+CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE IN THE WORLD 22 July Presentation to LCG
Merton begins with comment about the “rigidly institutional character of the monastic life today.” This was true in his time when there was a book of regulations that governed the monks life and which the superiors were expected to maintain. This is no longer the case since from about the time Merton wrote about this rigid institutional character of monastic life, there has been a movement within the Order, furthered by Merton’s writings, that moved away from this kind of rigidity.
There was a rigidity in the whole of the Catholic Church at the time and one could say that the Second Vatican Council worked to unmask this rigidity and to get Catholic and Christians everywhere to build their lives more on the truths of the Gospels than on Church regulations. Instances of these in the Catholic Church were fasting from all food and drink from midnight if one was going to receive the Eucharist at Mass or never to attend a Church service at other than Catholic places of worship, Catholics not being allowed to eat meat on all Fridays of the year etc. When reading the gospel one cannot help but notice the times Jesus was accused of breaking the Law, not observing the Sabbath etc.
Merton gets into the “tug of war” that many experience between living in the world and living for God. “The monk has his sacrifices and his rule: but the rule of the world, its exacting demands, its inexorable pressures to conform, is clearly much harder than that.” As I can assure each and all of you, monastic life also has its “exacting demands” if one is going to be faithful to the schedule and the Divine Office for instance, but your life, especially in a consumer and throw-away culture can become far more demanding and I think Merton is trying to make us realize.
Because of the world we live in, the conflicts one faces in society are not absent in our monasteries. Merton offers lay persons a twofold solution to this problem:
“First, he must as far as possible reduce the conflict and frustration in his life by cutting down his contact with the ‘world’ and his secular subjections. This means reducing his needs for pleasure, comfort, recreation, prestige, and success and embracing a life of true spiritual poverty and detachment. Second, he must learn to put up with the inevitable conflicts that remain—the noise, the agitation, the crowding, the lack of time, and above all the constant contact with a purely secular mentality which is all around us everywhere and at all times, even to some extent in monasteries.”
Fr Louis gives some real insight into the world we live in, the complexity that is a part of our lives whether in the secular society or within a monastery. One assumes the monk has little or no contact with the world but technology has changed all this. With our use of internet, we too have access to all that is going on in the world today and while there is no harm being mindful of the needs of society, to become preoccupied with them is another matter and whether you are a person in the world seeking a more contemplative life or in a monastery, we need to be real honest about what occupies our time and absorbs our energy.
We need to be truly discerning in our lives if we want to be truly contemplative persons. One does have to remember that what I have sent you from Merton’s Inner Experience was written back in the later 1950’s or early 60’s. There have been some real changes in society since then and in some ways I do think members of the LCG have a better chance of being true to the contemplative life than Merton saw possible in his own time. Merton writes for instance that “even for those best endowed and prepared, the ordinary conditions of urban life today are so inimical to spirituality that they will have to keep up a ceaseless struggle if they are to enjoy even the most elementary kind of interior life.” My experience of some of your lives tells me this is less the case today, that your lives, if carefully thought about, can be conducive to living a contemplative way of life.
I don’t deny for a moment that as Merton goes on to write: “Only the exceptional man or woman, left to himself, will be able… to keep himself or herself free from the collective pressures and dictates which keep him or her in subjection to the spirit of the world and render him insensitive to the Spirit of God.” But I can assure you that monks too, struggle with these kinds of pressures. What is so important is that we be spiritually formed “in order to protect and foster something of an elementary contemplative spirituality.”
Merton then writes that:
“It is strange that contemplative monasteries are content simply to receive individuals as retreatants, encourage them to receive frequent Communion and make the Way of the Cross, but do not do more to form groups of men [and women] who could help and support one another. One thinks, for instance, of a kind of contemplative Third Order, connected with the Cistercians or the Carthusians. But as soon as you start thinking in terms of organizations, the issue becomes extremely confused. Such groups do not need to be organized. They simply need to form themselves, under the guidance and encouragement of priests who are already interested in contemplation.”
I feel this is exactly what the LCG has done through its founders. You all have taken the initiative and as you progress I trust you will continue to do this so that what you have organized and is so beautifully expressed in your Lay Cistercian Experience Project (though still going through revision), serves exactly what Merton saw as so important for our world today. You have realized his prophetic vision. He goes on to say:
“These groups could provide their members with books, conferences, direction, and perhaps a quiet place in the country where they could go for a few days of meditation and prayer. Here a little originality and initiative might be encouraged. Christian laypeople are often too passively dependent on the spiritual initiatives of their clergy and tend to think that there is no form of spiritual retreat other than the conventional meetings, with routine exercises, held in monasteries.”
Clearly you all have moved beyond what Merton feared of you being overly dependent on places of retreat. Being creative among yourselves will be a great means of realizing your calling as contemplatives. The resources are there, it is for you to make the best use of them, allowing the Holy Spirit to move freely among your group and intergroup sharing. I love Merton’s encouraging you “to ask the Lord to awaken your creative freedom, and consider some of the following possibilities:”
1) Moving to a place where you have time to think, live simply or poorly, close to the land. Merton actually gets into some of this own experiences at Gethsemani when he talks about being a “forest ranger or lighthouse keeper.” He loved to do this kind of thing on Gethsemani’s property. A Fire tower on the property is said have been his first attempt at hermit living. It is where watchmen would come to watch for fires in our area that might get started especially during the hot summer months.
