Monthly Archives: September 2015

Feeling homeless in the world

Feeling homeless in the world
Spirituality and psychotherapy are both in part about the search for a deeper meaning in life. It suggests that at some point there was an experience of a certain fullness or well-being from which life is currently somehow removed but removed in such a way that the very sense of distance becomes the energy that empowers the search for this absent abundance. In other words it implies that the person searching already has some sense of what it is that they are looking for. A feeling of homelessness in the world implies a sense of home.
It could be said that contemporary spirituality can be understood broadly as the leading of the searcher to his or her truest home. But which way do you turn towards home? Is this a transcendent country foreign to the land of our present exile? Or is the way home to be found in some turning within to meet there a part of ourselves that has never left and drives us from the depths of our existence to unite ourselves more fully with it? It’s this second way that is the route taken through contemplative prayer and through analytical psychology.
This then is about a divine immanence where God is no longer beyond a natural human being and our human consciousness so that home and the way home becomes truly an inner journey. But it also involves a transcendence that can include analytical psychology because it involves powers transcendent to the ego and that also impact on it with the force of the divine.
In part the search for home is about both the search for the essential self and the search for God both become one and both become central – the ultimate concern. Thomas Merton found this in his writings on the true and false self where he understood that through contemplative prayer it was possible to strip away the false self and to find that the true self and Christ are one.
Despite all the pervading cynicism and secularism the concern for the ultimate is universal and embedded in human consciousness, so to be human is to be concerned with the ultimate because the ultimate is that power in the human driving humanity to itself. I’m reminded of Paul Tillich who wrote that, ‘God is the presupposition of the question of God.’ For Tillich the individual can meet God as a stranger or as one from whom the individual has been estranged. The search for home is the search for self is the search for God.

Quiet garden part two

Presentation 2

Through contemplation Merton was brought closer to the world, to others and to nature. He wrote about gaining a contemplative grasp of the political, intellectual, artistic, and social movements in this world. He wrote to Dorothy Day who established the Catholic worker in the United States that ‘I cannot just bury my head… I have to face the big issues, the life and death issues.’ He still believed that prayer remained his chief means but that also he needed to speak out when he was able as forthrightly and as uncompromisingly as he could. Commenting on warfare, violence and injustice he saw that the issues were ‘purely and simply the crucifixion over again’. He also believed that we are all deeply and personally involved in all the events going on whether we like them or not. He wrote ‘the “world” is not just a physical space traversed by jet planes and full of people running in all directions. It is a complex of responsibilities and options made out of the loves, the hates, the fears, the trust, the suspicion of all. In the last analysis, if there is war because nobody trust anybody, this is in part because I myself am defensive, suspicious, and untrusting, and intent on making other people conform themselves to my particular brand of death wish.’ (Contemplation in a World of Action)
Merton wrote about the reasons for war and the roots of hate and violence and it seems particularly appropriate at this time when there is such violence in various parts of the world he wrote about what he called true war-madness which he described as an illness of the mind and the spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that he thought was sick he thought that America was perhaps the most grievously afflicted and described our rage as the post-Christian era. So what are we to do? Merton thought that the duty of the Christian in such crises is to survive with all their power and intelligence, with their faith and hope in Christ the love for God and man and to work for peace – for the abolition of war. He understood that the root of all war is fear – the fear of everything because people have ceased to believe in God.
For Merton the answer was a call to compassion and whilst it was true that political problems are not solved by love and mercy he reminds us that the world of politics is not the only world, and unless political decisions rest on a foundation of something better and higher than politics, they can never do any real good for anyone. When a country is rebuilt following the exhaustion of war the passions and energies of war are no longer enough and there are mergers and there has to emerge a new force: the power of love, the power of understanding and human compassion, the strength of selflessness and cooperation, and the creative dynamism of the will to live and to build, and the will to forgive. The will for reconciliation.
In his preface to the Vietnamese edition of No Man is an Island Merton wrote that,
‘We must all believe in love and in peace. We must believe in the power of love. We must recognise that our being itself is grounded in love; that is to say, that we come into being because we are loved and because we are meant to love others… In order to recover the true perspective, which is that of love and compassion, we must once again learn, in simplicity, truth, and peace, that ‘no man is an island’. In his last journal Merton writes of a call to unity;
‘We are already one, but we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.’ Through contemplative prayer Merton knew experientially that we are all one in the hidden ground of love that is God for the differences between us are really superficial, the differences of culture, race, ethnicity, and religion are at root illusory. Deeply rooted in his own tradition, Merton was open and receptive to the wisdom of the world’s religions and respectful of other beliefs and practices. He was also clear and firm in his own faith convictions. Searching for common ground, he knew well, does not mean discounting one’s own roots.
Merton urges us to keep faith and to trust in the guiding spirit of God. The handout for the second part is based on a correspondence between Merton and Czeslaw Milosz the Nobel writer. I’ll read it first of all to you and then give you a copy to spend some time with.
Handout 2
Life is on our side
Life is on our side.
The silence and the Cross of which we know
are forces that cannot be defeated.
In silence and suffering,
in the heartbreaking effort to be honest
in the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty),
in all these is victory.
It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness
to a light of which we have no conception
and which can only be found
by passing through apparent despair.
Everything has to be tested.
All relationships have to be tried.
All loyalties have to pass through the fire.
Much has to be lost.
Much in us has to be killed,
even much that is best in us.
But Victory is certain.
The Resurrection is the only light,
and with that light there is no error.

Taken from a letter to Czeslaw Milosz, February 28, 1959, Courage for Truth, 1993, p. 57-58. Excerpt from letter rewritten as poem by Christine Bochen. Included in her book Thomas Merton – Essential Writings, 2000.

Quiet Garden part one

This is the first part of a Quiet Garden retreat to be held this week at St Mary, Charlcombe. It includes a presentation and then some time for reflection.
Presentation 1
At this quiet afternoon I am going to talk a little bit more about Thomas Merton as this is the centenary year of his birth in 1915. As some of you may remember from when I last spoke about him he was a Trappist monk based for 27 years in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in the United States who died in 1968 aged 53 in an accident in Bangkok where he was attending a conference of monastics and religious. Before he went to the Abbey of Gethsemani he spent time in the UK at schools in London and Oakham. He had a difficult childhood as his mother died when he was six and his father when he was 15 and he lived a turbulent and unsettled time before his conversion at the age of 23 when he became a Catholic.

As a monk Merton shared what it meant to be a Christian through the personal witness of his life and writing. There are three aspects which are especially striking in his work its contemplative dimension; its commitment to social justice and compassion, and its vision of unity. In other words for Merton being a Christian involves awakening to the reality of God within, living with love and justice, and recognising and sustaining all that unites the human community.
In 1947 Merton’s early autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was published and immediately became a best seller. Merton later acknowledged that it was written when he was still quite young and he thought that the story in a way no longer belonged to him. The mature Merton found the image created in the book – the image of ‘the official voice of Trappist silence, the monk with his hood up and his back to the camera, brooding over the water’ – out of character with the monk he had become. Yet most powerfully in the book Merton traces God’s mercy and concludes the epilogue to his autobiography with a prayer in the midst of which he hears God speaking to him. He is reminded that God’s mercy was present throughout his journeying and brought him ‘from Prades to Bermuda to St Antonin to Oakham to London to Cambridge to Rome to New York to Colombia to Corpus Christi to St Bonaventure to the Cistercian Abbey of the poor man who labour in Gethsemani’– all the places he had lived and searched. God was with him in all these places: the place he was born; the places where he lived during his childhood and youth; the places where he went to school; the places where he made friends and enjoyed their company; the places where he experienced the first stirrings of faith; the places where he studied and professed that faith; the places where he first heard, then nurtured, the call to become a monk; and finally the place where he found peace within ‘the four walls’ of his new freedom. Remembering this journey, he recognised that it was God who led him to through each of these places. Each place had left its imprint upon him but, as he concludes his autobiography, it is not the individual places and what he experienced in each finally matter. Rather it is his awareness of the God whom he encountered and finally recognised in each place that mattered most. Merton realised that it was God who brought him from slavery to freedom: the God of mercy and grace – ‘God, that centre Who is everywhere, and whose circumferences is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into the immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me. And He called out to me from His own immense depths’.

