Friday, October 3, 2008

New Seeds of Devotion

Personally, I do not watch television, nor do I regularly surf the web, so I end up having a lot of time to read and think about what I read—yet it is never enough. With the schedule I keep, which feels insane, there is rarely a moment when I do not feel the existential dread of constantly being in a hurry. Always on the offensive, in a state of perpetual motion, forever moving from one place to the next or anxious of the awareness of knowing the next place I have to go—all while I try to just breathe. This is more or less what is like for everyone in this postmodern era, at one time or another, literally traveling at breakneck speeds day after day. No one is foreign to this I am sure.

Such times don’t have to be aggravating though because these moments that usually feed our contempt for the world we live in too can prove meaningful. They can even become moments of serious spiritual attainment that confirm something sacred at the basic level of experience unifying all things. Or so Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion and Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation contend.

These short spiritual achievements, easy to read yet inspiring, presents the reader with a practical guide in how to center one’s life around God’s Presence. In this feverishly hectic world it difficult to find a place that is not overrun with constant noise and perpetual motion. Thomas Kelly and Thomas Merton, on the other hand, implore us to find this space so that we may obtain the lasting fulfillment of conversing with our Creator in a time in which God was thought dead—a death caused not by Science but by technology and the onslaught of information. Yet Kelly, does this gently, at least when compared to Merton who offers a brand of tough love that cares enough to be cruel when needed.

Merton’s writing is mostly negative in that he spends most of his energy telling the reader what the contemplative life is not and what we should not do, following or followed by a concise declaration of its opposite in positive terms. For instance, one of Merton’s most famous lines on the topic, “not a heaven of separate individuals, each one viewing his own private intuition of God; it is a sea of Love,”[1] works in precisely this way. This sophisticated technique both diagnosis and then cures the problem at hand. Not all instances of this device play out this quickly, some unfold the course of the book.[2] Both this style and Kelly’s more positive, grandfatherly approach—It is a light within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon our faces[3] (ah, that’s the money melon)—have their merits and compliment the other in a harmonic way because what they reveal is ultimate the same message—that it is belief that counts and it is necessary to validate existence. They affirm that in an age of disbelief such as ours, the most

The ritual, undogmatic, unspecific, does not need to be intellectualized to be useful in shaping meaning into one’s life because we already possess it. Kelly tells us that “by inner persuasions He draws us to a few very definite tasks, our tasks, God's burdened heart particularizing His burdens in us,”[4] implying it is what we are meant to do and should come relatively through its very nature. In fact, such abstract thought is part of the problem: it is wholly other to from the loneliness of self-satisfying drive; it cannot be expressed by words alone; it must be experienced to even relate to description. Of this type of over intellectualizing, Merton writes “the whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate…the façade of conventional gestures and attitudes which he presents to the world, and to bring out his inner spiritual freedom, his inmost truth… for the work of rescuing the inner man from automatism belongs first to the Holy Spirit.[5] In other words, to really devote one’s self to the contemplative life, one must actually accept the Holy Spirit as it is instead of trying to make it fit in a way that we choose by intellectualizing it’s nature thereby justifying a degradation of that Spirit. Again Merton tells us “this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization”[6] so to try to experience it by intellect alone is as futile as Ulysses’ efforts to reach the shores of Purgatory by way of boat, a metaphor that Dante uses to warn us that mere intellect will not guide us to the Divine: Using his famous resourcefulness, here equated with intelligence, to “pursue virtue and know the world,”[7] he “rejoiced, but soon it turned to grief,”[8] as the fated journey ended up costing him and his men their lives. Readers of Merton and Kelly’s texts are therefore supposed to open them from ground-zero of their spiritual journey, first learning the basic way to Nothingness, void of self-consciousness, cynicism, of knowing anything in order to dismantle the thought process and hold up to cynical speculation and basically just works.

