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Thomas Merton

On Contemplative Prayer

Meditation implies the capacity to receive this grace whenever God wishes to grant it to us, and therefore a permanent disposition to humility, attention to reality, receptivity, pliability.

If the life of prayer is to transform our spirit and make us "new men" in Christ, then prayer must be accompanied by "conversion," metanoia, that deep change of heart in which we die on a certain level of our being in order to find ourselves alive and free on another, more spiritual level.

The unitive knowledge of God in love is not a knowledge of an object by a subject, but a far different and transcendent kind of knowledge in which the created "self" which we are seems to disappear in God and to know him alone. In passive purification then the self undergoes a kind of emptying and an apparent destruction, until, reduced to emptiness, it no longer knows itself apart from God.

During the "dark night" of the feelings and senses, anxiety is felt in prayer, often acutely. This is necessary, because this spiritual night marks the transfer of the full, free control of our inner life into the hands of a superior power...For here we are advancing beyond the stage where God made himself accessible to our mind in simple and primitive images. We are entering the night in which he is present without any image, invisible, inscrutable, and beyond any satisfactory mental representation.

At such a time as this, one who is not seriously grounded in genuine theological faith may lose everything he ever had...He may not be able to face the terrible experience of being apparently without faith in order to really grow in faith. For it is this testing, this fire of purgation, that burns out the human and accidental elements of faith in order to liberate the deep spiritual power in the center of our being.

The infinite God has no boundaries and our minds cannot set limits to him or to his love...As soon as we try to verify the spiritual presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.

In a word, God is invisibly present to the ground of our being: our belief and love attain to him, but he remains hidden from the arrogant gaze of our investigating mind which seeks to capture him and secure permanent possession of him in an act of knowledge that gives power over him.

Our knowledge of God is paradoxically a knowledge not of him as the object of our scrutiny, but of ourselves as utterly dependent on his saving and merciful knowledge of us. It is in proportion as we are known to him that we find our real being and identity in Christ. We know him in and through ourselves in so far as his truth is the source of our being and his merciful love is the very heart of our life and existence.

...Since we are well aware that images, symbols and works of art are only material, we tend to use them with greater freedom and less risk of error precisely because we realize the limitations of their nature. We know that they can only be means to an end, and we do not make "idols" out of them. On the contrary, today the more dangerous temptation is to raise ideas and ideologies to the status of "idols," worshipping them for their own sakes.

...There is all the difference in the world between the fruits of genuine religious experience, a pure gift of God, and the results of mere imagination.

Contemplative prayer is, in a way, simply the preference for the desert, for emptiness, for poverty. One has begun to know the meaning of contemplation when he intuitively and spontaneously seeks the dark and unknown path of aridity in preference to every other way. The contemplative is one who would rather not know than know.

Only when we are able to "let go" of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life.

An emptiness that is deliberately cultivated, for the sake of fulfilling a personal spiritual ambition, is not empty at all: it is full of itself.

All the paradoxes about the contemplative way are reduced to this one: being without desire means being led by a desire so great that it is incomprehensible.

"Take heed," said Jakob Boehme, "of putting on Christ's purple mantle without a resigned will."

Dread is an expression of our insecurity in this earthly life, a realization that we are never and can never be completely "sure" in the sense of possessing a definitive and established spiritual status.

All methods of meditation that are, in effect, merely devices for allaying and assuaging the experience of emptiness and dread are ultimately evasions which can do nothing to help us..A method of meditation or a form of contemplation that merely produces the illusion of having "arrived somewhere," of having achieved security and preserved one's familiar status by playing a part, will eventually have to be unlearned in dread--or else we will be confirmed in the arrogance, the impenetrable self-assurance of the Pharisee.

Unless a Christian participates to some degree in the dread, the sense of loss, the anguish, the dereliction and the destitution of the Crucified, he cannot really enter in the mystery of the liturgy. He can neither understand the rites and prayers, nor appreciate the sacramental signs and enter deeply into the grace they mediate.

The whole gospel kerygma becomes impertinent and laughable if there is an easy answer to everything in a few external gestures and pious intentions.

It is unfortunately all too true that bogus interiority has saved face for pious men and women who were thus preserved from admitting their total non-entity. They have imagined that they were capable of love just because they were capable of devout sentiment. One aspect of this convenient spiritual disease is its total insistence on ideals and intentions, in complete divorce from reality, from act, and from social commitment. Whatever one interiorly desires, whatever one dreams, whatever one imagines: that is the beautiful, the godly and the true. Pretty thoughts are enough. They substitute for everything else, including charity, including life itself.

...Without dread, without the disquieting capacity to see and to repudiate the idolatry of devout ideas and imaginings, man would remain content with himself and with his "inner life" in meditation, in liturgy, or in both. Without dread, the Christian cannot be delivered from the smug self-assurance of the devout ones who know all the answers in advance, who possess all the clichés of the inner life and can defend themselves with infallible ritual forms against every risk and every demand of dialogue with human need and human desperation.

A dread that would merely thrust a man deeper into himself and into supposed contemplation is not yet serious. The only full and authentic purification is that which turns a man completely inside out, so that he no longer has a self to defend, no longer an intimate heritage to protect against imagined inroads and dilapidations...Dread divests us of the sense of possession, of "having" our being and our power to love, in order that we may simply be in perfect openness (turned inside out), a defenselessness that is utter simplicity and total gift.

Prayer does not blind us to the world, but it transforms our vision of the world, and makes us see it, all men, and all the history of mankind, in the light of God.

One thing is certain: the humility of faith, if it is followed by the proper consequences--by the acceptance of the work and sacrifice demanded by our providential task--will do far more to launch us into the full current of historical reality than the pompous rationalizations of politicians who think they are somehow the directors and manipulators of history.

It is unfortunately true that those who have complacently imagined themselves blessed by God have in fact done more than others to frustrate his will.

Prayer must penetrate and enliven every department of our life, including that which is most temporal and transient.




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