Tag Archives: Thomas Merton

A Year with Thomas Merton (A Book Reaction)

I’ve been reading this day book off and on for a couple months now, enjoying each 4-5 paragraph reading. My hope in reading has been to see what made Merton who he was in the ordinary. I’ve read and been captivated by several of Merton’s books now and each book has a handful of sentences that extend beyond a normal person’s spiritual experience. As I read, I feel myself pulled into something new, something living.

In A Year with Thomas Merton I have the privelge to see the “normal” Thomas Merton. The days are journal entries, small pictures and captured moments of an ordinary, lived spiritual life.

Of course, where else it is supposed to be lived? …and that’s the point, that’s the gift this book offers. It pulls us down from the esoteric spirituality philosopies and into the back yard garden soil. As I read these daily journal entries (compiled into this day book many years later by some other person), there’s a permission that’s given to re-enter the ordinary and there discover the Presence of Christ.

What is, “Competence in Spiritual Theology?” (inf. by Thomas Merton)

I’m reading *Thomas Merton: Twentieth Century Wisdom for Twenty-First Century Living* by Paul Dekar this morning. The phrase, “competence in spiritual theology,” just came up (p.38). I’m pausing to explore how I would define competence in spiritual theology.

Often, competence sounds like the master of many elements and the ability to merge them together into one practice (like a doctor’s ability to know many cures). In spiritual theology, the adverse seems true: competence in spirituality is the mastery of one necessary thing (Luke 10) in order to enter into the many elements of life with the single necessity at the front of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Simply put: competence in the spiritual life is the capacity for a free flowing love of God expressed in prayer and work (or interaction with others and creation). Competence comes as being set free from the rule of anxiety, judgement of others, empty speaking, and other expressions of dead-living.

How do you nurture competence in spiritual theology?

Nurturing true life will always start with Jesus. Our first step in nurturing is to know Jesus; to live, we pursue the person of Jesus as the Gospels introduce him.

The slow introduction to Jesus will find us receiving an invitation to, “Come and follow.” Through obedience (the life lived by grace through faith in the person and works of Jesus), we will find ourselves entering the practice of willing (or seeing) only one necessary thing, which is the true reign and presence of our loving Father who intends to make all things new.

This awakening, which is nurtured only when we’re walking with Jesus and in the likeness of Jesus, will reveal to us our degree of “competence,” or rather, the degree that we truly are awake to the presence and reign of God in the present moment.

Spiritual Direction & Meditation by Thomas Merton (Book Reaction)

I enjoy the simplicity yet depth in Merton’s words. Reading his writing is captivating; it’s difficult to become bored with; my thumbs were eager to flip to the next page.

These quotes are helpful:

“The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a man’s life, to get behind the façade of conventional gestures and attitudes which he presents to the world, and to bring out his inner spiritual freedom, his inmost truth, which is what we call the likeness of Christ in his soul.” (p. 16)

“[The spiritual director's] first duty, if he wants to be an effective director, is to see to his own interior life and to take time for prayer and meditation, since he will never be able to give to others but he does not possess himself.” (p. 28)

“It is necessary for us to frustrate and overcome our sensual, selfish and exterior self, the compulsive and automatic self that is really incapable of true love. But when we do this we set free our interior, simple self, our godlike self, the image of God, “Christ in us,” and we become able to love God with spiritual liberty and make him, in all simplicitly, the gift that he asks of us.” (p. 36)

In basic essence, spiritual direction is a director being able to receive and foster space for another to be vulnerable, and for the one receiving direction to open into healthy vulnerability so that together, the façades can be melted away and the Image of Christ within us be increasingly set free. This is gentle combat against pretense, false humility and religiosity masking themselves over pride.

In journeying toward that state of being, Merton mentions that one of the most difficult things in spiritual direction is the guidance of Christians called to a life of interior prayer. He says, “A contemplative is not one who takes his prayer seriously, but one who takes God seriously, who is famished for truth who seeks to live in generous simplicity, in the spirit. An ardent and sincere humility is the best protection for his life of prayer.” (p. 42)

I resonate with what Merten is exploring. It is hard to guide people in a life of prayer, to talk about prayer as a way of life, the sustenance of life. It’s hard to encourage people who otherwise might see prayer as a pious act or command, rather than the substance of true life. I am thankful for Merton’s critique, to encourage people to list their eyes away from prayer and place them on God. That our focus would be on God, on his love and goodness, and on our relationship, rather than on whether or not we are praying. In some sense, this is a rescuing of prayer from being a mere religious expression and placing it where it belongs: prayer is the most essential and simple act of being human.

In returning to direction, it’s becoming clear that direction serves the purpose of helping people become more freely human, which is to say, more like Jesus. Prayer, then, is that pursuit, that dwelling in union and relationship with the Father. That kind of dwelling forms the soul, we learn to rely on the God who provides, just like Jesus.

The second half of Merton’s book is about meditation. Merton writes, “Meditation is for those who are not satisfied with a merely objective and conceptual knowledge about life, about God – about alternate realities. They want to enter into an intimate contact with truth itself, with God. They want to experience the deepest realities of life by living them. Meditation is the means to that end.” (p. 53)

On meditation, many will ask, “what is it?” Merton writes, “the distinctive characteristic of religious meditation is that it is a search for truth which springs from love and which seeks to process the truth not only by knowledge but also by love.” the ultimate end of such prayer is communion with God. We understand this to mean that meditation has much more to it than dwelling on a curious spiritual entity. No, the desire within meditation is to to become more aware and in tune with the God who is already present with us, in all of life’s corners. As Merton puts it, “The identification which we seek to affect in mental prayer is therefore a conscious realization of the union that is already truly affected between our souls and God by grace.” (p. 76)

The last section of the book is encouragement on how to meditate. Merton guides us in some of his helpful steps.

We start, first of all, with the Scriptures. We listen to the voices written down, those voices lived with God in the past. Those voices point us to Christ. We start with those stories, those words, and eventually we will begin to hear the same stories and same words in the world around us, in our ordinary interactions. Again, all of these will point us to life with God, a life where we are being formed in the likeness of Christ. It is a life poured out to both God and to the people in this world. It is a life most fully alive and awake and becoming evermore alert to its Spirit-driven capacity to love.

A desire that we might all resonate with is the ability to pray anywhere, at anytime. Merton speaks to that. He says that initially people might need a dedicated space and time that would allow them to more simply focus on prayer, in letting their entire selves be open to God. He says that leisure and withdrawing the mind from all that would prevent him from attending to God within is what is really necessary.

Merton, later on, mentions that sincerity is essential to forming this life of prayer that we desire. He writes, “sincerity demands that we do we can to break the grip of routine on our souls, even if it means being a little unconventional.”

Again, the goal is not a good prayer life, but a life lived in the presence of God, being evermore opened and shaped in the image of Christ. This means that, as Merton writes on page 85, “the highest spiritual good is an action which is so perfect that it is absolutely free of all labor, and is therefore at the same time perfect action and perfect rest. And this is the contemplation of God.”