BOOK OF THE MONTH: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND

Week Four: Give Love Away
No Man Is an Island

This is our last week exploring some of the rich themes in Thomas Merton’s classic book, No Man Is an Island.

In this book, Merton is seeking the spiritual life, which, he reminds us in the prologue, is the only real life, the most real life we can imagine or have. The spiritual life is primarily about being or existing as opposed to doing. It’s about our identity as children of God.

We don’t exist for ourselves. We exist (we “are”) for God. We also exist for others, since we love God largely through loving others. This thought leads Merton to quote the seventeenth-century poet John Donne, whence the title of the book comes: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

Merton continues this train of thought in Chapter One, which is titled, “Love Can Be Kept Only By Being Given Away.” In this chapter, Merton explores what it means to love. A true love, he notes, wishes the good of the beloved over all other things.

Sometimes it seems easy to love because it gives us pleasure or satisfaction. However, to seek one’s good wholly in the good of another is a different matter. It requires loving the truth, and it demands total unselfishness.

Here are some quotes from this rich and moving chapter on love:

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Infinite sharing is the law of God’s inner life. He has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves.

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The gift of love is the gift of the power and capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.

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If I am to love my brother [or sister], I must somehow enter deeply into the mystery of God’s love for him. I must be moved not only by human sympathy but by that divine sympathy which is revealed to us in Jesus and which enriches our own lives by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

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The truth I must love in my brother is God himself, living in him.

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It occurred to me that today’s post probably should have been the first in our Book of the Month for May since the theme of love is the first to be discussed in Merton’s book . .  but maybe it’s also a good way to end.

Let’s see God living in our brothers and sisters this week. Let’s give some love away, shall we?

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You can read No Man Is an Island here.

Reflection:

Merton week 4

 

 

 

THOMAS MERTON’S PRAYER FOR PENTECOST

Sunday, May 20 was the beginning of the season of Pentecost. Here is Thomas Merton’s prayer for the Vigil of Pentecost. It’s long but worth reading and praying in its entirety.

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Today, Father, this blue sky lauds you. The delicate green and orange flowers of the tulip poplar tree praise you. The distant blue hills praise you together with the sweet-smelling air that is full of brilliant light. The bickering flycatchers praise you together with the lowing cattle and the quails that whistle over there. I too, Father, praise you, with all these my brothers, and they all give voice to my own heart and to my own silence. We are all one silence and a diversity of voices.

You have made us together, you have made us one and many, you have placed me here in the midst as witness, as awareness, and as joy. Here I am. In me the world is present and you are present. I am a link in the chain of light and of presence. You have made me a kind of centre, but a centre that is nowhere. And yet I am “here,” let us say I am “here” under these trees, not others.

For a long time I was in darkness and in sorrow, and I suppose my confusion was my own fault. No doubt my own will has been the root of my sorrow, and I regret it merciful father, but I do not regret it because this formula is acceptable as an official answer to all problems. I know I have sinned, but the sin is not to be found in any list. Perhaps I have looked to hard at all the lists to find out what my sin was and I did not know that it was precisely the sin of looking at all the lists when you were telling me that this was useless. My “sin” is not on the list, and is perhaps not even a sin. In any case I cannot know what it is, and doubtless there is nothing there anyway.

Whatever may have been my particular stupidity, the prayers of your friends and my own prayers have somehow been answered and I am here, in this solitude, before you, and I am glad because you see me here. For it here, I think, that you want to see me, and I am seen by you. My being here is a response you have asked of me, to something I have not clearly heard. But I have responded, and I am content: there is little to know about it at present.

Here you ask of me nothing else than to be content that I am your Child and your Friend. Which simply means to accept your friendship because it is your friendship and your Fatherhood because I am your son. This friendship is Son-ship and is Spirit. You have called me here to be repeatedly born in the Spirit as your son. Repeatedly born in light, in knowledge, in unknowing, in faith, in awareness, in gratitude, in poverty, in presence and in praise.

If I have any choice to make, it is to live here and perhaps die here. But in any case it is not the living or the dying that matter, but speaking your name with confidence in this light, in this unvisited place: to speak your name of “Father” just by being here as “son” in the Spirit and the Light which you have given , and which are no unearthly light but simply this plain June day, with its shining fields, its tulip trees, the pines, the woods, the clouds and the flowers everywhere.

To be here with the silence of Sonship in my heart is to be a centre in which all things converge upon you. That is surely enough for the time being.

Therefore Father, I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it the word of your peace and the word of your mercy and the word of your gentleness to the world: and that through me perhaps your word of peace may make itself heard where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time.

To study truth here and learn here to suffer for truth.

The Light itself, and the contentment and the Spirit, these are enough.

Source

BOOK OF THE MONTH: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND BY THOMAS MERTON

Week 3: Suffering and Contemplation

No Man Is an Island

This month, we’re reading a spiritual classic, No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton. In chapter five, Merton explores the theme of suffering. Suffering, Merton observes, comes to us because of the fall. He writes: “The Christian must not only accept suffering: he must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering.”

How, then, is suffering made holy? Merton spends the chapter unpacking this and related questions. Again and again, he relates our suffering to the cross and also to contemplation. The chapter is so rich that I can’t do it justice here. I’ll share a few quotes with you — and then I encourage you to go read it yourself!

 

 

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To know the Cross is to know that we are saved by the sufferings of Christ; more, it is to know the love of Christ Who underwent suffering and death in order to save us. . . This explains the connection between suffering and contemplation. For contemplation is simply the penetration, by divine wisdom, into the mystery of God’s love, in the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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We cannot suffer well unless we see Christ everywhere—both in suffering and in the charity of those who come to the aid of our affliction.

