Some Thoughts From a Friend
Recently, I had occasion to speak to a group of people who had asked me to talk about Thomas Merton, the monk from last century whom I very much like. I don’t like Merton because he and I were friends. I never met him. I was still in school when he died in 1968 on a speaking engagement in Bangkok, Thailand. His death was a shock, since he was only 58 years old. I remember reading about his untimely death, but I had not read too much of him yet, so I was not unduly affected.
It was in the 80s that I began to read fairly extensively in Merton and other writers on spirituality. The non-Catholic world was discovering that way of talking about religious experience. As a Quaker, I had always known experience is key. For us theology also is important, but theology follows experience. For sure, one can talk about theology without believing any of it. It is quite possible for an atheist to be a theological expert. He or she, however, won’t believe any of it is true.
The group had asked me to speak about contemplative spirituality. Some of them know I teach a class with that title, so I was happy to oblige. It is easy to do that for Merton. The Trappist monastery in which he lived was known as a contemplative monastery. All the monks who signed on to live there knew they were aiming to be contemplatives---whatever that means. And that is the point of my invitation: to help the group understand what contemplative spirituality means---at least, according to Merton.
However, I added a Quaker touch. Trappist monks are not the only contemplatives in the world. In fact, there are contemplatives who are not even Christian. I knew there was a contemplative strain among Quakers, although I did not hear that word, contemplative, as I was growing up. That means we used different language to talk about a similar experience. So I chose Douglas Steere to illustrate contemplative spirituality from the Quaker perspective.
It was an easy choice for two reasons. In the first place I was aware that Douglas and his wife, Dorothy, had met Merton on more than one occasion. They certainly were not best buddies, but they knew and appreciated each other. I knew the Steeres had visited Merton at his monastery, Gethsemani. And the second reason I chose Douglas Steere was because I also knew him and Dorothy.
Douglas had read widely in the Catholic mystics and other spiritual writers. He had spent a little time in a Benedictine monastery in Germany during the ‘30s. So Douglas and Merton could connect at a fairly deep level and have a conversation from that level. So let me share a little of what Douglas Steere has to say about the contemplative life.
In one of my favorite essays of Steeres, he describes contemplation in this fashion. “We, too, might find some help in defining contemplation if we put it in terms of a sustained scrutiny for meaning. If we use the metaphor of the eye, contemplation could be described as the power to look steadily, continuously, calmly, attentively, and searchingly at something. Thomas Aquinas paraphrases this nicely in calling contemplation, ‘A simple, unimpeded and penetrating gaze on truth.’”
There is a great deal of material here, but it makes a lot of sense if we unpack it and look with some care at the details. I confess I like the phrase, sustained scrutiny for meaning, that Steere chooses at the outset. It squares nicely with my sense that spirituality really is a search for meaning---but a search that typically involves God or the Holy. Steere is correct that it is a sustained scrutiny. One does not become a contemplative on the way to the grocery store or, even, in a weekend. It takes time and scrutiny. To become a contemplative takes time and effort. The word, scrutiny, suggests is takes some effort.
Douglas Steere then borrows the metaphor of the eye. A contemplative is one who comes to “see.” He or she sees the truth and finds meaning for life. But it again takes time and effort. A contemplative learns to look at life and the experiences in order to come to this truth and meaning. Then I urge you to notice the five adverbs Steere employs to describe this coming-to-look. The adverbs are steadily, continuously, calmly, attentively and searchingly. We could write a page on each of the five adverbs.
I urge you to take a little time and ponder each one and, then, apply it to yourself as you might imagine become contemplative. The five suggest a focused, not haphazard way of seeing life and finding meaning. It is ordered, but open. There is a kind of paradoxical now I’ve got it-now I don’t quality to being contemplative. Because it is a process---or nothing more than life---even if you have it today, you won’t necessarily have it tomorrow.
The contemplative journey is a story of the human quest for God over time and in depth. I have begun the journey, as Thomas Merton and Douglas Steere did. I appreciate some thoughts from a friend---actually two friends---to help me on the way.