Contemplative Profiles: Thomas Merton on Advent

This month’s contemplative profile by historian Lisa Deam is Thomas Merton:

In addition to writing a best-selling autobiography (The Seven Storey Mountain) and numerous books on the spiritual life, Thomas Merton was also a poet. He saw a link between contemplation and poetry and once said, “No Christian poetry worthy of the name has been written by anyone who was not in some degree a contemplative.”

Among Merton’s poetry are some beautiful verses for Advent and Christmas. Enjoy the poem below as you journey through the season.

Advent

Charm with your stainlessness these winter nights,
Skies, and be perfect!

Fly, vivider in the fiery dark, you quiet meteors,
And disappear.
You moon, be slow to go down,
This is your full!

The four white roads make off in silence
Towards the four parts of the starry universe.
Time falls like manna at the corners of the wintry earth.
We have become more humble than the rocks,
More wakeful than the patient hills.

Charm with your stainlessness these nights in Advent,
holy spheres,
While minds, as meek as beasts,
Stay close at home in the sweet hay;
And intellects are quieter than the flocks that feed by starlight.

Oh pour your darkness and your brightness over all our
solemn valleys,
You skies: and travel like the gentle Virgin,
Toward the planets’ stately setting,

Oh white full moon as quiet as Bethlehem!

Read this and other verses in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton.

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

 

Contemplative Profiles: Thomas Merton

This month’s contemplative profile by historian Lisa Deam is Thomas Merton:

In several of his written works, Thomas Merton explores the idea of the spiritual life as a journey. While we may like to envision our path as being clearly laid out and free of obstruction, Merton realizes that in reality we’re often groping in the dark. He highlights one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith—we travel, sometimes blindly, to a destination that we already possess. His reflections on life’s journey offer hope as we take the road to Bethlehem this Advent season.

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“In one sense we are always traveling, and traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense we have already arrived. We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life, and that is why we are traveling and in darkness. But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore, in that sense, we have arrived and are dwelling in the light. But oh! How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived!” (The Seven Storey Mountain)

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“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thoughts in Solitude)

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Reflection: Where am I on my journey with God today?

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

 

Contemplative Profiles: Thomas Merton

This month’s contemplative profile by historian Lisa Deam is Thomas Merton:

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, a beloved modern contemplative, and a prolific writer. He left us many books and essays on the spiritual life. When I read Merton, I’m especially struck by the way he confronts and even embraces the difficulties of living the Christian life. Following Jesus is not easy, and Merton knows this. His frank admission of his struggles ministers to us in our own.

Regarding his internal struggles and contradictions, Merton writes:

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“I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me: if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self-defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.” (A Thomas Merton Reader)

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“Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings . . . All life tends to grow like this, in mystery inscaped with paradox and contradiction, yet centered, in its very heart, on the divine mercy . . . and the realization of the ‘new life’ that is in us who believe, by the gift of the Holy Spirit. “ (A Thomas Merton Reader)

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Such paradoxes define the life of faith. About each person’s struggle with both internal and external darkness, Merton says:

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“Those who continue to struggle are at peace. If God wills, they can pacify the world.  For he[/she] who accepts the struggle in the name of Christ is delivered from its power by the victory of Christ.” (A Thomas Merton Reader)

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Read more about Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Reflection

How willing am I to embrace and learn from the contradictions and struggles in my spiritual life?

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

Featured Book: Finding Grace at the Center

Week Three: Prayer without Judgment or Evaluation

finding-grace-at-centerIn Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, Thomas Keating provides an extremely helpful introduction to centering prayer based on The Cloud of Unknowing, a Carthusian monk’s prayer guide for novices dated to around the 14th century.

Keating is especially careful to avoid overselling what “happens” during centering prayer. One may not expect incredible revelations or to even be fully in control of what happens during this prayer. Rather, intention becomes essential as we enter this form of prayer.

Keating writes:

 

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“[Centering prayer] is not an end in itself, but a beginning. It is not to be done for the sake of an experience, but for the sake of its fruits in one’s life.”

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“The presence of God is like the atmosphere we breathe. You can have all you want of it as long as you do not try to take possession of it and hang on to it.”

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“Accept each period of centering prayer as it comes, without asking for anything, having no expectations. In that way its fruits will grow faster.”

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“We always want to possess. That is why it is so hard to leg go–why we want to reflect on moments of deep peace or union in order to remember how we got there and thus how to get back. But charity is non-possessive. It gives all back to God as fast as it comes. It keeps nothing for itself.”

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“Take everything that happens during the periods of centering prayer peacefully and gratefully, without putting a judgment on anything, and just let the thoughts go by. It does not matter where they come from, as long as you let them go by. Don’t worry about them.”

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Read more…

 

Friday Favorites for Prayer and Writing

Each Friday I share some of my favorite finds related to praying or writing. If I think it could help you pray or write better, then I’ll include it below.

Do you have someone else’s article or post to share? Join the Contemplative Writers Facebook group, comment on today’s post on my Facebook page, or follow me on Twitter (@edcyzewski) to nominate your favorite articles, blog posts, and books by Thursday at noon each week.

 

Hygge: A Heart-warning Lesson from Denmark (found via Michelle DeRusha’s newsletter)

Not All Habits Are Equal (Just read a lot, ok?)

