One of the great spiritual writers of our time is Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk. Merton, though, wasn’t born in a monastery. A checkered past and a driving restlessness led him there and what he was looking for was solitude, respite from a temperament that would not let him rest.
His mother and father had both been artists and Merton inherited from them those qualities that make for a good artist: huge talent, a fertile imagination, and a punishing restlessness. By the time he was twenty-five he was poised professionally to do great things, but his personal life was a mess, more than that. He was dying, literally, because he couldn’t slow down, anchor himself in everyday life, and simply rest. Restlessness was beating him up like a playground bully. He wasn’t eating properly, sleeping regularly, had no redeeming rhythm or routine to his life, was spending his nights in jazz clubs, living on cigarettes and alcohol, nursing a stomach ulcer, and having too many sleepless nights. His health was deteriorating dangerously.
Spiritually and morally he was searching, sincerely and even desperately, for someone or something to commit himself to; but, even as he flirted with faith and church, his restlessness and bad habits made it difficult for him to commit himself to anything in a consistent way. There’s an infamous story told of how he used to hang around Catherine Doherty’s early Madonna-House community in New York, until Catherine one day told him to stay away because he was a bad influence on the community.
His honesty eventually paid off and he took the plunge of faith. Leaving New York, career, and friends behind, he entered the Trappist Abbey in Kentucky. He did it, in his own words, to save his life, having realized that, unless he did something as radical as this, he would soon die. He did it too to search for God and to find something that had eluded him all his life, simple rest.
Initially, the monastery did for him what he had hoped for, it gave him a sense of God’s presence, a clear direction in life, and a calm body and spirit. He went through a burst of first-fervour that he shared with the world in his classic autobiography, THE SEVEN-STORY MOUNTAIN.
But restlessness, as we know, cannot be turned on and off like a water-tap. It seeps through even monastery doors. His restlessness returned, but now, as a monk, he had an answer for it. His answer? Contemplative prayer, solitude.
Contemplative prayer is the answer to restlessness. But Merton learned that it is not an easy thing, not a technique you master at a weekend seminar. During the last years of his life, living as hermit, he tried to explore more deeply what it meant to live in solitude and contemplation. What he eventually learned and recorded in his diaries during those years surprised him. Contemplation, he found out, is not some altered-form of consciousness, nor a blank consciousness emptied of all thought and feeling, nor even a consciousness that empties itself of everything except thoughts and feelings about God. What is it?
As Merton lived these years alone, as a hermit, he sensed himself moving in and out of solitude and contemplation and he tried to give words to that experience. Solitude, he came to realize, is not something that we attain once and for all. We don’t divide our lives into “before” and “after” we have found solitude, rather our hours and our days are divided between those times when we are more in solitude and those times when we are more caught up in the distractions of our work and the heartaches of our restlessness.
What does solitude feel like? Here’s Merton’s description: “It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with one’s hunger and sleep, one’s cold and warmth, rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off, making coffee and then drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying. I live as my ancestors lived on this earth, until eventually I die. Amen. There is not need to make an assertion about my life, especially so about it as mine, thought doubtless it is not somebody else’s. I must learn to live so as to forget program and artifice.”
Contemplation is not, first and foremost, a technique for prayer. Sometimes prayer, especially centering prayer, can help us find it, but contemplation is something more. It’s a way of being present to what’s really inside our own experience. We are in solitude, contemplation, in prayer, when we feel the warmth of a blanket, taste the flavour of coffee, share love and friendship, and perform the everyday tasks of our lives so as to perceive, in them, that our lives aren’t little or anonymous or unimportant, but that what’s timeless and eternal is in the ordinary of our lives.
Sensing the eternal in the ordinary is contemplative prayer and that, and that alone, stills our restlessness.