Hear our voice, O Lord, according to your faithful love.
Valentyna Kulpinova. Nightlight with author glass painting. Roosters in Ukrainian folk lore are a symbol of the victory of good over evil.
VII. Come Unto Me.
VIII. Plentious Grace with Thee is Found.
from: Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Boston: Shambala, 2003 (First published, 1961).
Chapter 2. "What Contemplation is Not". (Continued from Day 13, yesterday.)
Contemplation is not prayerfulness, or a tendency to find peace and satisfaction in liturgical rites. These, too, are a great good, and they are almost necessary preparations for contemplative experience.
They can never, of themselves, constitute that experience. Contemplative intuition has nothing to do with temperament. Though it sometimes happens that a person of quiet temperament becomes a contemplative, it may also happen that the their very passivity of character keeps them from suffering the inner struggle and the crisis through which one generally comes to a deeper spiritual awakening.
On the other hand, it can happen that an active and passionate man awakens to contemplation, and perhaps suddenly, without too much struggle. But it must be said, as a rule, that certain active types are not disposed to contemplation and never come to it except with great difficulty. Indeed, they ought perhaps not even to think about it or seek it, because in doing so they will tend to strain themselves and injure themselves by absurd efforts that cannot possibly make any sense or have any useful purpose. Such people, being given to imagination, passion and active conquest, exhaust themselves in trying to attain contemplation as if it were some kind of an object, like a material fortune, or a political office, or a professorship, or a prelacy. But contemplation can never be the object of calculated ambition. It is not something we plan to obtain with our practical reason, but the living water of the spirit that we thirst for, like a hunted deer thirsting after a river in the wilderness.
It is not we who choose to awaken ourselves, but God Who chooses to awaken us.
CONTEMPLATION is not trance or ecstasy, nor the hearing of sudden unutterable words, nor the imagination of lights. It is not the emotional fire and sweetness that come with religious exaltation. It is not enthusiasm, the sense of being "seized" by an elemental force and swept into liberation by mystical frenzy. These things may seem to be in some way like a contemplative awakening in so far as they suspend the ordinary awareness and control exercised by our empirical self. But they are not the work of the "deep self," only of the emotions, of the somatic unconscious. They are a flooding up of the dionysian forces of the "id." Such manifestations can of course accompany a deep and genuine religious experience, but they are not what I am talking about here as contemplation.
NOR is contemplation the gift of prophecy, nor does it imply the ability to read the secrets of peoples’ hearts. These things can sometimes go along with contemplation but they are not essential to it, and it would be erroneous to confuse them with it.
There are many other escapes from the empirical, external self, which might seem to be, but are not, contemplation. For instance, the experience of being seized and taken out of oneself by collective enthusiasm, in a totalitarian parade: the self-righteous upsurge of party loyalty that blots out conscience and absolves every criminal tendency in the name of Class, Nation, Party, Race or Sect. The danger and the attraction of these false mystiques of Nation and of Class is precisely that they seduce and pretend to satisfy those who are no longer aware of any deep or genuine spiritual need. The false mysticism of the Mass Society captivates yhose who are so alienated from themselves and from God that they are no longer capable of genuine spiritual experience. Yet it is precisely these ersatz forms of enthusiasm that are "opium" for the people, deadening their awareness of their deepest and most personal needs, alienating them from their true selves, putting conscience and personality to sleep and turning free, reasonable people into passive instruments of the power politician.
Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial "doubt." This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious "faith" of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion. This false "faith" which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our "religion" is subjected to inexorable questioning. This torment is a kind of trial by fire in which we are compelled, by the very light of invisible truth which has reached us in the dark ray of contemplation, to examine, to doubt and finally to reject all the prejudices and conventions that we have hitherto accepted as if they were dogmas. Hence is it clear that genuine contemplation is incompatible with complacency and with smug acceptance of prejudiced opinions. It is not mere passive acquiescence in the status quo, as some would like to believe—for this would reduce it to the level of spiritual anesthesia. Contemplation is no pain-killer. What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, clichés, slogans, rationalizations! The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest. 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 the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he or she no longer knows what God is. He may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because "God is not a what, not a "thing." That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no "what" that can be called Cod. There is "no such thing" as God because God is neither a "what" nor a "thing" but a pure "Who." He is the "Thou" before whom our inmost "I" springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo "I am."
May God our Redeemer show us compassion and love. Amen.