I like to read in monastic spirituality because the monks and nuns are so clearly focused on the spiritual life. It is their central concern in life. Monastics set aside the usual normal things that occupy most of us in order to be singularly occupied with the search and life with God. That does not make them more than human or even more spiritual than any of the rest of us. But it does give them a singular advantage.
One of the things I am most sure of is the fact that much of the spiritual life is actually simple. I do not know any monk who would not confirm the fact that much spiritual life is simple. Of course, there can be some complexity at times. But by and large, the spiritual journey is simple. We probably are too self-serving to say that spirituality has to be complex. If that were true, then it takes us off the hook from even trying.
In addition to being simple, I also am confident that much of spirituality is practical. This means much of the spiritual journey is applied rather than theoretical. Again we do ourselves a disservice if we assume spirituality is mostly doctrinal stuff. Of course, there are ideas---doctrines. But that is more true of theology. Spirituality is actually more practical---more applied. For example, it is more about praying than about a doctrine of prayer. It is more about experiencing God than coming up with ideas about God.
I was made aware of this again when I was reading a new book (for me) by Thomas Merton. I have read so much of Merton, but I know I have not read everything that 20th century monk wrote. I like him so much because he has such a clear, helpful way to put things. Even if he is talking abut something about which I know a thing or two, Merton still puts it in a way that I find very helpful.
The book I was reading grew out of a retreat that Merton was leading for some nuns who lived in a convent very near Gethsemani, his own monastery in Kentucky. The book, The Springs of Contemplation, reads like a transcript of Merton responding to questions by the nuns. At one point Merton makes a comment that fascinated me. Although he was talking about the “religious” (monastic language for those who have chosen to be monks and nuns), it seemed to me to apply to all of us who want to be spiritual. I suggest that when he says “religious,” we put our name in its place.
Merton claims, “For any religious, self-forgetfulness is a real litmus test.” (94) This sentence affirms that self-forgetfulness is a good thing for monks…and maybe for all of us. In fact, if we cannot muster some self-forgetfulness, then our spiritual journey probably will be stuck at the beginning. I see this as a very important point for us. And it is likely obvious that self-forgetfulness is not a desirable concept for most folks. It seems to be counter-intuitive. Our American society encourages just the opposite: self-importance. This is probably why so many of us find the monk’s option for life hard to grasp.
Merton pursues this idea of self-forgetfulness as it is a key for life in the monastery. He says, “if people are more or less self-forgetful, they are probably in the right place, they are where they belong.” Let’s pursue why Merton thinks that people (in this case the people he is talking about are the folks who enter the monastery) need to cultivate self-forgetfulness. In simple terms, if I am not able to begin the process of forgetting myself, it will be difficult to think about life any other way than self-centered.
I am convinced most of us grow up in such a way that we are self-centered. This is not inherently bad. But it is pre-occupying. We are taught to make our own way. While we may not think we are #1, nevertheless we do think we are important. Most of us want to get our own way in life. Again none of this is wrong. In fact in good doses, I think it is healthy. Clearly, it is better than seeing ourselves as scum and dregs of the world.
However, it may not be the way to engage and begin to develop a spiritual journey. Core to the spiritual journey, as Christians understand it, is to be able finally to utter the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “not my will, but Thy will be done.” To pray this prayer---and more importantly to put this prayer into practice---is to step into the world of self-forgetfulness. To practice doing someone else’s will is to forget our own will.
In worldly terms this surely seems like a step backwards---a step towards immaturity. In spiritual terms, however, to be able to practice doing God’s will is a tremendous step into a mature, spiritual realm. By practicing self-forgetfulness we are able to practice compassionate self-presence. We are able to be more fully present to others---to God and to our neighbors.
Self-forgetfulness is simple and practical. It is also a challenge and counter-cultural. I have a hunch that it will turn out to be extremely rewarding if we can live more and more into the reality of it. But it is paradoxical. It is like the axiom, “it is better to give than to receive.” Only the fully spiritually mature and the saints know the full truth of it. Beginners like I am can receive hints. And that’s enough for me---to start with.