January 27, 2021

Merton: “Full of the racket of my imperfections and passions”

Rainy Day, Gethsemani Fields 2011

• • •

You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence, but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires. My mind is crucified all day by its own hunger for experience, for ideas, for satisfaction. And I do not possess my house in silence.

But I was created for Your peace and You will not despise my longing for the holiness of Your deep silence. O my Lord, You will not leave me forever in this sorrow, because I have trusted in You and I will wait upon Your good pleasure in peace and without complaining any more. This, for Your glory.

I am content that these pages show me to be what I am—noisy, full of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!

• Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas


  1. I couldn’t survive a single day, I couldn’t tolerate the empty noise that I’ve filled my “house” with, if I didn’t believe that Jesus lives there, too.

    • I’ve come to believe that as well, Robert. As the catechism says, “He is my only comfort in life and in death.”

      I often wonder where I would be if I didn’t believe this; would I be more or less content in my ignorance? I suppose it doesn’t matter. He has made Himself known to me whatever His reasons may be.

      • For most people, Scott, the answer to that question is an open one, as it is for you: maybe they would be more, maybe less content if they didn’t believe this. For me the answer is: I would be dead.

  2. Wow & Amen.

  3. ” Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!”
    Any Christian who has walked with God for a time knows what that means in his or her bones. That is the heart of the matter. The paradox of the gospel.

    • +1.

      Though I’m not sure that I’ve fully believed this until the past several years of my Christian walk. “Gotta clean up this house or he’ll leave” has been a concern for FAR TOO MUCH of my Christian walk.

      • If I recall correctly, “Cleaning up the house” is part of the Navigator Bible Study.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Not surprising.

          When I was at Cal Poly in the Seventies, the Navs had a rep for Fundy Extremism. And the highest rates of burnout and flunkout.

      • Yes of course. We can’t believe he loves us that much. It’s what he is about. There is no other agenda. He will not stop loving us. He doesn’t tire and move on to something else. The idea is that sooner or later we will pick up on that, after 70×7 (I think I passed that decades ago) perhaps, and adopt the same attitude and share the love.

  4. Mike, thanks for posting the link at the right to Fr. Richard Rohr’s article, Contemplative Christianity is the Great Tradition. That fits well with Merton week.

    • Ted, If you’ve read today’s post over at Rohr, I wonder if you could help clear something up for me, something that maybe you understood and I didn’t. In the last paragraph, the guest contributor, Cynthia Bourgeault, says, “I am hopeful that a growing appreciation of heartfulness within the meditation community will encourage a shift in the focus of scientific research from brain alone to brain/heart connectivity.” I’m having trouble understanding this. Is she saying that the new center of conscious that develops by non-dual meditation is the physical, anatomical heart? It seems obvious to me that scientific research of the relationship between meditation and the brain includes the affectivity. But the idea that the physical organ of the heart itself is a new center or seat of consciousness, a higher evolutionary center or seat, seems to me to confuse metaphor with anatomy. The brain is the center or seat of consciousness, and when we use the world heart in reference to it, we are talking about our deepest center of consciousness and spirit, not another physical organ. No?

      • I can’t imagine she’d mean the anatomical heart. I hope she means that compassion or intuition should be used in scientific research.

        Is she talking about research of meditation, or research in general? I haven’t read it. Sorry, I have to get out the door.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        I’ve wondered a lot about this myself. I have heard of heart [and liver] recipients receiving personality traits, food cravings, and intuitions that could only be explained as having come from the donors.

        This sort of idea goes beyond the comforting circle of positive knowledge and probably won’t be getting any research funding anytime soon.

        All the information I’ve found on the Internet comes from alternative medicine sites and places even more woo-woo than that, but I wouldn’t discount it.

        • How would you research something like this using the tools of science? Perhaps the heart, liver and many other organs carry traces of identity in them, of self; perhaps the entire physical organism does. In Zen practice, the center of spiritual gravity in the human body, is the same as the center of Newtonian gravity: the pit of the stomach, somewhere around or below the navel. That would be considered the “heart”. The locus of what we call the “heart” differs in different cultures.

          As far as science knows, none of these things are the seat of consciousness. You have a heart transplant, you remain the same person, more-or-less, even if the intuitions you mention actually happen; but a brain transplant would be putting another person into your body, if it were possible. These things cannot be studied, except anecdotally.

          For me, it’s relatively simple. Our center of consciousness is the brain. When we speak of our “heart” in this context, we are speaking of the deepest level of our consciousness, which corresponds to our culture’s sense that the physical center of the body is the physical heart. The fact that we are culturally prone to have feeling very emotional experiences in or around our physical hearts is part of this, though in Japanese culture the bowel would be the center, not the heart. I think the ancient Hebrews were referring to the bowel in the texts that we translate as heart, no?

          • –> “…but a brain transplant would be putting another person into your body, if it were possible. These things cannot be studied, except anecdotally.”

            Any “iZombie” fans here? When the zombies eat brains, they take on the personality traits of the “brain donor” (along with periodic memories). Rose McIver, the lead actress, is WONDERFUL at playing all the different personalities she takes on after consuming.

            Great show. Excellent acting, great dialog, good humor, excellent tension. A lot like “Firefly” in its blending of humor and thrills.

