Tuesday, May 19th, 2020. One of the things I love most about staying on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne is the opportunity to join in prayer at the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, beside the remains of the ancient Priory. Morning Prayer is offered every day at 7.30 a.m., Evening Prayer at 5.30 p.m. This much isn’t unusual for any parish church where the clergy take seriously their commitment to saying the Daily Office. What is less common is that the attendance at these times of prayer may be 20 to 30 people. Some of them will be people staying at The Open Gate, perhaps, or other pilgrim visitors to the Island. But some will also be parishioners who are drawn to this holy practice, day by day. When I was a working vicar it was always a bonus when one or two others joined me. For 25 years I was most often alone in the chancel. Twenty or 30 others was a figure beyond my best hopes. Yet it says something about just how much Lindisfarne is experienced as a ‘thin place’ where the presence of God can be clearly felt.
So we begin our day with Morning Prayer together, before breakfast at The Open Gate, and an opportunity to get to know some of the other retreatants better. For our pilgrimage is also now a retreat, led by David Cole of Waymark Ministries, on Thomas Merton, and Contemplation. I have doubts and questions about the whole idea of Contemplation and Contemplative Prayer. Perhaps I will have an opportunity to explore them during the next three days, though I’m anxious that I may offend, or perhaps, even worse, be jumped upon by any of the others who are True Contemplatives. (Though I suspect that a True Contemplative wouldn’t jump on anyone who disagreed with them.)
This morning’s session draws on Merton’s own writings, especially in New Seeds of Contemplation, which is a 1962 revision and expansion of the original Seeds of Contemplation (1949). My edition of it is a 1972 edition called Seeds of Contemplation, which bears on the title page the information, Originally published as New Seeds of Contemplation. Are we confused yet?
The opening two chapters are What is contemplation? and What contemplation is not. They provide what you might call a thorough taste of the enigma and paradox of this way of prayer – or is it, way of life?
The afternoon session allows more discussion, feedback, questions and sharing of experience, while touching on the theme of The Life of a Contemplative.
Thomas Merton’s writings have had a great influence on my Christian growth and thinking. It seems he was not universally liked by all his Trappist brothers at Gethsemani Abbey. And I’m left wondering whether I would have liked him, or found him rather unnerving or even terrifying? I would like to have liked him, and to have been able to call him a friend. But we can’t always choose, can we?