Friday, August 10, 2018

Musings on Merton: Techniques Associated with Contemplation

            In chapter 29 of New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton discusses “Mental Prayer,” but I have struggled to understand what he means by that. He seems to talk about the same subject using apparent synonyms such as active forms of prayer, meditation, and systematic meditation, without ever defining his terms. By searching the internet I learned that “Mental prayer is a form of prayer recommended in the Catholic Church whereby one loves God through dialogue, meditating on God's words, and contemplation of Christ's face.”[1]
            Merton distinguishes active forms of prayer from “infused contemplation” which he says “begins when the direct intervention of God raises this whole process of development above the level of our nature ; … But before this begins, we ordinarily have to labor to prepare ourselves … by deepening our knowledge and love of God in meditation and active forms of prayer.”[2]
            While not offering a definition of infused meditation, Merton at least notes that “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 withdrawal from exterior things and business activities and thoughts and concerns of temporal existence.”[3] This sounds to me very much like my understanding and experience of mindfulness meditation.
            Secondly, “this is the real end of meditation – it teaches you how to become aware of the presence of God.” Based on my experience and understanding, this is exactly where Christian meditation or contemplative prayer departs and goes a step beyond mindfulness mediation. It moves beyond withdrawal from exterior things to find union with God in the inner being.
            “The real purpose of meditation is this:’ writes Merton, “to teach a man how to make 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.”[4]
            Like many other Christian writers who have written about Christian meditation, contemplation, and centering prayer, Merton has more to say about its theological foundation and benefits than he has to say about the practical “how to” nuts and bolts of actually practicing it. I have found that many secular and Buddhist authors writing about meditation offer more practical advice than Merton and other Christian writers have offered.
            About the only practical advice I found in New Seeds of Contemplation was in chapter 33, where Merton writes about the “Journey through the Wilderness.” There is in that chapter an off handed remark referring to “your half-hour of meditation”[5] and what appears to me to be a paragraph about what I consider a form of Lectio Divina.[6]
            While Merton offers little practical guidance here, (and I wished he offered much more), he does provide in this chapter what I consider the clearest and most succinct definition of Contemplative prayer. It “is a deep and simplified activity in which the mind and will rest in a unified and simple concentration upon God, turned to Him, intent upon Him and absorbed in His own light, with a simple gaze which is perfect adoration because it silently tells God that we have left everything else and desire even to leave our own selves for His sake, and that He alone
is important to us, He alone is our desire and our life, and nothing else can give us any Joy.”[7] I say “Amen” to that.
            Even if you resonate with the above definition of contemplative prayer, as I do, you may still be seeking some practical “how to” advice from Merton. For that, I send you to Jim Forest’s fine Merton biography, Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton. There you will find brief description of Merton’s daily rhythm of life in his hermitage, including a description of Merton’s “method of meditation” and reference to Merton’s writing about “the Jesus Prayer.” [8] I found in those few pages some of the most practical and down to earth descriptions of monastic life, prayer, meditation, and contemplation I have ever read, whether by Merton or anyone else.

              Here is the link to the introductory post in the series.

[2] New Seeds of Contemplation, 214.
[3] Ibid., 217.
[4] Ibid., 218.
[5] Ibid., 242.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 243.
[8] Jium Forest, Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, 2008) , 190-192.

No comments: