+DEVELOPING A CONTEMPLATIVE CONSCIOUSNESS Chapter talk: 11 Nov. 2018
Recently I have been going through a spiritual biography of Henri Nouwen called “ God’s Beloved” by a Michael O’Laughlin that came out back in 2004. Many of us are familiar with Nouwen as a spiritual writer who was especially gifted at articulating what goes on in many of our lives. As Robert Ellsberg recently said in his lecture at Bellarmine:
“By the time of his passing, thirty-two years later [after coming to the States from Holland] in 1996, he had become one of the most popular and influential spiritual writers in the world. His popularity was only enhanced by his willingness to share his own struggles and brokenness. He did not present himself as a ‘spiritual master,’ but—like the title of one of his early books—as a ‘wounded healer.’ Those who knew him were aware of how deep his wounds ran.”
In this Henri Nouwen was a lot like Merton who reached so many people through his Seven Story Mountain.Both had a living faith and a sense of their own vulnerability, weakness and sensitivity. As they shared their own experience, what was going on in the lives of countless readers was able to be articulated and understood perhaps, for the first time. There was a “down-to-earthiness” in both of them which takes on more and more meaning for our own time.
O’Laughlin quotes from Merton the following:
“Contemplation is not vision because it sees ‘without seeing’ and knows ‘without knowing.’ It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said, and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by ‘unknowing.’ Or better, we know beyond all knowing or ‘unknowing.’
This is an experience that all newcomers to the monastery go through and in fact, what those who are long members of a community may go through again and again, this experience of unknowing. There is always a way in which we want to have some grasp on what is happening in our lives, want, in a way, to make sense of it but this is where real faith can take place. You would think that someone like Henri Nouwen with all his popularity and success as a writer or teacher, would have been satisfied or fulfilled but the opposite was true. We are told that he “was afflicted by an inordinate need for affection and affirmation; he was beset by anxieties about his identity and self-worth; there seemed to be a void within that could not be filled.” This, it is suggested is what led him to make several moves in his life, from one place or project to another. He moved from Holland to America, to Notre Dame and then to Yale, to our monastery of Genesee and then to Latin America, to thinking of becoming an affiliate of Maryknoll, then to Harvard and finally visiting a number of L’Arche communities in France and Canada, he settled down somewhat at one in Canada.
In the midst of all this Nouwen was drawn into a contemplative experience, like that of Merton in many respects but one that was uniquely his own: He writes:
“We are called to be contemplatives, that is see-ers, men and women who are called to see the coming of God.. The Lord’s coming is an ongoing event around us, between us, and within us. To become a contemplative, therefore, means to throw off—or better, to peel off—the blindfolds that prevent us from seeinghis coming in the midst of our own world. Like John the Baptist, Merton constantly points away from himself to the coming One, and invites us to purify our hearts so that we might indeed recognize him as our Lord.. Thomas Merton invites us to an always deeper awareness of the incomprehensibility of God. He continually unmasks the illusions that we know God and so frees us to see the Lord in always new and surprising ways.” (The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice, pp 196-97)
When Nouwen speaks of Merton inviting us “to an always deeper awareness of the incomprehensibility of God” there is something unsettling about this but also clarifying and freeing. The danger of any of us is the inclination to try to tie God down or to cling to a certain understanding of God that then puts limits on God’s way of acting in our lives and in the lives of others. Again, it is only when we approach God with faith that we are able to allow God to move freely in our lives. This can be a real challenge and it certainly demands of us a deeper faith or trust if God is to act pervasively in our lives. As they yielded to this mysterious divine presence, there continually opened new horizons in both Merton’s and Nouwen’s lives, horizons that allowed them to accomplish all that they were destined to do.
Any one of us becomes open to these new horizons to the extent that we allow faith, hope and love take hold of us. To do so is to come to realize our full potential. We are all invited to participate in God’s very own life and in doing so our lives are transformed. We allow ourselves to accomplish all that we have been destined to do during our brief sojourn on this earth.