Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Exercises
the School of Our Lives
December 8, 2020, 8 PM ET
This webinar for “Tuesdays with Merton” is now available on YouTube:
The volume Monastic Observances includes Merton’s notes for teaching prayer. He inspired his novices to apprehend their lives as “schools of wisdom”. He mentored a contemplative re-translation of their historical and inner experiences as exercises designing their truest selves. Merton’s writing contains his own spiritual exercises for his continuing education in the school of a Divine Providence. Exercises in his journals can mentor re-translations of our own lives, producing conscious epiphanies of the graced interdependence of “all things” that continually conspire to propel our loving the world of our relationships that create our “one, wild and precious” lives” (Mary Oliver).
Jonathan Montaldo served as director of the Thomas Merton Center and as president of the ITMS. As associate director for the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, he directed its retreat center Bethany Spring. He co-created Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton and co-edited The Intimate Merton. Other renditions of Merton’s writing include A Year with Thomas Merton, Dialogues with Silence, and Choosing to Love the World. He narrated five Merton audiobooks. A co-general editor for Fons Vitae’s Thomas Merton & series, he presents retreats based upon Merton’s legacy for mentoring our spiritual formations.
A Collage of Readings for December 8th’s Webinar
In announcing this webinar on Facebook, I’ve provided readings for each day from December 1st – December 8th. These texts will “ground” my presentation. You can choose to read and reflect or not, of course, do as you will, but it might helpful for gaging the tenor of the hour and whether it’s worth spending your time. The boldface type in the texts is mine. December 1
From Merton’s notes for a conference for his student monks on prayer (cited here with my editing), he instructs them to meditate
“ by entering deeply into the school of life itself, to make your whole life a meditation, a learning from God, a school of wisdom, a clear-sighted and humble cooperation with the wisdom of divine Providence in your life, a ceaseless effort to receive His (sic) secret instruction, in all events, by learning from His holy will, and living constantly under His gaze. Meditation is not just playing with ideas but is fed by realities! […] [You reflect] on the action of grace and detect as best you can the innumerable movements of divine love in your life. . .This prayer is characterized by great simplicity, and by frequent but simple, silent cries going up to God from the depths of our heart.”
[To read Merton’s conference notes, unpublished elsewhere, on meditation and prayer, see Monastic Observances: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 5. Edited by Patrick F. O’Connell (Liturgical Press, 2010): 75-92.]
“Everything That Is, Is Holy”
The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own self-hood, (I do not say the body, because the body is God’s temple and is holy), and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls. In His (sic) Love we possess all things and enjoy the fruition of them, finding Him in them all. Thus, as we go about the world everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch, far from defiling, purifies us and plants in us seeds of contemplation and heaven.
[Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions, 1949): 22.]
This paragraph from Michael Plekon’s Personal Holiness, that describes another witness in the cloud of all of them, encapsulates for me Thomas Merton’s “real legacy:”
“One can review all the different dimensions which evolved in her work, in particular the dialogue among religions and the place of women in the church. But beyond all the specific themes, it seems to me that her principal, her unique contribution was anchored above all in what she saw as the one thing necessary, namely, to go into the depths of herself, to make her being, with all her singularity and personal history, permeable to Christ… to witness to his existence to as many as possible. This is her real legacy.”
[Olga Lossky on Elizabeth Behr-Sigel quoted in Michael Plekon, Hidden Holiness, 78]
From Merton’s journals for July 17, 1956:
“Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything, or you look at your own life and your own part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out in the infinite further possibilities for study, contemplation, and praise. Beyond all and in all is God.
“Perhaps the book of life, in the end, is the book of what one has lived and, if one has lived nothing, he (sic) is not in the book of life.
“And I have always wanted to write about everything.
“ That does not mean to write a book that covers everything—which would be impossible, but a book in which everything can go. A book with a little of everything that creates itself out of everything. That has its own life. A faithful book. I no longer look at it as a ‘book’.”
[A Search for Solitude (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996): 45.]
“There are people one meets in books or in life whom one does not merely meet or know. A deep resonance of one’s entire being is immediately set up with the entire being of the other (Cor ad cor loquitur—heart speaks to the heart in the wholeness of the language of music; true friendship is a kind of singing.)
“Resonances: here is a good choir: Maritain, Van der Meer de Walcheren, Bloy, Green, Chagall, Satie…variety and unity.
“Another earlier music, most deep with me: Blake, Tauler, Eckhart, Ruysbroeck. Coomaraswamy sings with any of them. They sang me into the Church, these voices. And Dante’s voice.
“Man (sic) is a beautiful instrument for God. Our singing together is perhaps the best and most evident manifestation of God in His (sic) world: His music in us. This is a deep reason for monastic psalmody.
[Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander (Doubleday, 1966): 188
In another paragraph in his essay, “Day of A Stranger” Merton lists thirty-one voices with whom he “sings” in his hermitage, an intimate, yet expansive choir, with whom his own voice takes its place and part, among them a choir of women:
“Here should be and are [within me in my hermitage] feminine voices from Angela of Foligno to Flannery O’Conner, Teresa of Avila, Juliana of Norwich, and more personally and warmly still, Raïssa Maritain.”