They doesn’t throw Jesus’ name around all that much—I don’t even recall Kelly mentioning Him. Penance doesn’t seem to matter a great deal either. What is of vital importance though is connecting with the Divine voice in a way that is accessible to all who are listening. Shaped by Kelly’s Quaker faith and Merton’s Trappist monasticism along with Romantic ideals, they attest that there is something else out there that transcends the rat-race, helter-skelter, existentially loathsome modern existence where the only apparent significance one seems to have is economic. Merton corrects us, saying contemplative experience is not “something you can buy,” rather, “it has to be a gift.”[9] And Kelly comforts, “is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself.”[10] In this eternity pressing upon our hearts, one can detect a Wordsworthian message suggesting that focusing on the Heaven and Hell to come after we cease to be is to not only miss the point but to totally have the wrong way of looking at the world and the precious and fragile gift of life. Heaven and Hell are not just here with us, they are actually in us; thus, when we go through life unaware of our own little personal skull-sized prisons and paradises inside our brains or hearts or wherever, religion actually becomes nothing more than the bars to another cell instead of freedom it promises.

To go through life unaware and unmindful of the basic reality of our nature that lies deep within is akin to going through life as though having “had and lost some infinite thing.” In truth, this is exactly what happens when one resorts to their default way of thinking which is how people tend to live for most of their conscious existences. We are so culturally used to thinking like this that Merton calls it a “cliché.” In the following passage, Merton explains that late-date-Americans, in essence, do not think for themselves, instead giving in to the conditioned, negative type of thinking:
immersion in the general meaninglessness of countless slogans and clichés repeated over and over again so that in the end one listens without hearing and responds without thinking. The constant din of empty words and machine noises, the endless booming of loudspeakers end by making true communication and true communion almost impossible. Each individual in the mass is insulated by thick layers of insensibility. He doesn't care, he doesn't hear, he doesn't think. He does not act, he is pushed. He does not talk, he produces conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises. He does not think, he secretes clichés.[11]
As individuals, we, as Americans, are beginning to realize that there is some “cosmic-unconscious” that is making it more and more difficult to attain true satisfaction in default mode and those of us not already dead inside are searching for a better way. But through God’s presence, “we are reduced, as it were, to nothing, for He is all,” and “self is emptied into God, and God in-fills it,”[12] thus our primal needs to connect with something larger are relieved. In this sense, this feeling means fulfillment, contentment, and an end to a deep seeded disappointment that is becoming more common as the culture’s spiritual decline increases toward oblivion.

Lacking existential fulfillment, we lack something that is fundamental to our very being. Deprived of wholeness due to missing one-to-one connection in both a spiritual and an interpersonal sense, an endless cycle of alienation occurs as substitutes instituted in place of the missing piece. The stand-in, lacking substance, always proves inadequate in squelching a hunger hardwired into the human condition, which Merton echoes when he writes:
common life can either make one more…or less of a person, depending whether it is truly common life or merely life in a crowd. To live in communion, in genuine dialogue with others is absolutely necessary if man is to remain human. But to live in the midst of others, sharing nothing with them but the common noise and general distraction, isolates a man in the worst way, separates a him from reality in a way that is almost painless. It divides him off and separates him from other men and from his true self… / The complacency of the man who has no self-esteem because he has not even a superficial self which he can esteem. He is not a person, not an individual, only an atom…It produces a kind of peace which is not peace, but only the escape from an immediately urgent sense of conflict. It is the peace not of love but of anesthesia. It is the peace not of self-realization and self-dedication, but of flight into irresponsibility.[13]
Disappointment permeates in the secular-disconnected world of material plentitude as the surrogate continues to operate. Replacements—e.g. other deserted people, material goods, entertainment, drugs, etc.—appear as comfort foods to the abandoned soul. Such feelings originate, according to Kelly, because “We are not integrated. We are distraught…And we are unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed, and fearful we shall be shallow. For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. Strained by the very mad pace of our daily outer burdens, we are further strained by an inward uneasiness, because we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power.”[14] The need to fill the void ends up turning solitary beings into worshippers unaware that their chosen idol has been eating them alive. However, the substitute itself is not something that is loved in the way flocks love their protector but the consequence of electing nothing over themselves to truly love. Merton says as such when he writes “keep me from the sins that eat a man's flesh with irresistible fire until he is devoured”[15] Long before taking their last breathes, the substitute becomes their agent of self-annihilation for the desperate indefinable desire. The thing coveted—whatever that may be—robbing the individual of its will, is something that is freely embraced as the new deity.

when forced to endure infuriating hassles that require stress inducing urgency within irritating, inconsiderate hordes of people tearing thru the streets in an insane rush to get God only knows while the person in this hypothetical situation must stomach something that has just got to be more important because they think “this is happening to me!” Other people have no place in such think since the individual’s needs and desires are of the utmost importance with impacting consequences that have substance. As such reasoning has it: “My objectives are of greater meaning with higher stakes as mine are the only ones that I understand. Other people’s thoughts must be communicated to me in some way while mine are already here so are more authentic and real; thus my need is more valid, more pressing.” This makes it “easy to identify the sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self. In ourselves, it is the other way around; we see the sin, but we have great difficulty in shouldering responsibility for it…[We] tend to interpret our immoral act as an involuntary mistake, or as the malice of a spirit in us that is other than ourself.[16] Again, to this individual, every person who sits at a traffic light or impedes in any form is “in the way.” Tied up with selfish thought, people end up becoming very bitter very quickly since the world does seem to be out to get them. Never does concern that they are in fact the ones obstructing the someone else’s path ever come into their reasoning. Kelly describes this sentiment noting that “there is an inexorable amount of suffering in all life, blind, aching, unremovable, not new but only terribly intensified in these days… But there is also removable suffering.”[17]

Demands placed upon people who think this way tend to suspect that these competing and tedious day-to-day necessities are in some way personal, as though the cosmos were taking out some karmic vendetta against them or perhaps the inconveniences were Divinely Inspired. It is to think selfishly, which Merton venemently berates saying Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost. In every man there is hidden some root of despair because in every man there is pride that vegetates…Self-pity as soon as our own resources fail us… is the ultimate development of a pride so great… that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God.”[18] This naturally results from selfish thoughts due to the fact that everything in their immediate perception of reality, they literally find all sensory evidence to place them at the absolute center of the universe. Thinking about things in this way is culturally so heinous that one can’t even admit to it. But nonetheless, we continue to carry on in this way because it is very easy to let ourselves get carried away in our own little imaginary worlds. I know I do when I am not aware of how truly egotistically and inconsiderate my accepted beliefs really, truly are. The ideas that enter into my semiconscious—i.e. fully awake but lacking attention—mind may corroborate beliefs I have that I am the absolute most interesting and entertaining and wise and profound and inspiring person who has every lived. This is even provable and logical when one really thinks about this phenomenon assuming one can think long enough and hard enough in a way that is so culturally repulsive that to acknowledge it is to feel somehow immoral and unjustly exposed as depraved. The worst of it though is that to think in this way is also to think about it and confront this dimension of ourselves that is as undeniable as it is excruciatingly upsetting. This means that we actively end up denying “God the initiator, God the aggressor, God the seeker, God the stirrer into life, God the ground of our obedience, God the giver of the power to become children of God.”[19]

These situations of hopeless inability in the face of societal demands are always, for me anyway, accompanied by existential dread that deals with the necessity to perform a role in said society that lacks any sense of purpose and is void where at a level where well-adjusted people operate and behave as though there is nothing amiss. All the while there is the stressful, incessant, pitiless noise slowly disabling the capacity to function without some degree of rage. Thus, we are thinking but not contemplating when we think about things in a way that is harmful or negative or oppressive to anyone or anything, including ourselves; we are illustrating the exact type of thinking we are not supposed to be undertaking. However, Kelly promises us “there is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship, with a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.”[20] But unless the interior voice is turned off, self-conscious thinking, not contemplation, results; instead of the intended self-discovery, one remains closed and hidden, or in Merton’s words, these people will “never succeed in being themselves.”[21]

Their message is really pretty simple when one thinks about it—a cliché even. For instance, Merton writes:
The way to contemplation is an obscurity so obscure that it is no longer even dramatic. There is nothing in it that can be grasped and cherished as heroic or even unusual. And so, for a contemplative, there is supreme value in the ordinary everyday routine of work, poverty, hardship and monotony that characterize the lives of all the poor, uninteresting and forgotten people in the world.[22]
But like most statements of profound wonder, the simplicity of it is what ends up paradoxically making it so profound in the first place. This is often the reason we tend to overlook truths that are so significant. Having been there all along, they become banal and people lose sight of their importance with so many other things demanding our attention. The deepest realities in life are always the ones most difficult to hear.

Once one obtains the ability to actually listen, many a door to happiness and contentment will open up and liberate the soul from its confinement. All one has to do is use their inner ear. When this takes place, life becomes simplified and the noise pollution becomes bearable. With obedience to the voice’s call comes a peace making one appear poised and calm. In Merton’s words:
There is only one true flight from the world…the flight from disunity and separation, to unity… the ‘world’… [Christ said] His disciples were in but not of it? The world is the unquiet city of those who live for themselves and are therefore divided against one another in a struggle that cannot end, for it will go on eternally in hell…But if you try to escape from this world by leaving the city and hiding yourself in solitude, you will only take the city with you into solitude, and yet you can be entirely out of the world while remaining in the midst of it, if you let God set you free from your own selfishness and if you live for love alone.[23]
The outward reflects the inward in such a case as the mind becomes tranquil having turned off the incessant inner monologue that is by sheer ontology 99% selfish thought because in some way, almost every thing that pops into one’s mind is implicit or explicitly about one’s self. In learning to truly listen, individuals naturally become less self-centered as they consciously attempt to dispel the regular modes of thinking in favor of infinitely deeper ones.

Deciding the thing to put absolute faith in becomes even more important since both manifestations of our inner longing, positive and negative, find residence within the individual. Choose wisely, the object of affection liberates the soul and releases it into the next life; choose poorly, the object kills the host amounting to a victim of a bloodless utilitarianism good is equated with literal “cash-value” in that it is nothing more than satisfying demand. For Merton, the only alternative is contemplation which he calls the “highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive…a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source.”[24] There is no way around the fact that people are, utterly and only, the thing that gets chosen to love that one would die without. But when people choose correctly, they paradoxically experience “this total Instruction proceeds in two opposing directions at once. We are torn loose from earthly attachments and ambitions – contemptus mundi. And we are quickened to a divine but painful concern for the world – amor mundi.”[25]

But, living without knowing any inner voice other than our own is a recipe for disaster since our species is notoriously horrible at determining what is actually good, and considering America’s addiction to pleasure, the likeliness of choosing something beyond immediate self-gratification is remote. Therefore, Kelly is correct in asserting that “An awful solemnity is upon the earth, for the last vestige of earthly security is gone. It has always been gone, and religion has always said so, but/ we haven't believed it.”[26] Such denial has lead to an unhealthy relationship with the mind and thought in hyper-self-consciousness obsessing about one’s self and about continuing to do it. That much despair in a life with few exterior threats to existence takes residence in the head comes as little surprise with constant commentary going on all the time. More disturbing, although no more staggering, is the fact that the majority of suicides occur by firearm shots to the head, identifying satisfaction in this case with desiring not wanting to suffer being a self at all.[27] The illusion of self-erasure, in any form, provides not escape but leads to a state of oblivion—i.e. more despair. This ultimately results, according to Merton, because the individual “tried to be like something else, which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give Him less glory.”[28] “Therefore,” he adds, “ the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” Because he sees God as granting us free will, we are “free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear one mask and then another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own face.” But choosing such an existence will guartee a life filled with isolation and unhappiness and “if we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that true eludes us when we finally come to need it!” One must choose to listen to that inner call since “the secret of my full identity is hidden in Him…But unless I desire this identity and work to find it with Him and in Him, the work will never be done. The way of doing it is in secret I can learn from no one else but Him. There is no way of attaining to the secret without faith. Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and happiness depends; to discover myself in discovering God.”

One of the major hindrances keeping us out of touch with our inner, spiritual selves, I contend and believe Merton and Kelly would concur is our cultural addiction to entertainment. As stated previously, when the spirit goes untapped and one is shut off from a Higher Power which allows that person to function in society without going completely insane, it is a major problem indeed. The main factor in not achieving this for the majority of Westerners is a direct result of constant being distracted so as never to develop a spiritual connection or a true understanding of self. In living such an inundated life, Merton says “Mere living in the midst of other men does not guarantee that we live in communion with them, or even in communication with them. Who has less to the communicate than the mass-man? Very often it is the solitary who has the most to say; not that he uses many words, but what he says is new, substantial, unique. It is his own. Even though he says very little, he has something to communicate, something personal which he is able to share with others. He has something real to give, because he himself is real.”[29] The problem with entertainment then, as opposed to contemplation, is not gaining encyclopedic knowledge for such information communicates the least.

If that were the case, the advantage would clearly way in a viewer’s favor since television fires constant information open its audience while it takes time to read a book and absorb its hidden meaning—that is to say what it affirms/encourages as well as diagnoses/critiques within ourselves—while there is too much to take in through a fast-paced medium. The really important kind of knowledge is based on a deeper understanding that mere facts could never convey—some degree of experience must be involved. It is through such experiences that one develops the true ability to empathize since undergoing this transformation “plucks the world out of our hearts, loosening the chains of attachment. And He hurls the world into our hearts, where we and He together carry it in infinitely tender love.”[30] 20 Yet, spending time in deep thought is taxing after a while but the difficulty of it grants access to much of its pleasure because it is demanding; television, conversely, adheres to a strict pleasure-seeking-agenda and is therefore immensely more unimposing.

Further more, the only stipulation before internet made spontaneous transmission a reality was the fact that one had to be in front of a TV at a certain time to watch a certain show. Now, via internet downloads, viewers now control 100% of what they watch at any given time in coddled environments that are increasingly cage-like. That is the real point of spiritual refinement, to step out of one’s cage and find that there are no more bars holding him/her in another prison but a way out of the skull-sized cell that we all must escape for true liberation. Once this is experienced, “one emerges from such soul-shaking, Love-invaded times into more normal states of consciousness. But one knows ever after that the Eternal Lover of the world, the Hound of Heaven, is utterly, utterly real, and that life must henceforth be forever determined by that Real.[31] Because there is nothing more important than to really live and know you are alive; this is a well-being that is unattainable through commerce. In fact, it is proof that life really does mean something.

[1] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 65
[2] The first two chapters, “What is Contemplation?” and “What Contemplation is Not”, are telling by their names alone, displaying themes that appear throughout the book.
[3] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 3.
[4] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 43.
[5] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 108.
[6] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 6.
[7]Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. C. H. Sisson, (Oxford: University Press, 1998), Inferno XXVI. 120.
[8] Dante, Inferno XXVI: 136
[9] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 185.
[10]Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 3.
[11] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 55.
[12] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 31.
[13] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 55-6.
[14] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 92.
[15] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 44.
[16] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 112-3.
[17] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 42.
[18] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 180.
[19] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 26.
[20] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 9.
[21] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 98.
[22] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 250.
[23] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 78-9.
[24] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 1.
[25] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 19.
[26] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, pp. 41-2.
[28] The following series of quotes are taken from pages 35-36 of Merton’s text.
[29] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 54.
[30] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 20.
[31] Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 31.

During my research, I found a review by one D. Findlay on Amazon which you can read here that was pretty hilarious and spot on. Had this not been for a class where professors tend to be pretty sensitive about the texts they assign, I would have been more critical of Merton's negativity. But such were the facts and I can't deny the reality of that situation.

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