PRAYER: Contemplative Prayer, An Introduction by Thomas Merton

Contemplative Prayer, An Introduction by Thomas Merton

From Contemplative Prayer

He who walks in darkness, to whom no light appears, let him trust in the Name of Yahweh, let him rely upon his God. (Isaiah 50:10)

I will give them a heart to understand that I am Yahweh, and they shall be my people and I will be their God when they return to me with all their heart. (Jeremiah 24:7)

The monk is a Christian who has responded to a special call from God, and has withdrawn from the more active concerns of a worldly life, in order to devote himself completely to repentance, “conversion,” metanoia, renunciation and prayer.  In positive terms, we must understand the monastic life above all as a life of prayer.  The negative elements, solitude, fasting, obedience, penance, renunciation of property and of ambition, are all intended to clear the way so that prayer, meditation, and contemplation may fill the space created by the abandonment of other concerns.

What is written about prayer in these pages is written primarily for monks.  However, just as a book about psychoanalysis by an analyst and primarily for analysts may also (if it is not too technical) appeal to a layman interested in these matters, so a practical non-academic study of monastic prayer should be of interest to all Christians, since every Christian is bound to be in some sense a man of prayer.  Though few have either the desire for solitude or the vocation to monastic life, all Christians ought, theoretically at least, to have enough interest in prayer to be able to read and make use of what is here said for monks, adapting it to the circumstances of their own vocation.  Certainly, in the pressures of modern urban life, many will face the need for a certain interior silence and discipline simply to keep themselves together, to maintain their human and Christian identity and their spiritual freedom.  To promote this they may often look for moments of retreat and prayer in which to deepen their meditative life.  These pages discuss prayer in its very nature, rather than special restricted techniques.  What is said here is therefore applicable to the prayer of any Christian, though perhaps with a little less emphasis on the intensity of certain trials which are proper to life in solitude.

Monastic prayer is, first of all, essentially simple.  In primitive monasticism prayer was not necessarily liturgical, though liturgy soon came to be regarded as a specialty of monks and canons.  Actually, the first monks in Egypt and Syria had only the most rudimentary liturgy, and their personal prayer was direct and uncomplicated.  For example, we read in the sayings of the Desert Fathers that a monk asked Saint Macarius how to pray.  The latter replied: “It is not necessary to use many words.  Only stretch out your arms and say: Lord, have pity on me as you desire and as you well know how!  And if the enemy presses you hard, say: Lord, come to my aid!”  In John Cassian’s Conferences on Prayer we see great stress laid by the early monks on simple prayer made up of short phrases drawn from the Psalms or other parts of scripture.  One of the most frequently used was Deus in adjutorium meum intende, “O God, come to my aid!”

At first sight one might wonder what such simple prayers would have to do with a life of “contemplation.”  The Desert Fathers did not imagine themselves, in the first place, to be mystics, though in fact they often were.  They were careful not to go looking for extraordinary experiences, and contented themselves with the struggle for “purity of heart” and for control of their thoughts, to keep their minds and hearts empty of care and concern, so that they might altogether forget themselves and apply themselves entirely to the love and service of God.

This love expressed itself first of all in love for God’s Word.  Prayer was drawn from the scriptures, especially from the Psalms.  The first monks looked upon the Psalter not only as a kind of compendium of all the other books of the Bible, but as a book of special efficacy for the ascetic life, in that it revealed the secret movements of the heart in its struggle against the forces of darkness.  The “battle Psalms” were all interpreted as referring to the inner war with passion and with the demons.  Meditation was above all meditatio scripturarum [study of the writings].  But we must not imagine the early monks applying themselves to a very intellectual and analytical “meditation” of the Bible.  Meditation for them consisted in making the words of the Bible their own by memorizing them and repeating them, with deep and simple concentration, “from the heart.”  Therefore the “heart” comes to play a central role in this primitive form of monastic prayer.

