January 16, 2021

Merton on Contemplation (2): Contemplative Prayer and Anfechtung

Ocean Greyness, Jackson Pollock

Ocean Greyness, Jackson Pollock

The climate in which monastic prayer flowers is that of the desert, where the comfort of man is absent, where the secure routines of man’s city offer no support, and where prayer must be sustained by God in the purity of faith. Even though he may live in community, the monk is bound to explore the inner waste of his own being as a solitary. The Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

• Thomas Merton
Contemplative Prayer, p. 1

• • •

Merton’s words about “dread” and “distress” reflect a very lutheran idea; Luther called it “anfechtung.” And this lies at the heart of contemplative prayer.

Merton’s concept of contemplation, at least here in the beginning of his book, is thoroughly evangelical. That is, it involves coming before God at the intersection of death and resurrection. In the prayer of the heart, I face forthrightly the fact and experience of my human exile and death under the power of sin, and then I rise with Christ into the full light of new creation. When Merton says, “Alleluia is the song of the desert,” this is what he means: Christian contemplative prayer involves taking an inward journey from the cross, through the tomb, and emerging into new life under the reign of the risen and ascended Christ.

Before the “Alleluia,” however, comes the “Anfechtung.”

An excellent overview of anfechtung may be found at the blog, Diapsalmata.

For Luther, the context of anfechtung fell nearer the “terrible dread” or “agonizing struggle” whose essence is doubt. This doubt is something fundamentally separate from the skepticism that pervades today. Indeed anfechtung owes its existence not to unbelief, but to faith itself. In other words, the more one believes in the great goodness of God, the more he is dismayed when he sees evidence of that goodness fall away. Had his faith been of a lesser degree, he might have avoided the effects of the questions that assail him. But since he has “left everything to follow” (Luke 18:28) he has nothing on which to fall. Thus the hallmark characteristic of anfechtung is a deep and pervasive sense of helplessness.

Anfechtung represents the dismal space between Law and grace, and the believer caught between them. Here it is that the Christian, freed through faith from the law of sin and death, now looks upon a world in which these elements resurrect with hellish clarity. He feels convicted by God, unapproved, and utterly cast out from His Presence. The prospect of a hopeless future hails before him, and hell itself rises to accuse. The flesh confronts, fellow Christians cajole, and nowhere can he find relief for his soul. The believer finds himself stranded in a place all where he has learned of Christ contradicts what he sees before him. He is lost and undone, and he looks upon a world that is lost and undone. Here he stands at the crossroads of two opposing poles: doubt and doxology.

One soul, one God, and the terrible chasm between them.

Luther himself wrote:

Living, dying, and being damned make the real theologian.

The real contemplative too.


  1. Robert F says

    Paradoxically, though, St. John of the Cross says that in the grip of that anguish when all the comforts that God had previously represented and given fall away, or rather are stripped away by the special grace of God, faith itself, trust in the God who is doing the stripping away, never falters. Instead, faith is strengthened and purified in the midst of what otherwise would only be loss and despair. This strengthening of “naked faith” is in fact the gift and grace that God is giving in the dark night of the soul, and it is a gift that can only be given by way of the painful reduction of all that the pray-er had though she depended on in the past.

    The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction. Meister Eckhart

  2. Robert F says

    From what I’ve read, though, the idea that the anguish of the experience of those who set out upon the contemplative path is somehow integral to the authenticity of their journey is incorrect. The anguish involved in the contemplative path is caused by clinging to that which impedes the reception of the grace that God is bestowing, not by the character of the gift of naked faith that God is giving; those who cling more experience greater anguish.

    There is always some degree of suffering involved, because the soul tends to cling to what it has experienced as the greatest gifts of God, and these must be put aside for the gift of “naked faith”, which God has in fact given to every believer, not just the contemplative, to work in the darkness, and be known by the pray-er in total immediacy. This unimpeded immediacy of the perception of “naked faith”, which is the gift of God, is what strengthens trust in God despite the suffering involved in the process. Knowing that this “naked faith” has continued in the face of all contradiction helps the contemplative to push on despite the suffering involved, and to grow in trust of God as she pushes on.

    But the extreme anguish and suffering described by Merton and the passage quoted from Diapsalmata is not universal to contemplatives. It seems, rather, to depend on the individual personality of the pray-er, and how this determines the intensity with which they cling to the impediments that stand in the way of God’s reduction of what is unnecessary to their faith. Suffering is a by-product of the contemplative path, not its source of power, and extreme anguish is neither typical of every contemplatives experience, nor the gauge by which to measure the depth and authenticity of that experience.

    At least, this what I’ve come to understand, both from my reading and my experience.

    • I would agree that the way each individual experiences anfechtungen varies, and I think a weakness of Luther and Lutheran theology in general is that it tends to universalize his experience and not fit it to different personalities.

      However, given that contemplation is about seeing into the Reality which is God, life, the state of the world and self, no one can do so without feeling and knowing, in some form, the devastating fact of exile, lost ness, and death.

