Grace and peace to you and through you
Over the last couple of Wednesdays a group of us have met for prayer practice. Sounds a bit odd I know, but if there is one thing we need to practice it is prayer, especially contemplative prayer. To practice contemplative prayer is to sit in silent trust that our lives are saturated with and surrounded by Divine Love. This cannot be “achieved” it can only be accepted or rejected. The realisation that Divine Love is the unifying essence of all that is, is the gift of contemplative prayer. To awaken to this truth is to be liberated and healed. Liberated from fear and healed to love.
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, beautifully describes this awakening as he recalls what happened to him on a street corner in Louisville on 18th March 1958:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man (sic), a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Contemplation is a word that Thomas Merton used again and again in his writings. It is a theme that he spent much of his life exploring. In “New Seeds of Contemplation”, he writes this: “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s (sic) intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and beyond simple faith… It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts…”
Elsewhere in the book, he makes an even stronger statement about the need to go beyond simple answers: “Contemplation is no pain-killer… it is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply ‘is.’”
In his first book, “The Seven Storey Mountain”, Merton writes that he entered the monastery so that he could become closer to God. As he matured, however, he came to realise that the quest for God can happen anywhere. All of us have access to this rich interior life, this unfolding of what is truly real. All of us can be contemplatives.
In Merton’s words: “Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo.”
Through contemplation we are reminded that all places are holy, including a busy street corner in the middle of a city.