Last night’s meeting of the Grand Rapids Chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society was fascinating. One of the best yet. Thank you!
To start, we watched another 20-25 minutes of the DVD about Merton’s life titled Soul Searching.
Then we finished discussing the chapters on prayer in New Seeds of Contemplation that Fr. Patrick suggested.
Well, we got about half way through. The questions and comments and discussions we had, instead, were priceless.
For example, we had a new attendee last night, a woman from India named Usha. She is a Hindu. But she saw our Merton flyer at Baker Book House announcing our meeting and she was intrigued. (She was at Baker for the Calvin College January Series live feed.) What she had to say about spirituality and love was genuinely an eye-opener for me. The fact that she wanted to be there because she had great respect for Thomas Merton being a deeply spiritual man was an inspiration. She explained that her prayer is a simple one: “May all be happy.”
Also, the questions and comments…
Someone (might have been Judy) asked why Merton repeatedly uses the word “darkness” – including in his description for where God is. Karen remarked that when she thinks of God, she thinks of him surrounded by light. I believe most people would agree with her.
Yet, Merton writes in Chapter 29 in New Seeds of Contemplation,
He perfects our faculties by seeming to defeat all their activity in the suffering and darkness of His infused light and love. (page 214)
And so, your meditation takes you to the point where you are baffled and repelled by the cloud that surrounds God, “Who make darkness His covert.” (218)
Do you think your meditation has failed? On the contrary: this bafflement, this darkness, this anguish of helpless desire is a fulfillment of meditation. (218)
You may perhaps be led into a completely simple form of affective prayer in which your will, with few words or none, reaches out into the darkness where God is hidden…(219)
Later, Karen asked the question, “Is there a monk today using technology to bring us even further [than Merton…on the spiritual path]?” That got me to thinking, “What is the proper use of technology for a monk?” Group member Bob Hudson later commented:
Merton, as you know, was hugely influenced by [Jacques] Ellul’s Technological Society, in which Ellul (in a nutshell) says that technology eventually becomes a society’s de facto religion.
Both topics (God and darkness…and monks and technology) are ones I’ll ponder for awhile, as I will Usha’s insights on spirituality.
This is why I enjoy our meetings so much. I always learn a great deal – especially from Mary’s always-insightful observations and questions.
The schedule of our meetings for the next few months is:
Always the second Wednesday of every month, at Baker Book House, in the Community Room, starting at 7pm.
Because the topic of prayer seemed to resonate with so many, I think we would benefit from continuing the discussion, perhaps referencing New Seeds of Contemplation, but beginning our next meeting with this book from Merton’s vast bibliography:
It’s only 110 pages. But it’s jam-packed with wisdom, insight, and spiritual riches. The Introduction and Foreword, alone, are worth the price. But it explains and expands on several themes (especially the term “mental prayer,” meditation, mysticism, what a monk in a monastery does – and what we can learn from monastics) raised last night in our discussion of New Seeds of Contemplation.
Contemplative Prayer (Merton’s final book, published in 1969 – the year after his untimely death) is a short volume that nevertheless packs a sizable punch. It has a kindred spirit in Fr. Thomas Keating’s book The Heart of the World: An Introduction to Contemplative Christianity. So if you’re into Centering Prayer and would like to know what Thomas Merton had to say about Contemplative Prayer, this is the book and February 8th at Baker Book House is the place.
Contemplative Prayer retails for $13 at Baker Book House.
I asked the book buyer at Baker to order 6-7 copies of this book. They should be in stock in a week or so. Don’t wait too long to get your copy.
For our next meeting, read these chapters from Contemplative Prayer:
Introduction, by Thich Nhat Hanh
Foreward, by Douglas V. Steere
Introduction, by Thomas Merton
* Research who Thich Nhat Hanh is, and who Douglas V. Steere was.
* Write down any words and phrases that are not immediately familiar to you.
* Consider how to apply what you’re reading to your own life.
* Bring your insights and questions to our meeting. What I can’t answer, I’m sure Jim can. He’s insightful, astute, and well-versed in Mertonology. Bob Hudson, too. And James. They’re all keen students of Merton.
If you have any questions, please feel free to write.
Hope to see you next month!