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In order to face suffering in peace: Suffer without imposing on others a theory of suffering, without weaving a new philosophy of life from your own material pain, without proclaiming yourself a martyr, without counting out the price of your courage, without disdaining sympathy and without seeking too much of it.

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In the end, we should seek God everywhere, even in the darkness of suffering.

You can read No Man Is an Island here.

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For reflection:

 

Merton week 3

 

BOOK OF THE MONTH: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND BY THOMAS MERTON

No Man Is an IslandWeek 2: Christian Renunciation

Our Book of the Month is No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton. Last week, we looked at being versus doing. In chapter 6, Merton tackles the difficult topic of renunciation or asceticism. I’m interested in this topic because the mystics and contemplatives from the past sometimes engaged in asceticism and are often misunderstood for it.

So what is Christian asceticism or renunciation? What were all those mystics up to? And what are we up to when we fast or otherwise sacrifice some of our comforts—during Lent but also at other times?

Merton writes:

Self-denial delivers us from the passions and from selfishness. It delivers us from a superstitious attachment to our own ego as if it were a god.

But Merton has a warning. Renunciation is not a matter of ruthlessly denying or perpetrating violence upon our bodies. It begins with God, not us:

It delivers us from the “flesh” in the technical New Testament sense, but it does not deliver us from the body. It is no escape from matter or from the senses, nor is it meant to be. It is the first step toward a transformation of our entire being in which, according to the plan of God, even our bodies will live in the light of His divine glory and be transformed in Him together with our souls.

Here are more of Merton’s thoughts on Christian renunciation:

There is only one true asceticism: that which is guided not by our own spirit but by the Spirit of God. The spirit of man [and woman] must first subject itself to grace and then it can bring the flesh in subjection both to grace and to itself. “If by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live” (Romans 8:13).

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Those, then, who put their passions to death not with the poison of their own ambition but with the clean blade of the will of God will live in the silence of true interior peace, for their lives are hidden with Christ in God. Such is the meek “violence” of those who take Heaven by storm.

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We cannot become saints merely by trying to run away from material things. To have a spiritual life is to have a life that is spiritual in all its wholeness—a life in which the actions of the body are holy because of the soul, and the soul is holy because of God dwelling and acting in it.

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And here’s a wonderful thought. True asceticism, as in the passages above, can lead us to love and serve other people:

To say that Christian renunciation must be ordered to God is to say that it must bear fruit in a deep life of prayer and then in works of active charity. Christian renunciation is not a matter of technical self-denial, beginning and ending within the narrow limits of our own soul. It is the first movement of a liberty which escapes the boundaries of all that is finite and natural and contingent, enters into a contact of charity with the infinite goodness of God, and then goes forth from God to reach all that He loves.

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You can read No Man Is an Island here.

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For reflection:

Merton week 2

BOOK OF THE MONTH: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND BY THOMAS MERTON

Week 1: Being and Doing
No Man Is an Island
Our Book of the Month for May is No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton (1915–1968), the Trappist monk, mystic, and writer. In this classic, Merton reflects on the spiritual life in sixteen chapters.

Chapter 7 opens with a beautiful reflection on being and doing:

We are warmed by fire, not by the smoke of the fire. We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So, too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in our outward reflection of our own acts.

Yet we so often seem drawn to obsess over our actions and achievements (or lack thereof) and to pursue more and more of them. If left unchecked, this impulse can be damaging to our innermost selves. In this chapter of his book, Merton reminds us that:

  • we find ourselves in being, not in doing
  • we find peace in contemplating God, not ourselves
  • we find peace in being content to be “little”

I’ve pulled out a few quotes from this chapter that spoke to me. Here Merton talks about pursuing greatness and playing the comparison game. I know that game all too well; it’s something I constantly have to guard against. So Merton is really speaking into my soul when he writes these words.

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Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. It is, therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.

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The deep secrecy of my own being is often hidden from me by my own estimate of what I am. My idea of what I am is falsified by my admiration for what I do. And my illusions about myself are bred by contagion from the illusions of other men. We all seek to imitate one another’s imagined greatness.

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To counter these illusions and games, we sometimes need to remind ourselves to just be:

There are times, then, when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all we simply have to sit back for a while and do nothing. And for a man [or woman] who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all. The very act of resting is the hardest and most courageous act he can perform: and often it is quite beyond his power.

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Read No Man Is an Island here.

For reflection: When was the last time you sat back for a while and did nothing? How difficult was this for you?

 

Merton week 1

 

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:

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.

Book of the Month: Thoughts in Solitude

Week One: The Cost of Neglecting Solitude

thoughts in solitude-mertonThomas Merton makes me want to take a walk in the woods for a week. At a time when we have no shortage of words, we desperately need the wisdom and insight that comes from extended periods of solitude. Just by virtue of his beautiful prose, Merton makes solitude desirable.

Via the book’s description: “Thoughts in Solitude addresses the pleasure of a solitary life, as well as the necessity for quiet reflection in an age when so little is private.”

Here are a few quotes from Merton to consider:

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“When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority.”

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“God’s plan was that they [the Israelites] should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.”

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Learn more about Thoughts in Solitude…

 

For Reflection

Merton book August 1 2016

Saturday Prayer

“Why should I want to be rich, when You were poor? Why should I desire to be famous and powerful in the eyes of men, when the sons of those who exalted the false prophets and stoned the true rejected You and nailed You to the Cross? Why should I cherish in my heart a hope that devours me—the hope for perfect happiness in this life—when such hope, doomed to frustration, is nothing but despair?”

-Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude