- Thomas Merton and the Eternal Search (newyorker.com)
In her book, The Cloister Walk, Protestant author Kathleen Norris writes about the ways that the Catholic monastic tradition provides a rhythm and depth for spirituality that many Protestants have never explored. When she says that the life of prayer works “the earth of the heart,” she means that prayer is like the act of cultivation. In order to work the soil, we must break up the hardened dirt clods, water the ground, free it from weeds and then plant a crop. Prayer is the way to “loosen up” the heart. During the natural course of our lives the “earth of our hearts” becomes parched, weed-infested and hard as stone. Unless we take care to break it up, to run our fingers again through the rich soil that we know is there, our lives become as dry and sparse as a desert.
Desert sparseness is the place we can open ourselves to God in very special ways. We not only breakup the hardened soil of our soul, but we discover true insight into our essence. God created us for good. He created us to love and serve, and we find our spiritual nature as we turn away from the busyness of life to nourishment of the spirit. By living the monastic rhythm we find time to tend our souls.
Everyone needs and inner room, a place where you are with God and God alone. There is really only one way and that is by way of the prayer of quiet. You might begin by learning about centering prayer as taught by Fr. Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault or David Frenette, or meditation as taught by James Findlay and others.
There are four stages of prayer:
This would encompass all forms of prayer in words whether read aloud or quietly, or called to mind and recited either internally or externally. May include prayers of petition, thanksgiving, praise, forgiveness, etc.
. This would encompass reading and reflecting upon God’s word whether it be written as in scripture or as it is found in nature. This may lead to what westerners refer to as meditation, (meditatio) but not necessarily. At its best, this prayer is a meditation on the Word God is speaking to me at this moment. It may be as simple as noticing a roadrunner scurry across the road and reflecting upon the message the creature is bringing to me. It typically refers to taking a short scriptural passage and ruminating upon it until it breaks open.
This is the beginning of the prayer that leads to the inner room. Centering prayer fits this description as the purpose of this prayer is to gently, ever so gently, let go, repeatedly if need be, of thoughts while resting in the space between the thoughts. This is a prayer of letting go of the reigns, so to speak. One is open, receptively waiting upon the presence and action of the Holy One, without expectation. Be stll and know that I am God. We are not listening for any particular messages, in fact, all thoughts and feelings are released the moment we become aware that we have been carried away by them. We are simply being present to one another.
Also referred to in the West as contemplation or contemplatio. This prayer is typically understood in Catholic circles to be pure gift and it is gift but the gift becomes more readily available to the ones who have fostered the space in which the gift can be received. This is the prayer of the inner room. Although most of us throughout our lives have tasted fleeting moments of this prayer outside of the context of prayer as it is being described here, nonetheless, one needs to cultivate an attitude of receptivity in order to experience this stage of prayer to which each and every one of us is called. It is not reserved for a few lofty souls. Mystical experience may happen for a few but they are not necessary and typically prove to be a hindrance to contemplation because the recipient tends get caught up in them and struggles to let go of them.
To find your inner room, you must shut the door and wait quietly, patiently, receptively, without expectations upon God.
For you Holy One, my soul in stillness waits.
“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
― St. Francis of Assisi
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road.
Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me.
And you will never leave me to face my struggles alone.
– Thomas Merton