This year we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Thomas Merton and the fifth centenary of the birth of Saint Teresa of Avila. They are two of my favorite spiritual writers. They have a huge amount in common. Both were very much down-to-earth sort of mystics—not the sort of flighty and vague romantics so favored by the sentimental and the pious. Both had wicked senses of humor and were quick to turn a phrase that was both pithy and mirthful. Both were deeply sensual and each, according to their particular genders, expressive of a highly sexualized spirituality. But for me what is most important is that each, despite they themselves being monastics, were determined to open the arcane gateway of contemplative prayer to ordinary folk like you and like me.
I wonder if it had not been for Merton—I read him before I ever read Teresa though I have over my career done a deeper study of Teresa than of Merton—I wonder if had it had not been for Merton would I ever have found the entry point of that Interior Castle of which Teresa speaks? Had it not been for Merton, I am not sure that I would ever have realized the potential for prayer that went beyond the devotional. I still enjoy the devotional, of course, much like I still like Jelly Beans; but I am glad that Merton and others showed me the darker and richer delights of still and silent prayer.
Some years back I was part of a group trying to arrange to bring Father William Menninger, like Merton a Cistercian (Trappist) monk, to our parish in Northern Virginia to give a workshop on contemplative prayer. It was all set. At the last minute, the pastor—who up to that time had been too busy to learn much about the program other than to insure that Father William was a priest in good standing and of “orthodox” Catholicity, cancelled the program. “I didn’t realize it was about contemplative prayer,” he protested. “That is something for monks and nuns, not for mere (his words) lay people like yourselves. Why, if it isn’t part of our life as priests, would it ever be part of your lives as lay people?” I had been reading Merton for over forty years at the time—and Teresa for about twenty-five—and I knew that all Christians are called to contemplative prayer. It is not for “the elect.” Indeed I have come to realize that all human persons are called to contemplative prayer as Saint Augustine pointed out in his famous lines:
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
A source, while far less credible than my beloved aforementioned Doctor Gratiae but still infinitely more insightful than any contemporary writer (including Merton), the Jesuit Karl Rahner wrote:
“The devout Christian of the future will be a ‘mystic’, one who has experienced something, or he will cease to be anything at all. For devout Christian living as practiced in the future will no longer be sustained and helped by the unanimous, manifest and public convictions and religious customs of all, summoning each one form the outset to a persona experience and a personal decision.
We live, in this country and throughout “the West,” in what has fast devolved into a post-Christian era. The “Christian Culture” of Europe and Anglophone North America has been for the most part nothing more than an ever-thinning veneer since “The Enlightenment” and its Rosemary’s Baby, the French Revolution. The days when one’s Christian worldview and consequent values could be widely shared with one’s family, neighbors, colleagues, and friends are gone. This is not to say that there isn’t a sort of human goodness or moral framework to be found anymore, but it is at best the habitual remnants of an earlier era and more often a natural—and inconsistently fickle—sort of natural sense of decency or integrity. One doesn’t need to be a Christian—or even a believer—for such natural sense of fairplay, but as I said it is often a very fickle system. I have written in some previous posts about how the lack of philosophy in the curriculum required for a college education has led to the inability of so many in our society to make any sort of a moral judgment beyond the rule that “works for me” is good and “doesn’t work for me” is bad. What Rahner is saying in the above quote is that if Christians are to find a moral compass in this “culture” of soulless modernity—or actually post-modernity—they must have some sort of direct experience of God. The key word here is direct. God’s presence can be mediated by sacred things, sacred people, sacred actions, sacred gatherings, sacred institutions. We call these physical manifestations of the Divine “sacraments.” (I am not speaking narrowly here of the Seven Sacraments as defined by the Fourth Lateran Council but of the entire realm of the sacramental: the visible channels or manifestations of invisible grace.) Used correctly these sacraments/sacramentals are genuine channels of grace, but as Colm Luibheid points out in the preface to his John Cassian, Conferences (Paulist, 1985), the human heart longs for a direct and unmediated encounter with God. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God—not in rituals and ceremonies (as helpful as they may be to some), not in icons and candles (as good as they too can be), nor even in the Bread which has become Christ’s Body and the Wine which has become Christ’s Blood—but all this only ignites a hunger for the Creator that transcends the created. In no way does the Christian ever dispense with the mediated channels of grace—we are incarnate beings and we need the tangible, the edible, the visible, but we are also Spirit and as such we long for that which is beyond the creaturely.
This eros for God has always been in the human soul. It doesn’t come with baptism or with some sort of mid-life conversion or being “born again.” As Saint Augustine points out, we are created with this hunger for God. It is us; it is who we are. It has always been there, though not all have let an awareness of the hunger surface. It was there for the psalmist when he wrote “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is longing for you, my God.” It was there for Jesus when he said: Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you.” It was there for Saint Augustine when he wrote the line I quoted earlier. Pseudo-Dionysius, Saint Bernard, Saint Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhardt, Saint John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Archbishop Fenelon, and countless mystics in between wrote or spoke of it. It drove the desert fathers out to lives in the barren wilderness. It provided John Cassian with the major theme of his conferences. It populated Mount Athos and Subiaco. Ignatius experienced it in the cave of Manressa. Teresa of Avila was obsessed with it. Elizabeth of the Trinity wrote to her sister Guite about it. And to come back full circle, it is the core of all of Merton’s writings.
And it is shaping the Church for its third millennium. I am somewhat racing a deadline as this evening we have Taizé prayer in our parish. People still come out for Stations of the Cross and Benediction on Friday evenings, but more and more are coming for the monastic quiet of this simple contemplative prayer around the Cross. When we have a speaker on contemplative prayer we fill the parish center; when we have a speaker about the Catechism of the Catholic Church a dozen donuts will do. When I sit in church during the day and see people come in, one less and less sees rosaries come out or prayerbooks opened, but people just sitting silently in God’s presence for 20, 30, even 40 minutes and more.
We need to find ways to encourage people to deeper prayer. Merton’s books are still to be found in bookshops and on Amazon. I think the biggest challenge, however, is to convince our priests that there is more to prayer than them parading around in a cope and carrying a monstrance or mumbling away in Latin jingo as they versus apsidem and mistakenly call it versus Deum. Rahner has not only spoken truly that the Christian of the future will be a mystic or cease to be anything at all, but also that we, as the Church itself, will either be contemplative or cease to be.