solitude with thomas merton

Thomas-Merton2In Christian tradition, classic texts are those which occupy a privileged place in the community’s memory, response to and reception of the Gospel. They are committed texts with a specific ‘take’ on revelation and invite the reader to engage with this same commitment in the context of their own personal understanding and experience of faith. Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation is such a text and I’ve been revisiting it over these past few days here in Japan. It was among the first Christian texts that I ever read and remains a touchstone in the tradition.

For those new to his work and person, Merton was one of the great spiritual masters of the twentieth century, an American who came to Catholic faith in his twenties. Not long after, Merton entered a Cistercian monastery, Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, and then, almost by accident, penned a best-selling autobiography Seven Storey Mountain which brought him into a limelight he could not have anticipated and did not seek out (Merton would reflect, “The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real”).

Merton would go on to assume the role of novice master for his Order, publish widely on prayer, contemplation, monasticism and social issues, and became a prolific correspondent with intellectual and spiritual luminaries within the Church and beyond it. He died in Bangkok on the 10th December, 1968, at the age of 53, electrocuted by a faulty fan while attending a monastic conference. His body was flown home with those of dead U.S. servicemen.

Published in 1962, New Seeds of Contemplation is the coalescence of Merton’s ever-maturing reflection on the contemplative experience of God as the realisation and ground of identity. Commenting on previous drafts of the work, Merton would remark,

When the book was first written, the author had no experience in confronting the needs and problems of other men (sic). The book was written in a kind of isolation… the author’s solitude has been modified by contact with other solitudes; with the loneliness, the simplicity, the perplexity of novices and scholastics of his monastic community; with the loneliness of people outside any monastery; with the loneliness of people outside the Church. (New Seeds, ix-x)

New-Seeds-of-Contemplation-9780811217248In New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton gives voice to themes that he elaborated and refined throughout his life’s work, particularly the identity of the ‘true self’ hidden in God and the profundity and need of solitude.

According to Merton’s spiritual itinerary, the discovery of authenticity in Christ begins not with an awareness of what lies at the end of the road but with a recognition of the obstacles that block its very beginnings. He describes the fundamental obstacle to maturity as the dominance of the ‘false self’, also described in New Seeds as the “the smoke self”, “the empirical ego” or the “routine self” which takes itself seriously but does not even exist (New Seeds, 38, 281, 16).

This illusory self is the product of our own pride and self-determination, for unlike animals and trees which give glory to God in being themselves, we are at liberty to be real or to be unreal, “We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face” (New Seeds, 32). Layered with selfish desire and defensive mechanisms, we can be imprisoned within fictions of our own making:

I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. (New Seeds, 34-35).

This propensity to construct and find assurance in superficialities includes the caricature of the ‘good Catholic’ and a heroic sense of spiritual achievement. In this critique, Merton was ever conscious of the ability of the false self to appropriate even religion or ‘spirituality’ as a secret means of control and separateness.

mertonMoving to the discovery of the true self, Merton identifies solitude as the pathway to true identity. As theologian David Ranson underlines, Merton would maintain that within each one of us is a solitary dimension, a dimension not to be afraid of or done away with but entered into for this is the monastic ‘cell’ in which God is most deeply encountered. There is a need for this solitude in our lives, not as a rejection of others or the world, but as a school in which we learn to be ourselves before God. Only then can we embrace and relate to others clear of the selfishness, need for possession and validation which characterises our insecure times. It is solitude that is the doorway to the contemplative experience in which God discovers Himself alone in us, not crowded out by idols on which our hearts have become set.

What is more, the experience of authentic solitude is for Merton fundamentally Trinitarian, for God “infinitely transcends every shadow of selfishness… He is at once infinite solitude (one nature) and perfect society (Three Persons). One Infinite Love in three subsistent relations” (New Seeds, 68). By this Trinitarian focus, Merton implies that the true solitary is not an individual, imprisoned in a dream of separateness, but a person deeply related to others.

