Recently I have been doing some background research for a paper that I have agreed to write. The paper offers a comparative look at my favorite monk, Thomas Merton, and the Quaker perspective on contemplative spirituality. Certainly, Merton thought and wrote quite a bit about contemplation. In fact, his monastery in Kentucky is rightly called a contemplative monastery. Without going into a full explanation of contemplation, let it simply be understood here as a way of trying to live life in the Presence of God.
Quakers historically have not used the language of contemplation. That meant that I would not have know much about the topic and would probably have answered negatively, if I had been asked whether Quakers were contemplative. Now I would say that Quakers share much of what contemplation means without using the term or the normal contemplative language.
I had just hit graduate school when Merton died in 1968. Hence, I never had the chance to meet him. I have read a great deal of his writings. During this reading, I discovered that two different Quaker couples knew Merton, interacted briefly with him and have a little correspondence between them and Merton. It turns out, I knew all four of these Quakers. So when I read some of the correspondence, I feel like I might know a little more than the typical reader.
One of the Quaker couples engaged with Merton is the Steeres. Douglas Steere was a philosophy professor at Haverford College, a Quaker college in the suburbs of Philadelphia. His wife, Dorothy, was quite a woman in her own right and was involved with Douglas in a wide range of Quaker travel and work. They were involved in the reconstruction work in Europe after WW II. They were involved in the ecumenical movement in the 50s and 60s. In fact, Douglas was an official non-Catholic observer during Vatican II.
Merton met the Steeres in February, 1962, at Gethsemani, Merton’s monastery. They spent an hour and half together. Douglas kept notes of the meeting and wrote them, which I now have read. As a result of that meeting, a series of letters went back and forth until Merton’s untimely death. It was in my re-reading of this correspondence that I came across a phrase from Merton that jumped out at me.
By 1965, Merton was living the life of a hermit in his own little hermitage about a mile from the monastery. Douglas had been trying to get Merton to join him in an ecumenical gathering at a monastery in Minnesota, but Merton’s abbot would not let him go! While this angered Merton, he nevertheless understood if he really wanted to be a hermit, he should not be running around the country going to meetings! So in a letter to the Steeres in January, 1966, Merton reflects on his life.
“The hermit life has been working out very well, in its own way. For one thing I have no longer any question whether it is the thing for me. It is. It seems to me to be the only kind of life in which in a twenty four hour day one can begin to have time to get down to the real business of life.” The real business of life! I both wondered what Merton meant by that phrase, while thinking I probably had some good guesses. To begin with I am sure adding the adjective, “real,” is important to Merton.
Surely there is a huge range of things that make up the business of life. Some are big and others are petty. But Merton had gone to the monastery in the early 40s to figure out what the real business of life might be. By the late 60s in his hermitage, he had begun to find it. One more sentence reveals what it meant to him. “However things do seem to be pulling together into a real simple unity, meditation, psalms, reading, study, wood chopping, one meal at the monastery, writing and so on.” Merton says no more about this. And I wonder what Douglas Steere made of that passage?
I am confident Merton would say the real business of life has to do with taking the time to seek the Holy One. It means making myself available to the movement of God’s Spirit. It entails taking time to be in communion with the One who nurtures our souls and nourishes our spirits. It does mean finding the simplicity of life that enables us to be centered and integrated into a meaningful life.
I am sure, like Merton, I prefer to figure out the real business of my life. It won’t mean joining a monastery nor moving by myself to a hermitage. But it contains similar aims in my life. I live in the midst of complexity, superficiality, distractions, temptations and lures of all kinds. Perhaps the easiest way to describe contemporary life is to say much of it is distracted---distracted from the real business of life. But because most people are like I am, it seems perfectly normal. Merton appears to be the crazy one!
Thanks to Merton, I now can focus on the real business of life.