I have been working my way through a book my favorite monk, Thomas Merton, wrote near the end of his career. The Springs of Contemplation reads almost like a transcript of a retreat Merton offered for a small group of nuns at a convent near Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. This little book reads like a conversation. We are able to see the kind of question one of the nuns would have posed and, then, we are able to see how Merton responded. I find most of the information interesting, although some of it is too narrowly focused on life at the monastery to be of much use in my own life in the real world.
At one juncture, a nun asked a question about contemplative prayer. Both Merton’s monastery and the convent were “contemplative” communities. That means their monastic intent was to live life as much as possible within the Presence of God. At least with this definition of contemplation, I also can live contemplatively. However, it won’t be in the context of the monastery. My context is a family, a college community and a group of friends. Contemplative prayer can be a part of my life, just as it was for Merton and the nuns.
So the question to Merton---how to teach contemplative prayer---was not an usual request. In fact, I find it an interesting question. I also would have been quite intrigued with how he would answer that one. However, Merton began to answer it in an unusual way. By the end I had to laugh. And maybe that was the point!
So, Merton, how do you teach contemplative prayer? Merton answers us in this fashion. “Well, there’s got to be a completely Zen-like approach. When you ask a Zen master, ‘What is the meaning of Zen?’ he hits you over the head, or something like that, and then leaves you to think about it for a while. Under no circumstance will you ever get a lecture on Zen.”
In the next paragraph Merton leaves the Zen example and shifts to a story about a Sufi master, a real master who had visited Merton’s monastery, Gethsemani. One of the zealous monks at Gethsemani asked the Sufi master, “How do you attain union with God?’ We are told, “The Sufi just laughed and said, ‘We don’t answer questions like that.’”
These were both good questions, I thought, so why did Merton laugh them off with the Zen and Sufi story? I would like to know about contemplative prayer. And surely, I would like to know how to attain union with God. Why not answer them, I wondered?
It was in the next paragraph that Merton helped me see his point. Again, Merton does it with a bit of a laugh, but he simultaneously makes a great point. Merton offers this insight. “Zen people stress the fact that if you weren’t such a dope, you’d know that you are united to God, that God is already that close.” I had to laugh. I guess I am a dope! If I were not a dope, I would know that I already am united to God.
After laughing at myself, I realized Merton’s “answer” was not surprising. It makes perfect sense that we are already united to God. Let me explain why I think this is true (now that I have it pointed it out me).
We are already united to God simply because we are alive. As I understand the Divinity, God is the very Presence of everything that is present. God is the Being that surrounds, supports and nurtures our being---nourishing the very possibility of the life of every one of us. For me that is a truth---a given. The real question for me is not whether it is true. The real question is whether I know it? In most instances the answer is No. No, I don’t know it.
In my mind I differentiate my being from the Being that Holds me and my life. When I differentiate myself from God the Being who Holds me, then I can forget that God. I begin to assume I am independent---that I am on my own. When I get to this place, I have no sense of being united with God. I have become an individual---on my own in a world and trying to make my own way.
This forgetting the Buddhists call “ignorance.” I have become ignorant of my own truth---which is God’s Truth. When I am in this place, then I begin to wonder how to practice contemplative prayer so that I can be united with God? I laugh again. Practicing prayer is good. In fact, it can be a wonderful way of “remembering.”
One way to see contemplative prayer is to understand it as “practicing the Presence of the Holy One.” As I practice this, I begin to live more and more into the realization that I already am united to this Holy One. I laugh again. It actually is simple. But I have made it so hard. Then I recall Merton’s words: Don’t be a dope!