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.”