December 12, 2017

A spirituality “not pressed through the pores”

laughter. Photo by Stephanie Byersmith

A saint is capable of loving created things and enjoying the use of them and dealing with them in a perfectly simple, natural manner, making no formal references to God, drawing no attention to his own piety, and acting without any artificial rigidity at all. His gentleness and his sweetness are not pressed through his pores by the crushing restraint of a spiritual strait-jacket. They come from his direct docility to the light of truth and to the will of God. Hence a saint is capable of talking about the world without any explicit reference to God, in such a way that his statement gives greater glory to God than the observations of someone less holy, who has to strain himself to make an arbitrary connection between creatures and God through the medium of hackneyed analogies and metaphors that are so feeble that they make you think there is something the matter with religion.

• Thomas Merton
New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 24

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Photo by Stephanie Byersmith at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Comments

  1. I don’t disagree with the gist of what Merton says here, but I’m uncomfortable with talk that involves comparisons between supposedly less and more holy persons. It seems to me that on this issue of special religious experience (and most others), the discussion is more constructive when it speaks in terms of humility, reticence, maturity, sobriety, deference to and love of neighbor, as it did yesterday. Criticism of the behavior of others that involves their supposedly lesser holiness seems decidedly less constructive, for one thing because it can easily be reversed. That only leads to a game of spiritual one-upmanship, and arguments about the definition of holiness.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > supposedly lesser holiness

      My internal processor does a more-or-less search-and-replace of “lesser holiness” to “greater anxiety”.
      Much of this is about the scale of peace/confidence vs. anxiety/uncertainty, but expressed in religious terms.
      Where someone is on that scale may be driven by many factors beyond ‘piety’; biology, circumstance, etc…
      On the other hand Christianity is a religion that promises [to some extent] peace-that-passes-understanding – and there is no denying that the shrillness of much ‘Christian’ speech is hard to frame in any sane notion of peacefulness.

      > That only leads to a game of spiritual one-upmanship

      I do not believe that is true. The use of the term “docility” in the quote is precise. Docility is not concerned with contest; it hungers for instruction. Anxiety is concerned with contest.

      • Correct. Merton is always precise in his use of words. And, he was as often as not very critical of the RC tradition he was part of and had to express that criticism in a veiled, precise way that offered some ambiguity.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    Spot on.

  3. We are all men and women of our time to some extent. Whether we go with it or fight it we are influenced by it. It’s possible that Merton lived with a bunch of monks that had an ingrained, long developed “holy persona”. There is a way holy people talk and behave. As a ‘sixties rebel’ he was probably bucking the system to say that that particular persona and that phrasing were not essential to holiness but rather that it existed in the ordinary and the mundane. Smart guy!

  4. We could talk about spirituality for a hundred years and not get closer to God than we could with twenty minutes of practicing the stilling of the mind and heart in contemplative meditation. There is a fierce resistance to this here at the Monastery, which in itself is highly ironic given the name that Michael bequeathed. This resistance is understandable if it is seen that most of the discussion that takes place in these pages occurs thru the interaction of egos, with all their fears and positionalities. The ego instinctively understands that contemplative meditation is a life-threatening practice to its perceived sovereignty, and as long as we are identifying with our ego we will fight transcendence like a cornered animal. The first step comes with the realization and acceptance and shift of identity that we are not our ego. Most people, Christian or not, never take that huge first step, which accurately seems suicidal thru the eyes of the ego.

    • You can take a solid battering when you step off the empirical wagon. Dangerous territory.

      • I think I find myself in the middle of a conversation whose beginning and end are not confined to today’s comments so I will bow out. But before I do I will say one or two things. Confining my remarks to Charles’s comment of today I will say that I am largely in agreement and didn’t consider it a denigration of others spirituality from some superior position but rather an appeal, at least, for understanding. Whenever topics like imagination, spiritual discernment, intuition and the like, dreams, visions etc. come up I am personally in a quandary. The topic is there to be discussed but very often I come away with a thinly veiled, mean spirited insinuation of mental disturbance when I make a comment that is unquestionably unorthodox but does not stem from neurosis or psychosis. Take the 100 people in this world that know me the most intimately and ask each one of them their opinion about my mental health. You have a better chance of finding tits on a boar hog than you do of anyone of them, well maybe not my wife, saying that I am anything but of sound mind. This is the only place in my life where I walk away feeling that cheap insinuation. There is no mystery to that. This is by and large the only place I discuss those things. Still you expect to find, if not agreement, understanding or some form of fellowship or kindness. Instead you hunker down and get ready for the assault so what’s the point? We are all grown-ups with well developed defences but we should rarely have to use them here. Again, I know there are ongoing battles and as soon as you comment you get swept up into them but the whole thing is a crying shame. We should be able to discuss our spirituality, even the depths of it here. After all we are anonymous, at least most of us. We should feel safe throw a little spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks in an open environment but I do agree with Charles that when things get just a little off the well-worn path the clamps come down and certain people get quite vocal in a way that just doesn’t lead to dialogue and exploration. It’s just downright unfriendly.

        • BTW ChrisS, boar hogs have tits–they are just worthless when it comes to function. However, a boar does contribute 50% of the genetic information to offspring, so, if you’re breeding for maternal lines be sure to count the tits on the sperm donor/boar.

          (Swine breeder for 30 yrs.)

    • “…There is a fierce resistance to this here at the Monastery…”

      What I have a fierce resistance to are people who think they know me better than I know myself and assume they inhabit a superior position that compels them to give me advice.

      • Ditto. Often people who believe they know us better than we know ourselves, and that they are in a superior position from which they can offer us advice, are themselves driven to do so by their own ego, which they seem blind to.

      • I rest my case.

        • Hey everybody — take a good look at today’s picture. Meditate on it awhile. It says even more than Merton about what I wanted to communicate in this post. Who could argue with the natural spirituality in the faces of those delightful children? Completely unstrained and not dependent in any way upon God-language or forced arguments. Of course we are not children, but I wish sometimes we could just take in the vision that someone like Merton is offering us and delight in it for what it is.

  5. wordless spirituality 🙂 Good timing on this topic, Chaplain Mike!

    Because ‘the Blessing of the Animals’ is coming to many Churches in October !!!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OdR7blUY0E

    we are looking forward to taking our little blind grand-dog Noah to be blessed 🙂