The curious state of alienation and confusion of man in modern society is perhaps more “bearable” because it is lived in common, with a multitude of distractions and escapes — and also with opportunities for fruitful action and genuine Christian self-forgetfulness. But underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self-questioning which sooner or later must bring us face to face with the ultimate meaning of our life. This self-questioning can never be without a certain “existential “dread” — a sense of insecurity, of “lostness,” of exile, of sin. A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth. “Dread” in this sense is not simply a childish fear of retribution, or a naive guilt, a fear of violating taboos. It is the profound awareness that one is capable of ultimate bad faith with himself and with others: that one is living a lie.
• Thomas Merton
Contemplative Prayer (xxxiv)
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We will take some time in coming days to consider what Thomas Merton has to say in his book, Contemplative Prayer. This book was written at the end of Merton’s career as a monk and it was designed to speak first of all to his fellow monks, though he hoped it would be helpful to all Christians no matter their vocation.
Merton begins by takes up the topic of monastic prayer, and reminds us that in practice it was relatively simple, drawn from the scriptures (especially the Psalms), and centered on the name of Jesus. This “prayer of the heart” was seen “as a way of keeping oneself in the presence of God and of reality, rooted in one’s own inner truth” (xxxi). But what does this kind of prayer have to do with contemplation?
Nothing is more foreign to authentic monastic and “contemplative” (e.g. Carmelite) tradition in the Church than a kind of gnosticism which would elevate the contemplative above the ordinary Christian by initiating him into a realm of esoteric knowledge and experience, delivering him from the ordinary struggles and sufferings of human existence, and elevating him to a privileged state among the spiritually pure, as if he were almost an angel, untouched by matter and passion, and no longer familiar with the economy of sacraments, charity and the Cross. The way of monastic prayer is not a subtle escape from the Christian economy of incarnation and redemption. It is a special way of following Christ, of sharing in his passion and resurrection and in his redemption of the world. For that very reason the dimensions of prayer in solitude are those of man’s ordinary anguish, his self-searching, his moments of nausea at his own vanity, falsity and capacity for betrayal. Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face to face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the “consolation of prayer” for its own sake. This “self” is pure illusion, and ultimately he who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or in madness. (xxxii)
Facing this existential dread is a key component of true contemplation. In fact, Merton says that monks, in part, are called to take on the courageous task of exposing themselves “to what the world ignores about itself” (xxxiii). Contemplation involves, first of all, facing the worst in order to discover within it the hope of the best.
“From death, life” (xxxiv).