          • brianthegrandad says

            A personal anecdote to add to the heart/head discussion. When my 4yr old daughter died, we were able to donate her organs. We have since met all the recipients and became friends with them all. Our liver recipient’s transplant doctor told us when there is a transplant, particularly a liver, that DNA from the donor becomes mixed within the recipient to the point that a DNA test done on the recipient’s blood would show positive for both recipient and donor. I believe the term is chimerism. That was strangely comforting to us at the time. What does that mean? I don’t know, but failing livers can affect personality, behavior, and mood because of nitrogen and ammonia imbalances in the blood. Healthy livers keep all that in check. Is it too far of a stretch to connect the anatomical heart to the emotional center of the brain?

            • I want to preface my comment by expressing my condolences for the loss of your daughter. I don’t know when this happened, but I’m sure that even decades from now it will at times feel like it happened yesterday. God bless you and yours, and prayers for your daughter.

              Is it too far of a stretch to connect the anatomical heart to the emotional center of the brain?

              No. But it is too far of a stretch to view the anatomical heart as the seat of the “highest order…level of consciousness”. The mind, which operates through the brain and cannot operate without it, would still be centered in the brain, and any higher level of non-dual/unitive perception and awareness would still operate in the mind/brain duality.

              • brianthegrandad says

                thanks for your kind words and condolences. in May it will have been 13 years and yes, sometimes it does feel like yesterday if I let myself slip into really feeling it. I havent read the piece you were referencing, only was commenting on how anatomy can affect emotion. i agree with you the mind is centered in the brain and now see my take on things were not germane to her assertions. now understanding better what she was saying based on what you and Scott have commented, i fail to see how she can say the heart could be the seat of the “highest order…level of consciousness”.

              • Robert, i think that “heart” thing is partly from EO hesychasm (mystical prayer and meditative thing). They seem to put a lot of emphasis on getting from the mind down into the hesrt, in a pretyy literal sense which seems informed by pre-dissection understandings of human anatomy.

      • Yeah, I read that too and assumed she was referring to “heart” as merely a metaphor for consciousness or something but upon re-reading, she does emphasize a “third tier” level of consciousness located anatomically (her italics) in the heart.

        I’m with you–scientifically, the center of consciousness is the brain. There has, however, been much research done involving the “plasticity” (technically “neuroplasticity”) of the brain and how it can, in fact, be “re-wired” to behave and develop. So, while she may be incorrect anatomically speaking, she is correct in that it may be possible to “re-wire” our thinking from binary to non-binary.

        • Yes, to the plasticity of the brain. This seems like a better way of explaining non-dual/unitive consciousness, since it dovetails with what some scientific research suggests, as you mentioned. Interestingly, though, that we’re still left with a binary option: our thinking is either binary, or not binary. I happen to be a dualist in the other sense: I don’t believe that the brain, which is physical, is identical with the mind, which is spiritual, though the mode of operation of the human mind in the physical world is the organ of the brain.

        • In Hinduism, the center of non-dual consciousness (the disappearance of distinction between subject and object) is traditionally located in the crown chakra at the top of the head, not in the heart chakra.

  5. The heart traditionally is the main center of seven centers of perception of the field of human consciousness, all of them acting somewhat as radio receivers tuned into different stations. Jesus spoke of the heart as the center of human consciousness and said it made a great deal of difference what you allowed into it. He wasn’t speaking of the meat blood pump any more than Cynthia was when she said “anatomically”, but at the same time this is the location of this most important center in our human soul or etheric body if you prefer. The physical heartbeat that keeps your body alive is analogous to the spiritual heartbeat of God that we can tune into and that keeps us alive spiritually.

    These aren’t some kind of New Age pipe dreams. Cynthia is quite right that the desert fathers spoke of the whole life task as moving our center of consciousness down from our head into our heart. Most mystical traditions thruout the world come to this understanding. It is mainly in the West that we reject this notion as incompatible with modern intellectual rationalism and materialism. In general, most so called “primitive” peoples probably have a much better understanding of this than most PhD’s. And as far as speaking of a new age, better get your scissors out because Jesus spoke of that too. When Paul encouraged Christians to operate within the mind of Christ, I don’t think he envisioned this happening solely in the brain, nor did it in Jesus.

    This is not something easy to prove scientifically, but it is relatively easy to experience to the degree that you can test its validity for yourself, if your education and ego doesn’t get in the way. Even a child can learn to practice contemplative meditation. Cynthia herself learned it as a child when she attended a Quaker school, and it was natural and effortless for her. It’s not like you can try it for five minutes and then say, nope, I didn’t get anything, doesn’t work. I would say for most people that if you committed to sincerely trying contemplative meditation for twenty minutes a day for a month, it would tell the story one way or another, not necessarily in some dramatic fashion with fireworks, and possibly starting out with ten minutes a day and working up. God will meet you wherever you are, but it does take effort and commitment.

    Contemplative meditation isn’t difficult if you understand that your monkey mind is going to do its best to interfere. It is necessary to relax the body and quiet the mind as much as possible, and the only way to get any good at this, as with any skill, is to practice. I’m guessing Richard Rohr would say that he is still learning, still trying to get better at it, perhaps struggling with it some days. It’s not like you have to achieve perfection, altho resting in the Presence of God is a sort of perfection in itself, or as close as we can get in this world. I believe that the more we practice this, the more we affect the whole world and beyond for world peace and blessing.

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