On Merton

From the Introduction to “Thomas Merton, A Book of Hours”

The Ground of Praise:
The Conteplative Self

"May my bones burn and ravens eat my f1esh, If I forget thee, contemplation!"12

What Thomas Merton discovered in the Abbey of Gethsemani he desired to share with the whole world: a deeply experiential life in God that is the gift of our creation, the very reason we were born, a grace available to everyone. It meant for him "the search for truth and for God ... finding the true significance of my life and my right place in God's creation."13 Merton taught that the contemplative journey toward the indwelling and all encompassing God is made on the existential pathways of one's own self. The search for the One is the discovery of the Other in a transforrnative encounter with the divine image and presence at the core of our true self.

Yet as Merton faithfully reminded us, everyone is shadowed by a false or illusory self who wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and love, outside of reality and life. This counterfeit and evanescent creation is dedicated to the narcissistic cult of its own shadow in self-orbiting liturgies of egocentric adulation, ordering all things in its universe around itself. Over and over Merton warns us that the only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of this disturbing stranger who occupies our psyche, and enter by love "into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls."14 To live in this conscious communion is what Merton means by contemplative life that plants in us something of heaven.

Contemplative life, therefore, begins with the recovery of one's natural unity, a reintegration of our compartmentalized, colonized, traumatized, technologically entranced, and workaholic being. We must gather our fragmented selves from our distracted, exhausted, noise polluted, and frenzied existence, so that when we say "I" there is actually a unified human person present to support that pronoun. But this is only the preliminary work of salvation, because the deep transcendent self is a divine creature, shy and wild, secret and spontaneous, preferring the silence and humility of a pure heart in which to make its mysterious appearance. This true self "must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea,"15 by a steady work of descent to recover the immortal diamond in whose every facet is reflected the invisible face of God.