Merton and Prayer of the Desert
Mr. Mark Meade is the Assistant Director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University and current President of the International Thomas Merton Society. Mark is a committed, active member of the Cathedral Parish and sings with the Cathedral Singers.
Mark gave this presentation in the Cathedral Undercroft on March 4, 2018.
Click below to listen. While listening, you may scroll through these notes.
THOMAS MERTON AND THE LENTEN PRAYER OF THE DESERT
“Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast. It cannot be otherwise, as it forms part of the great Easter cycle…
There is joy in the salutary fasting and abstinence of the Christian who eats and drinks less in order that his mind may be more clear and receptive to receive the sacred nourishment of God’s word, which the whole Church announces and meditates upon in each day’s liturgy throughout Lent. The whole life and teaching of Christ pass before us, and Lent is a season of special reflection and prayer, a forty-day retreat in which each Christian, to the extent that [one] is able, tries to follow Christ into the desert by prayer and fasting…
The cross of ashes, traced upon the forehead of each Christian, is not only a reminder of death but inevitably (though tacitly) a pledge of resurrection.” Seasons of Celebration, “Ash Wednesday”(New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965), pp. 113-115.
Recommendations for Contemplative Prayer (also under the title The Climate of Monastic Prayer): read introduction and Chapters 1-5 & 11-19 for an abbreviated study. Page numbers match Contemplative Prayer (New York: Herder, 1969).
“Meditation has no point and no reality unless it is firmly rooted in life.” Contemplative Prayer, Chapter IV, (p. 45).
The climate in which monastic prayer flowers is that of the desert, where comfort is absent, where the secure routines of [the] city offer no support, and where prayer must be sustained by God in the purity of faith…” Contemplative Prayer, Chapter I, (p. 27).
“When we seem to possess and use our being and natural faculties in a completely autonomous manner, as if our individual ego were the pure source and end of our own acts, then we are in illusion and our acts, however spontaneously they may seem to be, lack spiritual meaning and authenticity.
Consequently: first of all our meditation should begin with the realization of our nothingness and helplessness in the presence of God. This need not be a mournful of discouraging experience. On the contrary, it can be deeply tranquil and joyful since it brings us in direct contact with the source of all joy and all life.” Contemplative Prayer, Chapter XI (p. 70).
“Contemplative prayer is, in a way, simply the preference for the desert, for emptiness, for poverty. One has begun to know the meaning of contemplation when [one] intuitively and spontaneously seeks the dark and unknown path of aridity…
Only when we are able to ‘let go’ of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life.” Contemplative Prayer, Chapter XV (p. 89)
“God is invisibly present to the ground of our being: our belief and love attain to him, but he remains hidden from the arrogant gaze of our investigating mind which seeks to capture him and secure permanent possession of him in an act of knowledge that give power over him. It is in fact absurd and impossible to try to grasp God as an object which can be seized and comprehended by our minds.
The knowledge of which we are capable is simply knowledge about him. It points to him in analogies which we must transcend in order to reach him. But we must transcend ourselves as well as our analogies, and in seeking to know him we must forget the familiar subject-object relationship which characterizes our ordinary acts of knowing. Instead we know him in so far as we become aware of ourselves as known through and through by him. We ‘possess’ him in proportion as we realize ourselves to be possessed by him in the inmost depths of our being. Meditation or ‘prayer of the heart’ is the active effort we make to keep our hearts open so that we may be enlightened by him and filled with this realization of our true relation to him. Therefore the classic form of ‘meditation’ is repetitive invocation the name of Jesus in the heart emptied of images and cares.” Contemplative Prayer, Chapter XIV (p. 81-83).
In reality the monk abandons the world only in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed from its inner depth.” Contemplative Prayer, Introduction (p. 23).
“It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole [human] race…
By my monastic life and vows I am saying NO to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace…
But it is true, nevertheless, that the faith in which I believe is also invoked by many who believe in war, believe in racial injustices, believe in self-righteous and lying forms of tyranny. My life must, then, be a protest against these also, and perhaps against these most of all…
If I say NO to all these secular forces, I also say YES to all that is good in the world and in man. I say YES to all that is beautiful in nature, and in order that this may be the yes of a freedom and not of subjection, I must refuse to possess any thing in the world purely as my own. I say YES to all the men and women who are my brothers and sisters in the world, but for this yes to be an assent of freedom and not of subjection, I must live so that no one of them may seem to belong to me, and that I may not belong to any of them. It is because I want to be more to them than a friend that I become, to all of them, a stranger.” Honorable Reader, pref. to the Japanese ed. of The Seven Storey Mountain, edited by Robert Daggy (New York: Crossroad, 1989).