January 15, 2021

Merton on Contemplative Prayer (3)

Convergence, Jackson Pollock

Convergence, Jackson Pollock

Hence monastic prayer, especially meditation and contemplative prayer, is not so much a way to find God as a way of resting in him whom we have found, who comes to us to draw us to himself.

• Thomas Merton
Contemplative Prayer, p. 5

• • •

In chapter two of Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton offers some helpful correctives to common misunderstandings of “the way of prayer” as practiced by monastics and offered to laypersons as well.

One thought in particular struck me as I read it:

It is part of a continuous whole, the entire unified life of the monk, conversatio monastica, his turning from the world to God. (p. 4)

The kind of prayer that Merton speaks of involves “a deep personal integration in an attentive, watchful listening of ‘the heart.'” (p. 5) And when Merton speaks of “silence,” it is not only a description of prayer’s setting, but rather as something that is in us, “wordless,” a stillness deep within, surrendered, renewed in the Spirit, “submissive to the grace of Christ.” Silent prayer is not merely “mental” prayer, but prayer of one’s whole being silently resting in God.

Merton is consciously speaking in more or less equivalent terms about what the Eastern Church has called “the prayer of the heart.” This kind of prayer, embodied for example in the “Jesus Prayer,” is described in the ancient classic, The Way of a Pilgrim. The anonymous pilgrim’s story begins with this testimony:

On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I went to church to worship at the Liturgy. During the reading of the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians [1 Thess. 5:17] I heard the following words: “Pray without ceasing.” This verse especially fixed itself in my mind, and I began to wonder how one could pray unceasingly, since each man must occupy himself with other matters as well, in order to make a living. I checked in the Bible, and read with my own eyes that which I had already heard: namely, that one should “pray without ceasing,” “pray at all times in the Spirit” [Eph. 6:18], and “in all places pray with uplifted hands” [1 Tim. 2:8]. I thought about this for some time but was unable to understand it.”

And so begins the pilgrim’s quest.

And so it becomes our quest as well, a journey described by Fr. Thomas Hopko in the introduction to The Way of a Pilgrim (Shambala Classics edition): a journey to discover that “life is communion with God: personal, direct, immediate, real, painful, peaceful, and joyful. …that ceaseless prayer in pursuit of God and communion with Him is not simply life’s meaning or goal, the one thing worth living for, but it is life itself.  …that Jesus Christ is this life, and that constant, continual, ceaseless prayer in His name opens the door to Divine reality and puts us in immediate contact with the One who is the source, substance, and goal of our life, and our very life itself.”

In Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton likewise points to the example of St. Columba, the Celtic saint, who wrote:

14534838468_ef861aba78_zThat I might bless the Lord
Who conserves all —
Heaven and earth with its countless bright orders,
Land, strand and flood,
That I might search the books all
That would be good for any soul;
At times kneeling to beloved Heaven
At times psalm-singing;
At times contemplating the King of Heaven,
Holy the Chief;
At times at work without compulsion,
This would be delightful;
At times picking kelp from the rocks
At times fishing
At times giving food to the poor
At times in a carcair [solitary cell]. (p. 7)

In this way of prayer, no matter what we are actually doing at any given moment, we seek to be aware of the presence and goodness of God (who is present and good whether or not we are aware!), and to depend on him for breath and strength to live and love.


  1. Christiane says

    The words of Merton, “turning from the world to God” reminds me of a poem by the seventh century monk Aidan, also of St. Columba’s monastery at Iona (Scotland). Aidan was sent out from Iona as a missionary to the people of Northumberland in Britain. Following the tradition of St. Columba of Iona, Aidan founded a monastery on Lindisfarne (Holy Island), a tidal island with a land-bridge that opens up twice a day over which the monks would cross to the mainland to minister to the people, and the people also would come across the land-bridge to visit the monks for prayer. But at the turning of the tide, the land-bridge was covered over by the sea and the monastery was again left isolated from the ‘world’.

    Here are Aidan’s words, written long ago in northern Britain circa 635 A.D.

    “Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
    As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
    Make me an island, set apart, alone with You, God, holy to You.
    Then, with the turning of the tide prepare me to carry Your Presence to the busy world beyond,
    the world that rushes in on me till the waters come again
    and fold me back to you.”

    • I did my undergrad at Iona College in N.Y. There was a statue of St. Columba and a building called Columba Hall. Thanks for the illumination.