9 Practices for Post-Election Contemplative Resiliency  (Since we don’t have a time machine yet…)

How to NOT Be Driven by Your Aversions

Characteristics of Healthy Spirituality

 

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Contemplative Profiles: Evelyn Underhill

Week Three: United in Praise

Contemplative profiles are back with the help of author and historian Lisa Deam. This month we’re featuring Evelyn Underhill:

We belong to different denominations and often have different approaches to prayer and worship. Yet God’s truth unites us. In her book, Worship, Evelyn Underhill describes the various streams of Christianity coming together to praise the God who became incarnate in time and space:

“The monk or nun rising to recite the Night Office that the Church’s praise of God may never cease, and the Quaker waiting in silent assurance on the Spirit given at Pentecost; the ritualist, ordering with care every detail of a complicated ceremonial that God may be glorified thereby, and the old woman content to boil her potatoes in the same sacred intention; the Catholic burning a candle before the symbolic image of the Sacred Heart or confidently seeking the same Divine Presence in the tabernacle, and the Methodist or Lutheran pouring out his devotion in hymns to the Name of Jesus; the Orthodox bowed down in speechless adoration at the culminating moment of the Divine Mysteries, and the Salvationist marching to drum and tambourine behind the banner of the Cross – all these are here at one. Their worship is conditioned by a concrete fact; the stooping down of the Absolute to disclose Himself within the narrow human radius, the historical incarnation of the Eternal Logos within time.”

Many practices, one praise. What a beautiful picture of God’s diverse people becoming one in response to the gift of his son!

For Reflection

How can I use my distinctive faith tradition to pray to and worship God this week?

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

Featured Article: A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind

We have many, many ways to avoid being present in the moment. We can interrupt ourselves as often as we like. And now it appears that a Harvard study of happiness and contentment has linked these constant interruptions as detrimental to our happiness.

A wandering mind that isn’t focused or fully present for an activity or task is often an unhappy mind.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to Christians who practice contemplation, as mindfulness and awareness of our thoughts saves us from their tyranny and enables us to trust our worries and concerns with God.

However, it’s still helpful to see how the wisdom of our faith has strong backing from science:

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“A recent Harvard study reveals that stray thoughts and wandering minds are directly related to unhappiness. The study discovered that those with constantly wandering minds were less likely to be happy than those able to focus on the tasks at hand.”

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“Csikszentmihalyi, often called the grandfather of positive psychology, found that our happiest moments are when we are in the state of flow. In this state, we are highly alert. We are totally focused with one-pointed attention. This focus–this mindfulness of being in the moment–is when true happiness spontaneously arises.”

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“Flow allows you to truly and deeply live your life as it unfolds in the here and now. Perhaps this is why the latest research continues to confirm that mindfulness increases happiness–to be mindful is to truly experience life and make the most out of every moment.”

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Read more.

 

Scripture Meditation: Don’t Think Too Hard about It…

“The Lord knows people’s thoughts; he knows they are worthless! Joyful are those you discipline, Lord, those you teach with your instructions.”
– Psalm 94:11-12, NLT

What better motivation to pursue the silence and rest of contemplative prayer than to read that God knows our thoughts are worthless!

While there is a great deal in scripture that praises meditating on scripture and remembering God’s laws, this Psalm offers a reality check for the times when we rely on our own wisdom. Most importantly, we find that even when God sees our inadequacies and failures, he responds with mercy and instruction.

Even when God knows that we will fall short over and over again, he desires to give us the joy of his instruction and discipline. May we find God’s loving direction, even as we discover the folly of our wisdom.

Book of the Month: Finding Grace at the Center

finding-grace-at-centerWeek Two: Transformed in Silence

In Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, M. Basil Pennington writes about the transformation that comes in the practice of centering prayer.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of centering prayer for those new to it is the manner in which God transforms our lives in silence. There is no way to measure or evaluate your progress in the moment.

The transformation of our lives happens gradually by faith, much like the way a branch that abides in its vine can grow fruit.

 

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“Perhaps in this prayer we will for the first time really act in pure faith. So often our faith is leaning on the concepts and images of faith. Here we go beyond them to the Object Himself of faith, leaving all the concepts and images behind.”

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“If we have lots of thoughts-good, lots of tension is being released; if we have few thoughts-good, there was no need for them… All these are purely accidental; they do not touch the essence of prayer, which goes on in all its purity, whether these be present or not.”

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“If we are faithful to this form of prayer, making it a regular part of our day, we very quickly come to discern-and often others discern it even more quickly-the maturing in our lives of the fruits of the Spirit.”

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“We begin… to experience the presence of God in all things, the presence of Christ in each person we meet. Moreover, we sense a oneness with them.”

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Read more…

 

For Reflection

featured-book-november-14

 

Contemplative Profile: Evelyn Underhill

Week Two: Contemplation and Action

Contemplative profiles are back with the help of author and historian Lisa Deam. This month we’re featuring Evelyn Underhill:

In Evelyn Underhill’s later works we see a theme that runs through the history of Christian contemplation: the dance of contemplation and action. Our private prayer life is important. In fact, Underhill says we must each be a “secret child of God.” Yet our prayers also open us to the larger purposes of God. We’re not merely fulfilled; we’re spilled out into the world.

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“For it is the self-oblivious gaze, the patient and disciplined attention to God, which deepens understanding, nourishes humility and love; and, by gentle processes of growth, gradually brings the creature into that perfect dedication to His purposes.” (Worship)

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“A real man or woman of prayer, then, should be a live wire, a link between God’s grace and the world that needs it . . .” (“Life as Prayer”)

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“We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to His music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life; mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.” (Spiritual Life)

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Reflection

How can I be both a receiver and a transmitter of God’s love this week?

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.