Monthly Archives: June 2015

Learning from a novice

One of the great talks given at the International Thomas Merton Society Centenary Conference this month was by James Finley who was a novice with Thomas Merton back in the 1960s. Now in his early 70s James Finley spoke of Thomas Merton: Mystic Teacher for our Age. The talk was wonderful: full of wisdom, truth and emotion and conveyed so much of the experience of having Thomas Merton as a spiritual director and how this experience has contributed to the person that James Finley has become.

He spoke of experiential understanding…in other words that the way that Merton met with Finley was rooted in his own experience. I liked the three ever deepening questions that Merton asked the novice: ‘how’s it going?’ was the first. Here is the question from one human being to another…what’s it like being you? This is about the ordinariness of each person’s existence but an ordinariness that we share with one another.

The second question was ‘how’s it going?’ meaning what is it like in your surrendering to God. The God who has accessed your heart. Here Finley spoke about encountering oneself and the feeling when God withdraws leaving a longing that has been glimpsed of a presence without which my life is incomplete. In the ache is the longing which leads to the seeking and so this is the path to follow. There are moments of an awakened heart; times when we can be ‘alone with the Alone’… and as James Finley said the gap between two lines in a poem. The realisation ‘what a fool I was to worry so’. These are moments of the realisation of a hidden wholeness and a homecoming.

The third question is ‘how’s it going in discovering the depth of the second question… bubbling up through the ordinariness of the first question is the interpretation of the depths of God welling up within us. Using personal examples Finley spoke of the feeling of surrender as a falling forever into God whilst the bottomless of God is rising up and giving itself up to us. Jesus teaches us to see God in everything and in everyone… in every moment of life there is the infinity of God… deathless mercy. And how do we deepen our experience of God… through fidelity to spiritual practice….

See James Finley’s webpage at


The Hermitage

It’s now some time since the visit to the Hermitage on Thursday 4th June. In a way the journey began earlier that week as we sat in a jam on the M4 very early in the morning. it felt as if it would never clear and then we’d miss the flight and so on- lots of anxiety and fear of what lay ahead. Three of us travelled to Detroit and then to Louisville in Kentucky. Finally on the Wednesday out to the University where the ITMS Centenary conference was to be held. The morning of the day it began was the planned trip to the Abbey of Gethsemani.

It’s a long way to go to find the place where Merton found himself … James Finley uses the phrase ‘the palace of nowhere’ and yet it was so completely worth it.

When we left Bellarmine University on the Thursday morning it was already hot and dry and we went in three coaches. That already sounds unappealing but during the morning it was so arranged that it never felt that there were also another 149 people there with me. When we arrived we went in groups of 15 each led by one of the monks from the Abbey of Gethsemani and first went to pay respects at the grave of Thomas Merton. I was unprepared for the huge uprush of emotion I felt … here was the place where the man who had spiritually influenced me so much lay… It was through Merton that I became Christian and my life was/is transformed. Later we were able to go back to the grave alone and pay private respects but seeing and feeling him there at that first moment was very powerful. I picked up a leaf from beside the cross of the grave which I have brought back…

We went on from the grave to the hermitage quite a long walk through the woods. Again I have seen many photos but being there was totally different. As we turned a corner there, poking up through the grasses and amongst the trees was the building. It was wonderful. I felt in it and present. There were butterflies… some large and blue others large and red. The air was alive with life – what a place. And there was the desk and the bed and the chapel – all as I had seen but this time I was there. Outside the cross and the old wheel….

Now nearly three weeks later it feels a magical – in the best sense of the word experience. I can still feel the warm air and the wonder of it all. What a gift and as far from the M4 as is possible. The secret is to carry that feeling into the M4 type situations I guess.

