The following is a collection of thoughts
on the Christian concept of contemplation by Thomas Merton.
The solution to the problem of life is life itself. Life is not attained by reason and analysis but first of all by living.
Contemplation is life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and beyond simple faith… It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts.
God is not simply the one Whom we reach when we are extended to our limits. He is, on the contrary, the ground and center of our existence, and though we may conceive ourselves as “going to” Him and reaching out to Him beyond the sphere of our everyday existence, we nevertheless start from Him and remain in Him as the very ground of our existence and reality.
The graduate level of learning is when one learns to sit still and be what one had become, which is what one does not know and does not need to know… One no longer seeks something else. One no longer seeks to be told by another who one is. One no longer demands assurance. But there is the whole infinite depth of what is remaining to be revealed. And it is not revealed to those who seek it from others.
Education in this sense means more than learning; and for such education, one is awarded no degree. One graduates by rising from the dead. Learning to be oneself means, therefore, learning to die in order to live. It means discovering in the ground of one’s being a “self” which is ultimate and indestructible, which not only survives the destruction of all other more superficial selves but finds its identity affirmed and clarified by their destruction.
The inmost self is naked.
The Christian is then not simply a man of good will, who commits himself to a certain set of beliefs, who has a definite dogmatic conception of the universe, of man, and of man’s reason for existing. He is not simply one who follows a moral code of brotherhood and benevolence with strong emphasis on certain rewards and punishments dealt out to the individual. Underlying Christianity is not simply a set of doctrines about God considered as dwelling remotely in heaven, and man struggling on earth, trying to appease a distant God by means of virtuous acts. On the contrary Christians themselves too often fail to realize that the infinite God is dwelling within them, so that He is in them and they are in Him. They remain unaware of the presence of the infinite source of being right in the midst of the world and of men. True Christian wisdom is therefore oriented to the experience of divine Light which is present in the world, the Light in Whom all things are, and which is nevertheless unknown to the world because no mind can see of grasp infinity.
This way of wisdom is no dream, no temptation and no evasion, for it is on the contrary a return to reality in its very root. It is not an escape from contradiction and confusion for it finds unity and clarity by plunging into the very midst of contradiction, by the acceptance of emptiness and suffering, by the renunciation of passions and obsessions with which the whole world is “on fire”. It does not withdraw from the fire. It is in the very heart of the fire, yet remains cool, because it has the gentleness and humility that come from self-abandonment, and hence does not seek to assert the illusion of the exterior self
Once a man has set foot on this way, there is no excuse for abandoning it, for to be actually on the way is to recognize without doubt or hesitation that only the way is fully real and that everything else is deception, except insofar as it may in some secret and hidden manner be connected with “the way.”
In the “prayer of the heart” we seek first of all the deepest ground of our identity in God. We do not reason about dogmas of faith, or “the mysteries.” We seek rather to gain a direct existential grasp, a personal experience of the deepest truths of life and faith, finding ourselves in God’s truth. Inner certainty depends of purification. The dark night rectifies our deepest intentions. In the silence of this “night of faith” [John of the Cross] we return to simplicity and sincerity of heart. We learn recollection which consists in listening for God’s will, in direct and simple attention to reality. Recollection is awareness of the unconditional. Prayer then means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of His word, for knowledge of His will and for the capacity to hear and obey Him.
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. It means that we cannot any longer hope in ourselves, in our wisdom, our virtues, our fidelity. We see too clearly that all that is “ours” is nothing, and can completely fail us. In other words we no longer rely on what we “have,” what has been given by our past, what has been required. We are open to God and to His mercy in the inscrutable future and our trust in the emptiness where we will confront unforseen decisions. Only when we have descended in the dread to the center of our own nothingness, by His grace and His guidance, can we be led by Him, in His own time, to find Him in losing ourselves.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always thought I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.
The vocation to solitude is therefore at the same time a vocation to silence, poverty and emptiness. But the emptiness is for the sake of fullness: the purpose of the solitary life is, if you like, contemplation. But not contemplation in the pagan sense of an intellectual, esoteric enlightenment, achieved by ascetic technique. The contemplation of the Christian solitary is the awareness of the divine mercy transforming and elevating his own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fullness.
My life is a listening; His is a speaking. My salvation is to hear and respond. For this, my life must be silent. Hence, my silence is my salvation.