  2. Thank you, Chaplain Mike and Christiane both. This was exactly what I needed to hear this morning.

  3. The phrase ” bless the Lord”, connotes doing something for Him or to Him. That is an essential part of contemplative prayer. Sitting in His presence for His sake. Tending to Him. Like a child who hugs his or her mom spontaneously out of the exuberance of feelings felt. They just want to be with her. It’s not always that simple or spontaneous with prayer but it is more and more a normal part as contemplative prayer is practiced. Intimacy for its own sake, not for some return. I would call that blessing the Lord.

  4. Some years back I spent a weekend at a Monastery outside Atlanta in silence and prayer during a personal trial. I have great memories of that weekend but I was struck by how depressed the monks appeared, at least during the 4 daily services.

  5. That the understanding and practice of contemplative prayer seems to be gaining ground in the church at large and iMonk in particular is the difference between hope and despair for me. There has always been a remnant in the church that carried this thru, and a historical study of this is helpful. An intellectual understanding of contemplation may point the way, but it doesn’t take you there. Only actual practice can do that. As far as I can tell, the contemplative way of approaching God is not for everyone, but seems to be gaining momentum and gathering in more and more of those following Messiah Jesus, maybe more than ever.

    I believe that this makes a big difference for good in the church at large and in the world at large, that any individual effort spent in this direction is well worth it even as we watch the world crumbling all around us. I encourage anyone with any curiosity to try a free subscription to Richard Rohr’s daily snippet of thought and information on this way of life.

    • Thanks for your reminders about Rohr’s site. Those who are interested can access it from the Links list on the right side of the main page.

      • There are also several videos on YouTube of Richard Rohr speaking at different conferences and in some of them he gives help and instruction in contemplative prayer. It is a practice that largely disappeared in the last few centuries, but is making a resurgence. I have been attempting it for a couple of years and find it difficult … namely because I cling hard to agenda, results and a need to understand. It is helping to learn from the mystics and to realize that my senses and intellect often obscure what is happening in my spirit. The writings of St. Teresa of Avila has been especially encouraging because she detailed all her frustrations and obstacles and persevered. And she did not start contemplative prayer until she was 40-ish. That is hope for us late comers.

  6. Ronald Avra says

    Enjoyed this morning’s post. Also enjoyed the Pollock painting.

  7. The one bright spot in my otherwise unhappy year at seminary was being able to “sit at the feet” of such a scholar as Church historian Glenn Hinson and be guided through the history of Christian spirituality and spiritual practice, and in a small unofficial group that met regularly over drinks and occasional dinners, the history of Christian mysticism. Prof Hinson was a close friend of Merton’s and he brought that informed perspective to the discussion. Prof Hinson was a profoundly spiritual man; his personal piety was an inspiration. You don’t meet folks like that everyday, sad to say. He truly helped me through a troubled time. And to have to sit sit back and watch him hounded and finally driven away by spiritless fanatics when the fundamentalists finally took control of the SBC was most distressing. But he survived (as did I thanks in part to his teaching) and took his wisdom elsewhere and the poor empty vessels who took over the SBC still think they won some kind of victory!



    • Thanks for the story and book recommendations.

    • ” . . . a small unofficial group that met regularly over drinks . . .”

      Well, we can’t have that now, can we. Ordered a copy of Serious Call, thanks!

    • Christiane says

      Hi STEPHEN,

      from what I have read about Professor Hinson, he sounds like one of those quiet saints of the faith who lived his faith out by helping others without thought for his own ‘credit’ . . . I know the story of how he was hounded by the fundamentalists in an unfair way and I have wondered where the SBC would be today if people like Hinson were still at the heart of it . . .

      my grandmother of blessed memory was a Southern Baptist and she had the old-fashioned understanding of humility and spirituality, so when I came to learn about her faith on SBC blogs, I noticed that among many comments, there was another kind of ‘spirit’ and it was not humble nor grateful to God nor compassionate to those who suffered . . . this other ‘spirit’ was one of anger and smug finger-pointing phariseeism . . . fortunately there were still many folks in the comments who were on the side of the angels, and but for them, I should have thought poorly of my grandmother’s denomination. It was those people of grace, blessed with humility and compassionate hearts, that reflected to me the faith of Christ among those still in the SBC. I’m glad they weren’t all driven away. (at least not yet) Maybe that remnant will hold on and lead to a spiritual renewal for that denomination so wounded by fundamentalism and politics.

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