  3. I was helpless coming into this world. I’ve been helpless throughout my life to this world. I will be helpless when I leave. Here inside this helplessness is my fear of God. It is written that God is good to those that fear Him. That He does not hold our transgressions against us as a Father pities His children, So the Lord pities those that fear Him. He Knows our frame and remembers we are dust.

    Laws and grace work to our good because it is God Himself that keeps them. It is His faithfulness to these things that apply to us. It is how he works and what it is we mean to him. Here is our comforter that comes through our open door. This one who carries with him love and all that this means to us and why. it was His declaration before the world in His Christ who we are and what we mean to him. Take comfort my fellows with me in our helplessness and know how we are loved.

  4. Rohr from today’s post:

    Alternative consciousness is largely letting go of my mind’s need to solve problems, to fix people, to fix myself, to rearrange the moment because it is not to my liking. When that mind goes, another, non-dualistic mind is already there waiting. We realize it is actually our natural way of seeing. It’s the way we thought as children before we started judging and analyzing and distinguishing things one from another. As Helen Luke says, “The coming to consciousness is not a discovery of some new thing; it is a long and painful return to that which has always been.”

    You cannot experience the non-dual mind without letting go of the dualistic mind–at least for a while. For most people who have thought dualistically for a long period of time, it feels like dying, it feels like losing, it feels like letting go of control, which is exactly why Catholic mystics consistently called it “darkness” or “knowing by darkness.” This is surely why many people do not move to more mature stages of prayer. They’d rather stay in the mind, which is largely commenting and arguing between conflicting or competing ideas. Note that I said you must let go of your dualistic mind at least for a while. You eventually have to return there to get most ordinary jobs accomplished, but even those you will now do in a less compulsive or driven way.”

    • Christiane says

      ” As Helen Luke says, “The coming to consciousness is not a discovery of some new thing; it is a long and painful return to that which has always been.”

      reminds me of this thought:
      “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts:
      they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. ” (Ralph W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance’)

    • Robert F says

      In the stream of Christian mysticism that flows into and away from St. John of the Cross, and that finds its pinnacle of articulation in him, it is not the loss of self that is experienced at the deepest level of mystical prayer, but the loss of any sense of God’s presence, which previously had consoled and sustained the pray-er. This is the dark night of the soul. “Naked faith” is the experience of the pray-er in the depths of the dark night of the soul that, though God is absent to the sense and the spirit, the pray-er continues to trust him, despite the depths of desolation felt. Faith is left with nothing to depend on, and yet it miraculously endures and grows. The beloved, though felt to be absent, continues to be loved and trusted. For St. John, this is the purest gift of God.

  5. “[T]he more one believes in the great goodness of God, the more he is dismayed when he sees evidence of that goodness fall away.”

    As I look at my life, the loss at the core of it, and my dismay when the community I was in wasn’t able to cope with my grief… this rings so true. Essentially everything I thought I knew is gone, leaving smoke and broken mirrors. I cannot know if my soul is strengthened. The loss and despair I know intimately.

    I’ve had dark nights of the soul before; this one, this is bigger, darker, nightier. There’s a sense, of course, in which the one you’re in the midst of seems the worst, most intense, emptiest ever.

    And I come back, with bleeding knees, broken hopes, the snakes of Medusa crawling out of my head, hoping the people won’t turn me away, or be turned to stone, by my grief.

  6. Wow, a lot of deep stuff to think about in such a short post.

    “…the monk is bound to explore the inner waste of his own being as a solitary.”

    Not sure that’s unique to monk-hood.

    • Oh, and I meant to add…

      Good comments, too! They’ve added to the depth of the post.

    • Rick, remember that Merton wrote this book for monks first, and then by extension, to those with other vocations.

    • Reading some of this reminds me of Peter reading Paul’s letters: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand.” 😉 But this is one of the things that keeps me coming back–the opportunity to think, to stretch the brain muscles and to learn from those who are walking the Way.

  7. Never been able to get into Merton, but then neither Lewis or Bonhoeffer and all three seem to speak to a lot of people. My own search for direction in seeking Oneness with God has been half or more invested in the teaching of David R. Hawkins, and he is someone that few seem to respond to positively. He was a doctor and therapist and approaches things more from a scientific mindset, altho much of his writing is philosophical in the sense of investigating the inner realms of what makes us human. Very much grounded in the Light and Love of God. A good introduction is Dissolving the Ego, Realizing the Self. He has 365 Daily Reflections titled Along the Path to Enlightenment which is also good. His best and most accessible practical how-to book is Letting Go.

    The Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault has studied and practiced Contemplation for many years and her best book on the subject in my view is Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. If someone wanted to investigate this subject, this is the book I would recommend to start with. Her other books explore some odd nooks and crannies and I don’t find them as helpful, tho often interesting.

    For those who like to explore online, I recommend Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. He is a Catholic priest and Franciscan monk, and has written extensively. He is a trained therapist and much of his writing explores spiritual healing thru Centering Prayer, vital information to know because actually practicing these techniques as opposed to learning about them intellectually can stir up some of the things Jesus came to heal us of.