Contemplative solitude, then, is not our own, and leads the pilgrim beyond all limitation and division: “He has advanced beyond all horizons. There are no directions in which he can travel. This is a country whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” (New Seeds, 81). Even the monk or hermit does not enter into solitude for his own purposes but in relationship to and for the good of others, for the Church and the world in which he remains embedded, inseparable and even necessary.

In the depths of solitude, often experienced in prayer, the movement toward authenticity comes by way of a self-emptying or kenosis: “a man cannot enter into the deepest centre of himself and pass through that centre into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love” (New Seeds, 64). This selflessness, however, is only possible to the extent to which we are enjoined to Christ as it is he who first gave himself for humanity and makes that kind of self-giving love possible, “I become a ‘new man’ and this new man, spiritually and mystically one identity, is at once Christ and myself… This spiritual union of my being with Christ in one ‘new man’ is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Christ” (New Seeds, 158).

candleMerton concludes that as long as there is an “I” aware of itself and its contemplation, an “I” that can possess a certain “degree of spirituality” then we have not yet passed into the fullness of contemplation, the fullness of Christian life itself (New Seeds, 292). Ultimately, the mature Christian has no psychological individuality or even self-conscious biography; all the shadows of self-assertion end at an interior death which, paradoxically, and in the light of the paschal mystery, emerges as the very beginning of a real, authentic life.

We can see that there is little sentimentalism in Merton’s writing and much challenge. In texts such as New Seeds of Contemplation we hear a robust call to purify our desires and to meet head on the ‘spiritual deaths’ that lower the ego and allow the emergence of the true self to take place. In this respect, the Christian life unfolds as ‘revolutionary’ though not in the sense of accelerated progress or an aggressive, suprahuman evolution. As Merton affirms,

… the burden of Christ’s Cross, that is Christ’s humility and poverty and obedience and renunciation… this is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached; in fact it is the only true revolution, because all the others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the [person] who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self. (New Seeds, 144).

Merton reminds the Christian that the gift of faith is not an escape or an evasion but a project of deepening integration in our identity in Christ, one which carries with it a greater responsibility for the world and not less.

shibuyaOur life in Christ is not any more abstract or comfortable than life as we now know it, nor is it found in the sublime stories, private or collective, we tell about ourselves. The inheritance we receive from the writings of Merton is the decisive possibility of freedom and authenticity in faith, being who we have been made to be. It is an existential summons to unlock ourselves from the inside, from the imprisonment of our own private illusions and the masks that operate, as it were, ‘behind the Gospel’s back’. The path back to ourselves begins with an interior solitude that can be found even among the exterior noise and din that fills the world. Writing from Tokyo, a city of fourteen million, among the machines, lights, and appeals of the salesman, this pilgrimage seems more important than ever.

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religious life as narratives of holiness

waterOn the 6th March, 2013, around 150 leaders of Religious Institutes gathered at the Novotel, Parramatta, for the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (NSW) Conference 2013.

The theme of the conference was ‘religious life in the post-modern world’ and I was privileged to address leaders and leadership teams on the purpose and contribution of religious life today.

The conference took in a variety of themes centred on religious life: the Church as sacrament of God’s mission, the multidimensions of evangelisation and the living symbol that religious life remains today in a culture that, while often very secularised, remains sensitive to signs.

Prominent documents to consult on the varieties and purpose of religious life include the 1965 conciliar decree, Perfectae Caritatis, and John Paul II’s 1996 Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata.

These were my remarks at the gathering:

‘Narratives of Holiness’ for the Church and world

candleIn the first instance, religious communities, both apostolic and contemplative, tell a particular story about the way in which God’s Spirit has been manifest in history. Secondly, religious life tells as well a story about the human response to such divine irruption. The many varieties of religious life reveal that Christian discipleship is possible even in this way and recalls for the Church that diversity can be an expression of God’s life too.

