Being Contemplative in a Secular World


I just had to share this, even if it’s from the same resource as the previous post, because it’s on a different but parallel thought track.  These are Thomas Merton’s suggestions (highlighting mine) on how to live the contemplative life in a secular world, as capsulized in a talk by Fr. James Conner, OCSO:

Every person is called to this contemplation. Irrespective of whether one ever has any kind of extraordinary experience or not, irrespective of whether one finds God in light or in darkness, in joy or in sorrow, each person is called to live out this mystery of Christ in his or her own life.- It is not limited to monks or religious, not even to Christians or believers. it is intended for all, and only in that can we find our true fulfillment.

photo credits to Sophy Laughing

Merton certainly realized that seeking such a life and such a way of seeing and experiencing life is not easy for many people who live in the world, whose lives are filled with daily pressures of family, work and myriad of responsibilities. However he did point out several ways that even such people can strive to come to contemplation. In the Inner Experience he spelled out something of a program for such people. He suggested that people who are seeking a contemplative life should form groups to support one another in this endeavor to foster and protect something of an elementary contemplative spirituality. He says that the already existing movements interested in liturgy and the study of Scripture could help in this direction. He encourages contemplative monasteries themselves to help in this, striving not only to provide places for retreat and withdrawal, but to form groups of people who can help and support one another in something like a contemplative Third Order. Such 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. But he cautions:

if you are waiting for someone to come along and feed you the contemplative life with a spoon, you are going to wait for a long time, especially in America. You had better renounce your inertia, pray for a little imagination, ask the Lord to awaken your creative freedom and consider some of the following possibilities. (12)

photo credits to ContemplativeCottage.com

He then goes on to indicate five possibilities which might be considered:

1) He says that it might be possible by the sacrifice of seemingly good economic opportunities, you could move into the country or to a small town where you can have more time to think. This might involve the acceptance of a relative poverty; if so, all the better for your interior life. The sacrifice could be a real liberation from the pitiless struggle which is the source of most of your worries.

2) Wherever you may be, it is always possible to give yourself the benefit of those parts of the day which are quiet because the world does not value them. One of these is the earlier morning hours. Even if a person cannot put a few hundred miles between himself and the city, if he can get up earlier in the morning he will have the whole place to yourself, and taste something of the peace of solitude. One thinks of the movements for Centering prayer with the encouragement to spend twenty minutes in the early morning and again, if possible in the evening in centering oneself before the Lord in a prayer which is wordless and which enables one to hold on to the Lord by a simple “word” to bring our wandering minds back before the Lord. He encourages one to go to early Mass, even though the later ones may be more splendid and solemn. At the earlier Mass, things are quieter, more sober, more somber, more austere. The poor go to early Mass, because they have to get to work sooner. And Christ is more truly with the poor; His spiritual presence among them makes their Mass the more contemplative one.

3) He says that it should be obvious that Sunday, is set apart by nature and by tradition of the Church as a day of contemplation. Puritan custom tended to make Sunday seem a negative sort of “Sabbath” characterized more by the things one “must not” do. The inevitable reactions against this has stressed the legitimate, but more or less insignificant, recreations that make Sunday a day of rest for the body as well as for the spirit. Sunday is the “Lord’s Day” not in the sense that on one day of the week one must stop and think of Him, but because it breaks into the ceaseless “secular” round of time with a burst of light out of a sacred eternity. 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 is a contemplative day not just because Church law demands that every Catholic assist at Mass, but because everyone who celebrates this day spiritually, and accepts it at-its face value, opens their heart to the light of Christ the light of the Resurrection. In so doing they grow in love, in faith and are able to ìseeî a little more of the mystery of Christ. Simple fidelity to this obvious duty, realization of this gift of God to us, will certainly help the harassed lay person to take their first steps on the path to a kind of contemplation.

4) No matter where one seeks the light of contemplation one commits one’s self by that very fact to a certain spiritual discipline. This is just as true outside the cloister as in it. But it would be a mistake for a man or woman with all the obligations and hardships of secular life, to try to live in the world like a monk. To try to do this would be an illusion. Active virtue and good works play a large part in the contemplative life that is lived in the world, and for this reason the discipline of the contemplative in the world is first of all the discipline of fidelity to their duty of state – to their obligations as a head of a family, as ,very great sacrifices. Perhaps indeed some of the difficulties of people in the world exact from them greater sacrifice than they would find in a cloister. In any case, their contemplative life will be deepened and elevated by the depth of their understanding of their duties. Mere conformism and lip service is not enough. It is not sufficient to “be a good Catholic”. One must penetrate the inner meaning of the life in Christ and see the full significance of its demands. One must carry -out the obligations not simply as a matter of form, but with a real, personal decision to offer the good one does to God, in and through Christ. The virtue of a Christian is something creative and spiritual, not simply a fulfillment of a law. It must be penetrated and filled with the newness, the Christlikeness, which comes from the action of the Spirit of God in their hearts, which elevates their smallest good act to an entirely spiritual level. But, he cautions, this must entail more than simply verbalizing one’s “purity of intention”. 

5) It follows from this that for the married person, their married life is essentially bound up with their contemplation. It is by marriage that such ones are situated in the mystery of Christ. It is by their marriage that they bear witness to Christ’s love for the world, and in their marriage that they experience both the trials and the joys of love. Their marriage is a sacramental center from which grace radiates out into every department of their lives, and consequently it is their marriage that will enable their work, their leisure , their sacrifices and even their distractions to become in some degree contemplative. For by their marriage all these things are ordered to Christ and centered in Christ. It should above all be emphasized that for the married person, even and especially their sharing of married sexual love enters into their contemplation, and this, as a matter of fact, gives it a special character. The union of husband 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 human in Christ. Now this mystery is the very heart and substance of contemplation. Hence married love is a kind of material and It is a blind, simple groping way of expressing our need to be utterly and completely one. The Fathers of the Church thought that before the fall Adam and Eve were literally two _in one flesh_, that is to say, they were one single being, that human nature, united with God, was whole and complete in itself. But after the fall they were divided into two and therefore sought by sexual love to recover this lost unity. But this desire is ever frustrated by original sin. The fruit of sexual love is not perfection, not completeness, but only the birth of another Adam or another Eve, frail, exiled, incomplete. But the coming of Christ has exercised the futility and despair of the children of Adam. Christ has married human nature, united man and woman and God in Himself, in one Person. In Christ, the completeness we were born for is realized. In Him’ all are one in the perfection of charity.

Merton concludes this section of his writing by saying that contemplation must not be confused with abstraction. A contemplative life is not to be lived by permanent withdrawal within one’s own mind.

“The true contemplative is not less interested than others in normal life, not less concerned with what goes on in the world, but more interested, more concerned. The fact that he or she is a contemplative makes them capable of a greater interest and a deeper concern. The contemplative has the inestimable gift of appreciating at their real worth values that are permanent, authentically deep, human. truly spiritual and even divine. Their mission is to be a complete and whole person, with an instinctive and generous need to further the same wholeness in others, and in all humanity. They arrive at this, however, not by superior gifts and talents, but by the simplicity and poverty which are essential to their state because these alone keep one traveling in the way that is spiritual, divine and beyond understanding. (13)

Thomas Merton, then, presents to us both the great loftiness of contemplation and at the same time the simple ordinariness of it. It is not something that we do of ourselves, but which Christ does in us if we are poor of heart and ready to receive it from Him. For then He brings us to that original unity in which He created us and He is able to truly exert His Love, His Providence and His care for us, one and all. In that way we become the children of God that we are.

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