Saint Macarius was asked to explain a phrase of a Psalm: “The meditation of my heart is in your sight.”  He proceeded to give one of the earliest descriptions of that “prayer of the heart” which consisted in invoking the name of Christ, with profound attention, in the very ground of one’s being, that is to say in “the heart” considered as the root and source of all one’s own inner truth.  To invoke the name of Christ “in one’s heart” was equivalent to calling upon him with the deepest and most earnest intensity of faith, manifested by the concentration of one’s entire being upon a prayer stripped of all non-essentials and reduced to nothing but the invocation of his name with the simple petition for help.  Macarius said: “There is no other perfect meditation than the saving and blessed Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ dwelling without interruption in you, as it is written: ‘I will cry out like the swallow and I will meditate like the turtledove!’  This is what is done by the devout man who perseveres in invoking the saving Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The monks of the Oriental churches in Greece and Russia have for centuries used a handbook of prayer called the Philokalia.  This is an anthology of quotations from Eastern monastic Fathers from the third century to the Middle Ages, all concerned with this “prayer of the heart” or “prayer of Jesus.”  In the school of hesychastic contemplation which flourished in the monastic centers of Sinai and Mount Athos, this type of prayer was elaborated into a special, almost esoteric, technique.  In the present study we will not go into the details of this technique which has at times (rather irresponsibly) been compared to yoga.  We will only emphasize the essential simplicity of monastic prayer in the primitive “prayer of the heart” which consisted in interior recollection, the abandonment of distracting thoughts and the humble invocation of the Lord Jesus with words from the Bible in a spirit of intense faith.  This simple practice is considered to be of crucial importance in the monastic prayer of the Eastern church, since the sacramental power of the Name of Jesus is believed to bring the Holy Spirit into the heart of the praying monk.  A typical traditional text says:

A man is enriched by the faith, and if you will by the hope and humility, with which he calls on the most sweet Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ; and he is enriched also by peace and love.  For these are truly a three-stemmed life-giving tree planted by God.  A man touching it in due time and eating of it, as is fitting, shall gather unending and eternal life, instead of death, like Adam.  Our glorious teachers in whom liveth the Holy Spirit, wisely teach us all, especially those who have wished to embrace the field of divine silence (i.e., monks) and consecrate themselves to God, having renounced the world, to practice hesychasm with wisdom, and to prefer his mercy with undaunted hope.  Such men would have, as their constant practice, and occupation, the invoking of his holy and most sweet Name, bearing it always in the mind, in the heart, and on the lips.

The practice of keeping the name of Jesus ever present in the ground of one’s being was, for the ancient monks, the secret of the “control of thought,” and of victory over temptation.  It accompanied all the other activities of the monastic life imbuing them with prayer.  It was the essence of monastic meditation, a special form of that practice of the presence of God which Saint Benedict in turn made the cornerstone of monastic life and monastic mediation.  This basic and simple practice could of course be expanded to include the thought of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, which Saint Athanasius was among the first to associate with the different canonical hours of prayer.

However, in the interests of simplicity, we will concentrate upon the most elementary form of monastic meditation, and will discuss prayer of the heart as a way of keeping oneself in the presence of God and of reality, rooted in one’s own inner truth.  We will appeal to ancient texts on occasion, but our development of the theme will be essentially modern.

After all, some of the basic themes of the existentialism of Heidegger, laying stress as they do on the ineluctable fact of death, on man’s need for authenticity, and on a kind of spiritual liberation, can remind us that the climate in which monastic prayer flourished is not altogether absent from our modern world.  Quite the contrary: this is an age that, by its very nature as a time of crisis, of revolution, of struggle, calls for the special searching and questioning which are the work of the monk in his meditation and prayer.  For the monk searches not only his own heart: he plunges deep into the heart of that world of which he remains a part although he seems to have “left” it.  In reality the monk abandons the world only in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed form its inner depth.