By the narratives of holiness it provides, religious life nourishes not only the vocation of those called to live radically the evangelical counsels but nourishes the hope and imagination of the wider Church as to how holiness might be exercised. As bearers of charism and grounded in the original spirit of their founder(s), religious congregations show forth the accessibility and concrete shape of a life centred in God’s gifts; in turn, they invite all members of the Church to envisage what God is asking to be realised and hence what they might live for.

I consider religious life essential to the Church also in the way in which such life stretches beyond but is nevertheless active within the local church, that is, the diocese. Of course, my role as a pastoral planner for a local church has brought into focus the centrality of parishes as the ordinary experience of communion for the vast majority of Catholic people.

However, religious life complements this particular experience of communion with witness to the universal dimension of the church’s life. Religious life, as we know, as a response to the Spirit, cannot be completely merged or contained within traditional diocesan structures. Marked by an intense desire to live the Gospel fully and radically in genuine service to the world, religious life possesses the ability to keep individuals and communities open to the essential universality of the Church and its truly global concerns.

The presence of religious within a diocese, for one, can assist to ensure that local communities do not become inward or self-absorbed, focused on their parish facilities rather than their engagement in God’s mission. In their universal character and tensive ecclesial location in the midst of the local church, religious institutes work against the absolutisation of the parochial and so support the genuine ‘catholicity’ of the Church’s identity and mission.

Religious Life and the New Evangelisation

marymackillopI would further suggest that the apostolic character of many religious congregations will play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the ‘new evangelisation’ which continues to unfold on both a magisterial and local level.

I approach the contemporary situation in this way: since the Second Vatican Council, we are well aware how close to the surface questions of Catholic identity lie. The danger of course is that ‘the new evangelisation’ and its more apologetic tendencies foster a narrow focus on Catholic identity couched primarily in terms of opposition to the world.

This way of being Church – permeated as it is by a certain apocalyptic, dualistic sensibility – can result, unhelpfully, in self-affirming Catholic subcultures which are unable to engage or dialogue with the surrounding culture.

(Note that this danger was on show in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication – while the pope’s resignation unleashed wide ignorance and some anti-Catholic bigotry in the secular media it also produced an ample supply of Catholic triumphalism with little genuine conversation between the two opposed tendencies.)

As an alternative to this narrow politics of identity, religious life is well placed to offer the ‘new evangelisation’ a model of outreach characterised by genuine service to the world without the reactionary and oppositional spirit to which other emerging groups may be vulnerable. In other words, religious life can model a mature evangelism, a truly contextualised faith which engages the surrounding culture while losing nothing of its distinctive Christian identity.

Religious Life and Lay Discipleship

SB054Finally, religious life continues to nourish the discipleship of lay men and women in a variety of ways. In addition to the ‘narratives of holiness’ which religious life offers to the whole Body of Christ, we have also seen the emergence of formal collaborations including the creation of new juridic persons among religious institutes in which laity have assumed governance responsibilities while allowing religious to re-engage more immediate and original expressions of service.

Of course, laity and religious collaborate in many other ways, including through ‘associations’ that give expression to a more inclusive imagination of holiness, and therefore a more inclusive notion of Christian community, recovered by the Second Vatican Council.

Beyond structured initiatives, however, religious life can foster lay discipleship through its work at the margins with those who may never feel comfortable within the structures of the Church. As noted by Australian theologian David Ranson, religious life has shown a profound ability to mediate between a given social context and the wider Catholic community – in the case of schools, hospitals or works of justice, between the lives of students, parents, and families who may not be connected to parish or regular practice and the normal life of the Church which is the bearer of the Word and sacramental encounter. This mediating role of religious life, its carriage of the meaning and experience of Christian faith to contemporary culture, is precisely that work of evangelisation to which the entire Church is called.

Conclusion

By a life that animates the local church but stretches beyond it, religious life bears witness to the essential universality of the Church’s identity and mission. In its proven ability to engage the culture with a mature and discerning spirit, in its continued work with and support of lay men and women through its apostolates and associations, and in its variety of charismatic life, religious life is positioned well to awaken and support the Church in its mission of evangelisation which cannot be exhausted by any single historical form.