[“Day of A Stranger” (as published) is reproduced in The Intimate Merton (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999) 241-249. Merton’s journal version, expanded into the published essay, can be read in Dancing in the Water of Life (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998): 239-242.]
“Maybe St. Lucy’s Day I start out for Kentucky, full of prayer. …. Also, there is absolutely no language to say the things that are to say about this except the language of love: but there He (sic) will teach me to use that language like a child and a saint. Until which I cannot talk about Him, Who is all I want to talk about.
And in Him, while I sing in the big church, will be also: Lax, Gibney, Seymour, Slate, Rice, Gerdy, Knight, Huttlinger, and Van Doren, and the Baroness, and Mary Jerdo, and my brother and my uncle and my aunt and my father and mother who died and Brahmachari and the whole mystical body of Christ, everybody: Roger, Gil, all people, Jinny, Lilly. All people. The living and the dead. All days, all times, all ages, all worlds, all mysteries, all miracles….”
[Letter to Bob Lax, December 6, 1941, in The Road to Joy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 163-164): 1989.]
“It is beautiful Advent weather, greyish and cold, with clouds of light snow howling across the valley and I see it is really winter. I put some bread out for the birds.
“Twenty-one years tomorrow since I landed here! I feel closer to my beginning than ever, yet perhaps I am near my end. The Advent hymns sound as they first did as if they were the nearest things to me that ever were as if they had been decisive in shaping my heart and my life as if I had received their form as if there could never be any other melodies so deeply connatural to me.”
[Turning Toward The World (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997): 272.]
June 20, 1948
“Now I see what it is all leading up to: to the happiness and the peace and the salvation of many people I have never known. There is no greater joy than to be drawn into union with God’s great love for the souls of men (sic), of Himself (sic) in them, and cooperate with Him in drawing them into His joy.
“The best thing of all is that Bob Giroux or somebody did an index to The Seven Storey Mountain: the most peculiar collection of names you ever saw. Starts off with Abbot, Father and goes on to Advent; Adler, Alfred; Ellington, Duke; and Fields, W.C.; Smith, Pete is followed by Smith, Robert Paul, and there is Bob O’Brien, the plumber at the Olean House, and Pierrot the teamster at Saint Antonin, and the Privats at Murst, and Brother Fabian who went to Georgia, and Mary Jerdo, and Helen Freedgood and Burton, Jinny and Flagg, Nancy and Wells, Peggy. . .
“I was fascinated. The index is beautiful. It is like the gathering of all the people I have known at a banquet to celebrate the publication of the Book. It is like a pledge that they will all belong to me somehow as trophies in heaven, or I will belong to some of them as a trophy. …
“ I think this index is a partial, optimistic preview of the General Judgment with the four Marx Brothers among the sheep. So God is very good. “Holy in all His ways.”
[Entering the Silence (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997): 213-214.]
“Therefore, most honorable reader, it is not as an author that I would speak to you, not as a story-teller, not as a philosopher, not as a friend only: I seek to speak to you in some way as your own self. Who can tell what this might mean? I myself do not know. But if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me, but to One who lives and speaks in us both!”
[Honorable Reader (Crossroad, 1989): 67.]
“Lady, when on that night I left the Island that was your England, your love went with me, although I could not know it and could not make myself aware of it. It was your love, your intercession for me, before God, that was preparing the seas before my ship, laying open the way for me to another country. I was not sure where I was going, I could not see what I would do when I got to New York. But you saw further and clearer than I. You opened the seas before my whose track led me across the waters to a place I had never dreamed of, which you were even then preparing for me to be my rescue and my shelter and my home. And when I thought there was no God and no love and no mercy, you were leading me all the while into the midst of His (sic) love and His mercy, and taking me, without my knowing it, to the house that would hide me in the secret of His Face.”
[The Seven Storey Mountain (Harcourt, Brace, 1948): 130-131.]
The Epiphany of Kindness Shining in Sorrow’s Face
© Jonathan Montaldo
On March 19, in Louisville, Kentucky on the downtown corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, after visiting his doctor, the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton stepped out unto the busy sidewalk and found himself suddenly in deep communion with the human beings he saw there. “Thank God,” he wrote later in his book Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander (1966: 156-157) about the event, “I’m a member of the human race just like everyone else. 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. […] I have the immense joy of being a member of the human race: if only everybody could realize this! There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
In a different version about his “epiphany,” of human kindness that day, he wrote about having bought for fifty cents a copy of photographs from Life Magazine compiled in a book, The Family of Man: “All those fabulous pictures. How scandalized some would be if I said that the whole book is to me a picture of Christ, and yet that is the Truth. There, there is Christ in my own Kind, my own Kind—Kind, which means “likeness” and which means “love” and which means “child.” Humankind. Like one another, the dear “Kind” of sinners united and embraced in only one heart, in only one Kindness, which is the Heart and Kindness of God. I do not look for sin in you, Humankind. I do not see sin in you anymore today (though we are all sinners). There is something too real to allow sin any longer to seem important, to seem to exist, for it has been swallowed up, sin has been destroyed, and there is only the great secret between us that we are all one kind. God is seen and reveals God’s self as human, that is, in us and there is no other hope of finding wisdom than in God-humanhood: our own humanity transformed in God (The Intimate Merton (1999):125. Inclusive language added.)
