Merton on Contemplation and Action

May 21st, 2020. Ascension Day. Today’s retreat topic is how Merton’s contemplation drove him to a life of activism, as he wrote and spoke advocating peace and social justice. In chapter 37 of Seeds of Contemplation he writes:

God does not give His joy to us for ourselves alone, and if we should possess Him for ourselves alone we would not possess Him at all. Any joy that does not overflow from our souls and help other men to rejoice in God does not come to us from God. (But do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.)

Merton’s first calling was to be a contemplative; for years he struggled against what his monastic superiors were asking him to do – like being the novice master of the monastery – and fought hard to be allowed to move into a hermitage in the woods, away from the community. But at the same time his contemplation gave him a passion for justice and peace, so that his writings in books and articles were a prophetic cry against much of what he saw in the world around.

He was against war, but also against the violent protest which he saw in the United States, directed against the Vietnam War. Instead, he argued for a Gandhian non-violent protest and resistance. The problem is, in a world where non-violent protest has a poor track record of overthrowing war, tyranny, and injustice, most people who are passionate about justice have little patience for the Gandhian or Christ-like approaches. However much I sympathised with the aims of Extinction Rebellion, I found the violence of their protests hard to accept, in their interference with the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people, many of whom also would agree with XR. Merton may have been anti-violence, but could his writings have been partly responsible for the violence of the anti-war protests?

In the end, Merton is right that true contemplation, true knowledge of God, must lead us to hate all forms of injustice, violence, and oppression. But the question of how to turn that hatred into proper action has no easy answer.

With a guilty feeling I opt out of the afternoon’s session which is to be more interactive and conversational about the balance (if that’s what it is?) between contemplation and action. I feel I’m not interested / have little of use to contribute / won’t find it particularly helpful. I’m afraid that some of my fellow retreatants will want to spend the time agonising about how age or ill health or frailty prevent them from being as active as they would like to be, or about how the protest and action of individuals seems so ineffective. Why can’t we change the world? Why can’t we right all its wrongs? And why can’t we do it now?

So instead I walk on the North Shore again, reflecting on how I may become more contemplative in my own prayer. I confess with alarm (I won’t call it shame) that my faithfulness in praying the Daily Office has often felt like going through the motions. Saying the words because I had to – and wanted to! – but often in a distracted way. The words progressed from the page into my eyes and out of my lips, without engaging much of the conscious brain. That’s to say, I would often be running an inner dialogue about How much more of this was there? What were the pressing things I must do when I was done here in church? How could I deal with the problem of how to manage X or Y? How soon can I stop this and get on with the things I’m really looking forward to?

Lord, teach us to pray

It’s as well that the intention to pray is more important than the depth or quality of our praying. I hope. And perhaps the process of prayer over the years has given God the opportunity to help me as I’ve thought through some of the questions in that internal dialogue. But still, I would like to concentrate more, and be more whole-mindedly conscious, of the content of the psalms and prayers I’m saying. What I seek and pray for now is greater mindfulness as I pray the Office: to be present to what I am doing, with my whole mind as well as my body. I wonder how I can possibly have reached my advanced age without knowing all this and having sorted it long ago. It’s a good job we have an extraordinarily patient (long-suffering!) God who knows that his children have always been slow learners at best.

Let’s head back then, it’s nearly time for Evening Prayer. Back to the prayer desk, and we’ll give it another go.

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