The Gift of Understanding

If there is one thing we must do it is this: we must realize to the very depths of our being that this is a pure gift of God which no desire, no effort and no heroism of ours can do anything to deserve or obtain. There is nothing we can do directly either to procure it or to preserve it or to increase it. Our own activity is for the most part an obstacle to the infusion of this peaceful and pacifying light, with the exception that God may demand certain acts and works of us by charity or obedience, and maintain us in deep experimental union with Him through them all, by His own good pleasure, not by any fidelity of ours.

Thomas Merton had such an¬†unprecedented and poetic ability to articulate dimensions of God’s mysterious grace:

“Only the greatest humility can give us the instinctive delicacy and caution that will prevent us from reaching out for pleasures and satisfactions that we can understand and savor in this darkness. The moment we demand anything for ourselves or even trust in any action of our own to procure a deeper intensification of this pure and serene rest in God, we defile and dissipate the perfect gift that He desires to communicate to us in the silence and repose of our own powers.

If there is one thing we must do it is this: we must realize to the very depths of our being that this is a pure gift of God which no desire, no effort and no heroism of ours can do anything to deserve or obtain. There is nothing we can do directly either to procure it or to preserve it or to increase it. Our own activity is for the most part an obstacle to the infusion of this peaceful and pacifying light, with the exception that God may demand certain acts and works of us by charity or obedience, and maintain us in deep experimental union with Him through them all, by His own good pleasure, not by any fidelity of ours.”

Merton, T. (2003). The gift of understanding. In New seeds of contemplation (p. 233). Boston: Shambhala.

Contemplation is no pain-killer

Contemplation is no pain-killer

The following is a passage of Thomas Merton’s in “New Seeds of Contemplation” (2003, pgs. 13-15) that was very meaningful to me today:

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 fie 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 it is 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, clich√©s, 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 lather which simply “is.”

In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he 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 God. 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.”

Interview with Shane Hipps – The OAT Podcast

Check out my interview with Shane Hipps for the OAT Podcast!