    CM, I would suggest adding Richard’s website, cac.org, to your list of links above. Anyone going there can subscribe to his daily meditation by email, which are educational in nature, and I recommend that for everyone remotely interested in Contemplation. He has many books and DVD’s available but I am not familiar with them myself. You won’t get hit with spam if you subscribe to his daily meditation. Richard is probably the main player today in this field and provides what he calls an alternative orthodoxy in the spirit of Francis of Assisi.

  8. No matter how deep I get into prayer or meditation or worship, there is always this phantom self that seems to be watching me from the outside. It’s like I can almost physically see myself sitting or kneeling there with my eyes closed. This ghost me also seems to show up in highly emotional or stressful situations. It doesn’t seem to be judging me or making criticisms. It’s just there watching: cold, objective, and detached. For the most part, I have gotten used to it, but it’s presence can be very disconcerting at times, especially when I’m trying to immerse myself in something like prayer or worship or music or sex. Sometimes I feel like I’m spying on myself. Is this thing part of me or is it something else? Or is it the real me trying to make contact with this collection of phobias, faults, preferences, and opinions I call myself?
    I know this isn’t quite on topic (and I hope you all don’t think I’m nuts), but I’m just wondering if anyone else out there has experienced something like this.

    • Robert F says

      Buddhism would say that what you are experiencing is your original self, which is your Buddha nature. According to Buddhist teaching, this nature neither judges nor intervenes, but has boundless, patient compassion. A Buddhist teacher would see your acute awareness of this observer self as a great advantage in practicing the discipline of non-judging self-awareness. It is believed that by observing one’s own actions without judgement, negative compulsions and behaviors non-conducive of enlightenment begin to fall away spontaneously and without force.

      • Thanks Robert. That’s quite interesting. Maybe I should become a Buddhist. I have been told that I’m a really Zen kind of guy. But naw, I’ll stick with Jesus. I’ve come too far with Him to go off following somebody else at this stage of the game. Besides, I’ll take mercy and grace over enlightenment any day. Still, your comment is definitely food for thought.
        Of course, it could be that I just did too much LSD and other mind-altering substances back in my young and stupid days.

    • I have always dreamed in the third person, and most of the time if I dislike what I am “seeing” I can change the plot.

  9. Christiane says

    “He is lost and undone, and he looks upon a world that is lost and undone. . . .
    One soul, one God, and the terrible chasm between them.”

    I understand this from not being able to go into a pet store without crying, or watch advertisements that show abused animals and ask for money to help them . . . this cuts right through into that place where I keep my tears properly stored. and it makes me want to know. sometimes to scream, ‘why’? so much pain in the world for the innocent . . . ?

    but I am easily impressed, not a theologian, and very grateful for any bit of hope that comes my way . . . even something that wouldn’t soothe more thoughtful people than myself, like the hope I find in this Tolkien excerpt:
    ““There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.””

    A lot of money is made off of smucks like me who send their twenty dollars a month to some fly-by-night organization to help orphans or to rescue animals . . . knowing full well that most of it goes into the pockets of scammers . . . but there is always that hope that maybe some gets through . . . maybe some
    My daughter did this and she cleaned cages on Saturday morning in animal shelters, and rescued dogs, and fostered dogs . . . she lived with the same deep sadness, but often found it overwhelming and struggled to get beyond it . . .

    My best friend who is Jewish showed me thta there is a way of getting past some of this pain: to make an effort to spread the table and light the candles and give thanks for what IS good . . . this helps . . . giving thanks in the midst of pain is like shaking one’s fist at the ‘Shadow’ and passionately acknowledging the Source of ‘ the light and high beauty forever beyond its reach’ . . .

  10. I cannot watch these ads anymore. I turn the channel it is to hard for me. The biggest hawk I’ve seen lives somewhere near the cats I feed of the mountain I walk. So far this magnificent bird has not taken them. If he or she rips them apart he might as well rip my heart out. I will hunt him and kill him or I will ask for his forgiveness. I haven’t crossed that path. Nature here is horrific and helpless to a world just like me. I have God. Yes people say he pulls his presence here. I have not experienced that. I don’t believe it to be true. I believe I walk in an emptiness not of His making but my own. There are only one set of footprints sometimes.

    • Sorry reply to Christiane

      • Christiane says

        And CHRISTIANE thanks you for your beautifully expressed reply. You have a gift for writing, W. And you are very gracious to share your writing with us. Thank you again. 🙂

  11. “Luther had experiences which he describes as attacks of utter despair (Anfechtung), as the frightful threat of a complete meaninglessness. He felt these moments as satanic attacks in which everything was menaced: his Christian faith, the confidence in his work, the Reformation, the forgiveness of sins. Everything broke down in the extreme moments of this despair, nothing was left of the courage to be. Luther in these moments, and in the descriptions he gives of them, anticipated the descriptions of them by modern Existentialism. But for him this was not the last word. The last word was the first commandment, the statement that God is God, It reminded him of the unconditional element in human experience of which one can be aware even in the abyss of meaninglessness. And this awareness saved him.”
    – Paul Tillich, from “The Courage to Be”.

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