which you also feel yourself drawn to enter.
Spacer From then on you should keep your prayer as simple as possible. When it becomes possible to meditate again, meditate. If you get an idea, develop it, but without excitement. Feed your mind with reading and the liturgy, and if the darkness of your simple prayer becomes too much of a tension -- or degenerates into torpor or sleep - - relieve it with a few vocal prayers or simple affections, but do not strain yourself trying to get ideas or feel fervor. Do not upset yourself with useless efforts to realize the elaborate prospects suggested by a conventional book of meditations.

Spacer Thomas Merton



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