2) Making to best of your day wherever you may be, especially the small hours of the morning. One can enjoy the early morning dawn that “is by its nature a peaceful, mysterious, and contemplative time of day—a time when one naturally pauses and looks with awe at the eastern sky. It is a time of new life, new beginning, and therefore important to the spiritual life: for the spiritual life is nothing else but a perpetual interior renewal.” These words are a wonderful description of the interior life. I know from my own experience that each day, each moment of the day is a divine gift, enabling us to allow Christ to live continually in our hearts so as to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit. More and more I have come to love the words of Jesus in John’s gospel where he says that “without me you can do nothing.“ Each moment we walk in love, is the working of grace in our hearts.
3) We are to keep holy the Sundays in our life. As Merton describes it:
“We stop working and rushing about on Sunday not only in order to rest up and start over again on Monday, but in order to collect our wits and realize the relative meaninglessness of the secular business which fills the other six days of the week, and taste the satisfaction of a peace which surpasses understanding and which is given us by Christ. Sunday reminds us of the peace that should filter through the whole week when our work is properly oriented.”
What a beautiful description of what Sunday can mean for us as a time to “taste the satisfaction of a peace which surpasses understanding and which is given us by Christ.” We are all easily caught up in the busyness of our world, the secular business of our lives. To let the joy of Christ’s resurrection penetrate our inmost selves is what makes us contemplatives, enables us to know firsthand the life that is to come even while we live in this distracted world.
I think this is why Merton used to encourage monks to go for a long walk on Sundays and not even take a book with them. He wanted them to experience God’s presence in nature all around them, experience what it is to simply be out among the created world around them. I know I can easily get into writing letters or notes to friends, into prep for the week to come. To make up for it, I do love to spend time with the bees, letting myself experience the wonder of their creative energy.
4) There is a discipline involved in being free for God on Sunday, making good use of the early hours of the day or just living simply. Along this line Merton would have LCG members give:
“Acceptance of the fact that he or she is not a monk and, consequently, of the fact that his prayer life must be correspondingly humble and poor. Active virtue and good works play a large part in the ‘contemplative’ life that is led in the world, and the uncloistered person of prayer is most likely to be what we have called a ‘masked contemplative.’ It will only do him harm if, tormented by his thirst for a clearer and higher experience, he tries to force the issue and advance his ‘degree of prayer’ by violent and ill-considered efforts.
I must admit that my own interest in what has come to be known as the Lay Contemplative sprang from Merton’s talk and writing about “masked Contemplatives.” What I have experienced from my contact with many of you is that you cannot confine the work of God in our world. We need cloistered monks and nuns but the grace of contemplative prayer is in no way limited to their way of life. From the earliest days of the life of the Church, the ideal way of living the Christian life was both active and contemplative. The greatest witnesses to our faith were women and men who combined a deep life of prayer with active ministry for the people of God. In either mode of living an honest discipline is necessary for their becoming fruitful and effective. Discipline is built right into your lives as Merton clearly reminds us when he says:
“The discipline of the contemplative in the world is first of all the discipline of fidelity to his or her duty of state—to his or her obligations as head of a family, as a member of a profession, as a citizen. This discipline, these duties can demand very great sacrifices. Perhaps, indeed, some of the difficulties of people in the world exact of them far greater sacrifice than they would find in the cloister… Their contemplative life will be deepened and elevated by the depth of their understanding of their duties.”
Merton is saying something here that is of immense value for anyone aspiring to live a contemplative life. Contemplative awareness or prayer is something that is build right into whatever way of life we may be living as honest human beings. If we are true to ourselves in the circumstances in which we find ourselves we will experience the nearness of the Divine Presence. Letting it guide us, makes us the children of God were destined to be. To simply own our need for God, our need for divine accompaniment is to realize our deepest selves and what it is to be God’s very own sons and daughters. This means facing our own limits, knowing the truth of Christ’s words that without him we can do nothing of any lasting value. Or as Merton says it so well: “One must penetrate the inner meaning of his or her life in Christ and see the full significance of its demands. One must carry out his or her obligations not as a question of form, but with a real, personal decision to offer the good he or she does to God, in and through Christ.”
5) Finally Merton points out that for the married contemplative:
“It is by his or her marriage that one bears witness to Christ’s love for the world, and in their marriage that they experience that love… The union of man and wife in nuptial love is a sacred and symbolic act, the very nature of which signifies the mystery of the union of God and man in Christ. Now this mystery is the very heart and substance of contemplation. Hence, married love is a kind of material and symbolic expression of man’s desire for God and God’s desire for man. It is a blind, simple, groping way of expressing man’s need to be utterly and completely one.
One can hardly find a more beautiful expression of what lies and the very heart of the Contemplative experience, to see that “the union of man and wife in nuptial love is a sacred and symbolic act, the very nature of which signifies the mystery of the union of God and man in Christ.” What we as contemplatives are seeking is living into this mystery of God united to our humanity in Christ. “Christ has married human nature,” Merton goes on to say, “united man and God in Himself, in one Person. In Christ, the completeness we were born for is realized. In Him there is no longer marrying or giving in marriage. But in Him all are one in the perfection of charity.”
This seems to me the perfect note on which to end. As I have said early please feel free to ask anything or question anything I have shared. Thank you for your time and attention. Amen