When my sister Janet was dying of breast cancer, she lived more than I had ever experienced her living before. It was as if she had surrendered the masks she had worn to protect herself and became the person whose face I had seen only in glimpses. She reconciled enmities, she drew her children to herself, and she healed long-standing open wounds. Without the graces of palliative medicine, my sister would have been unable so strongly to reveal her true face, but it was more than medicinal herbs that robbed her death of its sting. It was the epiphany of our kindness in the middle of everything that was failing her that made her dying a final act of compassion for the life she had loved living.
Life and Death are identical twins to every human being of us. We eat foods both sour and sweet. We banquet together sometimes celebrating, sometimes in tears. Our wheat grows among weeds. We are hot for one another, then turn cold. We are happy this month and depressed the next. This year we are famous, next year we suffer disgrace. In the morning we are kissing our children as they leave for school and by that afternoon someone has shot them dead. We are all kin as we suffer the curved streets of this life that every one of us travels.
But being kindred, why are we so unkind to one another? Why are we blind to each other’s dilemmas as being identical to our own? Why do we so unrelentingly accept Unkindness as the order of relations among us when it is our Kindness that binds us all together? To be unkind is to be unnatural. For us to live our lives vis-à-vis one another unkindly is to be sick of soul. Our thoughtless unkindness to one another is a low-grade depression of the spirit that robs us of joy and sanity. Unkindness among us exiles us from the sun-lit paradise our lives could more be were the scales of self-interest to fall from our eyes and we could see everyone bathed in light revealing them to us as our own precious kind.
How do we relearn kindness in an unkind world? Humility is the mother of Kindness. Humility prevents our taking first places at life’s banquet; humility prevents our hogging resources while sisters on other continents or just down the street cannot feed their children. Humility helps us step down from the pedestal of individual, unkind destinies to share life with the crowd of us. Humility helps us see how easy it is to lose everything we hold dear in an instant: our houses, our status, our families, our very selves lost in the distractions of shiny things that keep us from realizing our kindness with one another.
For the health of our collective souls, we must uncage our kindness from the narrow cells of our immediate family and friends. We must go off the restricted reservations of our corporate interest groups. We must leap over the wall of the gated communities of our minds that divide our world into the precious few who are saved, while the rest of them, not our kind at all, go unwashed in the Lamb’s blood. Who will deliver us from these narrow-minded perspectives every one of us easily adopts that divide our one humankind into the family and the strangers, into tribes of Abel and tribes of Cain, into the descendants of Sarah and the offspring of Hagar?
This virus of our irresponsibility for other human beings, our own kind, infects our relationship with all of nature upon which the health of all creation depends. The circumference of our enacting kindness must, as Albert Einstein wrote, be as large as planet Earth’s. We must repair our kindness to all beings. We should convert ourselves to fostering ecologies of kindness in all our relationships as a daily spiritual practice. Right this moment is the acceptable time to be kind to one another, not next week, not in our next reincarnation, not in heavens that are elsewhere than where we are alive now. This great work of our becoming shining epiphanies of human kindness to one another is the personal inner work that we each should practice more deeply. In her poem “Kindness” in her collection The Word Under the Words, the Palestinian-American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye bears witness to us:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.
Only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I, kindness, you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend. (Written in Columbia, SA)
In this season of a pandemic of outrage and reclusion Thomas Merton and Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us we are all one kind. We are mothers and fathers, sisters, and brothers, all cousins under our skin. We must recognize ourselves as kin or not be well. Kindness is the cure. Kindness is the medicine prescribed for every day. Only Kindness can burn cataracts from our eyes so that everywhere we look we can see kin, everyone, our own kind, everywhere. Even in the middle of all that fails and divides us as Sorrow again unveils her face, may we see in Her the epiphany of our hidden kindness, God revealed and shining out in and to all our faces at last.
© Jonathan Montaldo August 2020
Publications on Thomas Merton
by Jonathan Montaldo
Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton
Volumes 1-4 Revised Edition 2010
Volumes 5-8 Revised Edition 2011
A spiritual development program in ten volumes that leads participants in small group dialogue to an experience of spiritual transformation and a more contemplative, peace-filled life. Each eight-session volume offers an introduction to Merton and contemplative living through prayers, readings from Merton and other spiritual masters, and questions for small group dialogue.
The second volume in the seven-volume presentation of Thomas Merton’s extant private journals (1939-1968) published by HarperSanFrancisco. This volume presents his journals for the period 1941-1952.
A highly edited anthology of Merton’s private journals (seven volumes presented in seven chapters), The Intimate Merton is a HarperSanFrancisco best seller and has been translated in over ten languages.
Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart & the Eastern Church (The Fons Vitae Thomas Merton series)
Audiobooks: Montaldo Reading Merton
Reading Poetry with Kathleen Deignan