No death – no change

It’s well known that for anything to change something else has to die or be let go of. Finding out about oneself in the second half of life means that the letting go is sometimes resisted even more strongly than when one was young. The malleability and openness to change has sometimes hardened into a refusal … so to have an insight whether through grace, psychotherapy or in spiritual direction is a gift that has to be grasped in both hands. It might not come again – there might not be a similar opportunity to effect change. Often things have been said over and over again – perhaps in therapy – and yet the true realisation, the realisation that changes the way one views oneself, occurs years later or in an unconnected way.

Something like that happened this week when I finally understood how persecutory my inner super ego can be and how there is apparently some relief from this unconscious force when I have directed it outwards into the world (often unnecessarily towards another or towards a situation). In this instance I had turned down a request to help someone out … for good reason I had something else on and it wouldn’t have been in my best interests and practically very difficult. But I felt guilty and brooded on whether I ‘should’ have called off the earlier commitment and so on and so on. Several days later I received a message from someone else about the same request and felt myself angry and critical…the feelings were out of proportion and I could see there was nothing in the message to illicit anger but it had ignited the guilt feeling and super egoic response and the only way to manage it was to turn the critique away from myself on to the other. But I could see it … finally and fully for what it was. But this is absolutely basic stuff for a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and something I have apparently understood during two analyses and would have appreciated in my work with others in therapy with me but suddenly I got it – in myself-and in the seeing it I could let it go and the response just changed in that second. It was all clear.

Jung was right when he said the greatest good we can do in the world is for us to reclaim our projections.

Notes on contemplation

These are some notes made for a presentation on contemplative prayer … the group were work colleagues who were interested but did not practise meditation; they were curious but perhaps a bit doubtful about the value. I used ideas from Thomas Merton and ended by playing a track from the CD made of Merton speaking over liturgical music. The CD is called ‘He’s Plenty Near’.
The actual word contemplation has three parts to it –

The last part of the word ‘tion’ means abiding state – all of us have those, if we are alive, and able to stay in the present moment – when we feel touched by God and we experience the Divine. What we look for in our spiritual lives is a way that helps us live more and more constantly in communion with God

And that’s what the first part of the word means ‘con’ – con means with

And the middle part ‘templa’– well in the early Roman times the templa was seen as a particular part of the heavens, and the then priests of the people, would look up into the skies and try to see how the birds flew and what was happening in the sky so as to work out the will of God. From that time, that templa, got projected onto earth and became the templum, the temple, an actual place where people go to commune with God.

So contemplation is abiding with God, where his will is known, where his love is known, where he is present in his temple.

And how can we understand where that temple is – Jesus taught the disciples that asked him where he lived to come and see and he teaches us, as he did the disciples, that God is everywhere but dwells in intimate love within each of us. And that he is always there. He is always at home – even if we turn away and are too busy to notice – so contemplative prayer is the prayer of coming home – a coming home to dwell in intimacy and quiet love with the Lord.

The purpose of contemplative prayer is to simply be with God and offer him ourselves – without thought or words. But that is difficult and so one way is to use a prayer word – such as Jesus or love or peace – usually one syllable is best. Only use this word of love whenever you become aware that your mind has drifted off. This is a way of centring ourselves again to be with God in the present moment. We may not at first detect a response but gradually as St Gertrude expresses it, ‘the soul trains its ear to catch the hushed whisper of divine love’ (quoted by Georges Lefebvre in The Well-Springs of Prayer).

Contemplation is a gift from God. It ‘utterly transcends everything’ we are, yet it is ‘the only meaning for our existence’ (Thomas Merton in Seeds of Contemplation)

Contemplation involves delving beneath the surface level of existence to find our inner world – seeing God and self and creation at a different and deeper level of reality. It is more than an exercise of prayer. It involves the experience of:
(1) seeking God – this is a search like no other for God is everywhere
(2) coming to know one’s true self – in discovering the real within ourselves, we discover God who is Reality itself
(3) learning one’s relationship to the world – when we find God in contemplation and are aware of our total dependence on God and the same dependence of all reality on God, we experience a sense of interdependence with all God’s creation and the sense of responsibility we have towards that – true contemplation increases our sense of social justice and our ecological awareness.