Some thoughts from Thomas Merton to take with you on a summer’s day…
‘My worship is a blue sky and ten thousand crickets in the deep wet grass of the field. My vow is the silence under their Sound. I support the woodpecker and the dove. Together we learn the norms. The ploughed and planted field says: it is my turn.
And several of us begin to sing.’
Working Notebook 1965-66
‘When your tongue is silent, you can rest in the silence of the forest. When your imagination is silent, the forest speaks to you, tells you of its unreality and of the Reality of God. But when your mind is silent, then the forest suddenly becomes magnificently real and blazes transparently with the Reality of God. For now I know that the Creation, which first seems to reveal Him in concepts, then seems to hide Him by the same concepts, finally is revealed in Him, in the Holy Spirit. And we who are in God find ourselves united with Him with all that springs from Him. This is prayer, and this is glory!’
‘How absolutely central is the truth that we are first of all part of nature, though we are a very special part, that which is conscious of God.’
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
‘Let me seek, then, the gift of silence and poverty and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.’
Thoughts in Solitude
‘When we are alone on a starlit night, when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children… when… we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash – at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values… provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance. Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast out awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.’
New Seeds of Contemplation
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.
This verse from Romans chapter 8 v 19 is worth some meditating on …. In the light of current environmental news I found myself looking at it in a different light from the perhaps more conventional reading. How long must creation and creatures remain crushed by the desires of humans … I was looking at the suppression and destruction of the natural world and the seeming relentless cruelty meted out by human creatures on their fellows. In the UK the new government seems determined to only use economic factors as their reference point and too often the desires of large multinationals or large agri-business groupings take preference over the well being of animals, wild life and the environment. The short term quick gains are preferred over the longer term decisions that will benefit the planet or the natural world.
One thing that contemplative prayer does do is awaken a sense of connection with other living beings. It also makes us aware of the interconnection of all beings and all systems with one another – everything is inter dependent and the hubris that sets human beings apart in some way can only lead to disaster. Creation at some level of deep consciousness waits with an eager expectation for our revelation and awareness to develop as through such awareness the liberty of all that exists can be gained.
Yesterday went to see the film Love and Mercy about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Absorbing and unsettling as it traces alongside the great musical gift his fragile state of mind … at one point he states ‘I think I’m losing it’ and some of the later song lyrics after the jolly surfing sound of the early years reflected both the inspiration and disintegration from the voices in his head. Drug taking exacerbated this fragility and then Brian Wilson comes under the malevolent influence of a psychologist (later struck off) who basically uses and abuses him by playing into the ill man’s fears and re-enacting in a terrifying way Wilson’s early childhood traumas with a domineering, crushing and violent father.
The power and influence of what happens to us as children was a strong message in this film and it reminded me of Harry Guntrip the British object relations psychoanalyst who so memorably wrote that ‘Water can always run in the dried up river beds again’. He meant that despite growing up and putting the past behind us or even feeling that we have worked through it it remains a possibility that old wounds will re open. Guntrip advocated the type of therapy that allows the damaged child to heal through a trusting and safe relationship and he himself worked on his own childhood trauma into his old age. Interestingly it was only after hearing of the death of D. W. Winnicott, his later analyst, that Guntrip had a dream that revealed the early trauma Guntrip had experienced with the death of his baby brother and the response of Guntrip’s destructive mother.
He understood that problems needed to become conscious so they could be understood usually through interpretations made by the analyst. He thought that part of the process was to bring what is hidden into conscious awareness through the provision of:
‘… a reliable and understanding human relationship of a kind that makes contact with the deeply repressed traumatised child that enables one to become steadily more able to live, in the security of a new real relationship, with the traumatic legacy of the earliest formative years, as it seeps through or erupts into consciousness.’
He emphasized that the process involved is one of interaction, ‘a function of two variables, the personalities of two people working together towards free spontaneous growth… it is the meeting and interacting of two real people in all its complex possibilities.’ Such an interaction can involve stages of dependence, regression, and unconscious communication as the damaged child part is brought into the light.
In the film Wilson was saved through love – the love of the woman who was to later become his wife and through the mercy of grace. Love and Mercy is also the title of a late song written after he was freed from psychological imprisonment.
Contemplation is something that we find or are given – indeed Merton saw it as a gift from God. He thought that it utterly transcends everything and yet at the same time is the only meaning for our existence. This paradox permeates his writings on the subject – contemplation is above our capabilities to achieve but it is our destiny for which we were created. Here’s a definition from Seeds of Contemplation (144):
Contemplation, by which we know and love God as he is in Himself, apprehending Him in a deep and vital experience which is beyond the reach of any natural understanding, is the reason for our creation by God
In this light contemplation could be seen as only to be achieved after death…but Merton whilst seeing this as true also insists that there are some who can ‘breathe this new atmosphere while they are still on earth’. In his definition above Merton understood contemplation as a knowledge and love that are experienced. In the 1940s and 1950s experiential spirituality was seen as ‘out’ and very much the remit of a few extraordinary saints, not models to be imitated, so Merton’s unique contribution to American spirituality was to make personal experience ‘in’ for those who were looking beyond the ritual and institutional.
Merton wrote the contemplative life – ‘means to me the search for truth and for God. It means finding the true significance of my life and my right place in God’s creation’.
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.