This is why the term “contemplation” is both insufficient and ambiguous when it is applied to the highest forms of Christian prayer.  Nothing is more foreign to authentic monastic and “contemplative” (e.g., Carmelite) tradition in the church than a kind of Gnosticism which would elevate the contemplative above the ordinary Christian by initiating him into a realm of esoteric knowledge and experience, delivering him from the ordinary struggles and sufferings of human existence, and elevating him to a privileged state among the spiritually pure, as if he were almost an angel, untouched by matter and passion, and no longer familiar with the economy of sacraments, charity, and the Cross.  The way of monastic prayer is not a subtle escape from the Christian economy of incarnation and redemption.  It is a special way of following Christ, of sharing his passion and resurrection, and in his redemption of the world.  For that very reason the dimensions of prayer in solitude are those of man’s ordinary anguish, his self-searching, his moments of nausea at his own vanity, falsity, and capacity for betrayal.  Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face-to-face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the “consolation of prayer” for its own sake.  This “self” is pure illusion, and ultimately he who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or in madness.

On the other hand, we must admit that social life, so-called “worldly life,” in its own way promotes this illusory and narcissistic existence to the very limit.  The curious state of alienation and confusion of man in modern society is perhaps more “bearable because it is lived in common, with a multitude of distractions and escapes – and also with opportunities for fruitful action and genuine Christian self-forgetfulness.  But underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self-questioning which sooner or later must bring us face-to-face with the ultimate meaning of our life.  This self-questioning can never be without a certain existential “dread” – a sense of insecurity, of “lostness,” of exile, of sin.  A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth.  “Dread” in this sense is not simply a childish fear of retribution, or a naive guilt, a fear of violating taboos.  It is the profound awareness that one is capable of ultimate bad faith with himself and with others: that one is living a lie.

The peculiar monastic dimension of this struggle lies in the fact that society itself, institutional life, organization, the “approved way,” may in fact be encouraging us in falsity and illusion.  The deep root of monastic “dread” is the inner conflict which makes us guess that in order to be true to God and to ourselves we must break with the familiar, established and secure norms and go off into the unknown.  “Unless a man hate father and mother….”  These words of Christ give some indication of the deep conflict which underlies all Christian conversion – the turning to a freedom based no longer on social approval and relative alienation, but on direct dependence on an invisible and inscrutable God, in pure faith.

It must be said at once that this struggle does not end at the gate of a monastery, and often it may come to light again in a conflict over one’s monastic vocation.  The purpose of monastic renewal and reform is to find ways in which monks and sisters can remain true to their vocation by deepening and developing it in new ways, not merely sacrificing their lives to bolster up antique structures, but channeling their efforts into the creation of new forms of monastic life, new areas of contemplative experience.

This is precisely the monk’s chief service to the world: this silence, this listening, this questioning, this humble and courageous exposure to what the world ignores about itself – both good and evil.  If, in the latter part of this study, we speak frequently of the concept of “dread,” it will be in this existential sense.

The monk who is truly a man of prayer and who seriously faces the challenge of his vocation in all its depth is by that very fact exposed to existential dread.  He experiences in himself the emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity, the “lostness” of modern man, but he experiences all this is an altogether different and deeper way than does man in the modern world, to whom this disconcerting awareness of himself and of his world comes rather as an experience of boredom and of spiritual disorientation.  The monk confronts his own humanity and that of his world at the deepest and most central point where the void seems to open out into black despair.  The monk confronts this serious possibility, and rejects it, as Camusian man confronts “the absurd” and transcends it by his freedom.  The option of absolute despair is turned into perfect hope by the pure and humble supplication of monastic prayer.  The monk faces the worst, and discovers in it the hope of the best.  From the darkness comes light.  From death, life.  From the abyss there comes, unaccountably, the mysterious gift of the Spirit sent by God to make all things new, to transform the created and redeemed world, and to re-establish all things in Christ.

This is the creative and healing work of the monk, accomplished in silence, in nakedness of spirit, in emptiness, in humility.  It is a participation in the saving death and resurrection of Christ.  Therefore every Christian may, if he so desires, enter into communion with this silence of the praying and meditating church, which is the Church of the Desert.

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