For many the book became an entry into the spiritual life because in it Merton chronicles the spiritual awakening that led him to the Catholic Church and drew him to the monastery of Gethsemani. Though some would follow him into the monastery a great many more who read his autobiography would resonate with his restlessness, his searching, and his discovery of life’s deeper meaning. Merton showed his readers that there was another dimension to life, but life could be lived on a deeper level if one allows oneself to be discovered by God. This is life’s contemplative dimension. As Merton described the exterior journey that brought him to the Catholic Church and the Abbey of Gethsemani, he revealed something of the inner journey that brought him to God and awaken the contemplative within him’. ‘The geographical pilgrimage,’ he would later write, ‘is the symbolic acting out of an interior journey’.
The Seven Storey Mountain introduced readers to the contemplative dimension of Christianity and thereafter contemplation became the cornerstone of Merton’s spirituality and the major theme in his writing. It is helpful to note that Merton used the term ‘contemplation’ in two ways: to name silent wordless prayer and to name the actual experience of God in prayer. In contemplation we journey inward and discover our union with God and with one another. Merton’s message is simple: it is possible to experience God, to awaken to become aware of God’s presence stop and in doing so, it is possible to become real and whole, to become truly oneself. Contemplation is God’s own self-gift; it is freely given, a gift from God that can be received wherever one is. Contemplation leads to awakening and so prayer becomes a real source of personal freedom, true religion is a liberating force that helps one find oneself in God.

Reflection 1

‘God, that centre Who is everywhere, and whose circumferences is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into the immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me. And He called out to me from His own immense depths.’
‘Before we were born, God knew us. He knew that some of us would rebel against His love and His mercy, and that others would love Him from the moment that they could love anything, and never change that love. He knew that there would be joy in heaven among the angels of His house for the conversion of some of us, and He knew that He would bring us all here… together, one day, for His own purpose, for the praise of His love.
The life of each one … is part of a mystery. We all add up to something far beyond ourselves. We cannot yet realise what it is. But we know, in the language of our theology, that we are all members of the Mystical Christ, and that we all grow together in Him for Whom all things were created.
In one sense we are always travelling, and travelling as if we did not know where we were going.
In another sense we have already arrived.’
The Seven Storey Mountain
As Merton did you might like to remember all the places where you too were born, went to school, have lived, places where friends have been made in good company enjoyed, the places associated with faith and a deepening of faith, places where you have studied and worked, and places where peace has been found and conflicts resolved. As you remember is it possible to recognise that it is God who has led you to and through each of these places?

Mark’s Gospel

In Rowan Williams’ book called Meeting God in Mark (2014) he publishes three Holy Week talks given in 2010 in Canterbury Cathedral and based on some aspects of Mark’s Gospel. His aim is to encourage slow reading and reflection, but I particularly liked his quoting a short extract from the autobiography by the theologian Jürgen Moltmann called A Broad Place and published in 2007.
Jürgen Moltmann was a prisoner of war in Scotland in 1945 when he and his fellow prisoners were shown pictures of the deaths in the concentration camps at Belsen and Buchenwald. With this information came the appalling realisation that they had supported a regime responsible for the most terrible depravity. Rowan Williams explains that Moltmann had little Christian background and no theological education but he accepted a copy of the Bible when it was distributed by an army chaplain and then he wrote this:
‘I read Mark’s gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion; when I heard Jesus’ death cry, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now… I summoned up the courage to live again.’

Rowan Williams especially in the last talk in his book which is called ‘A lifelong passion’ emphasises the idea of God the great ‘I AM’ being fully present with the victimised, suffering and abandoned. With such a revelation it’s not about listening to Jesus because he does wonderful things, even if that is a possibility. But rather we are to listen to Jesus through his very existence, his mortal flesh, his death, where something can happen only when every possibility of hope, of love, of absolution has apparently been swept away and all that is left is the reality that the place of God is the place of a rejected and condemned human being. Williams asks whether this can be a reassuring and world changing insight – the all-powerful God is not where we might think he is, but rather is in and with humans who are helpless, often suffering and who face certain death. It is from this apparently despairing position that salvation rises.