Spiritual Direction and Meditation by Thomas Merton

Seeking a greater union with God through prayer and meditation I sought out the works of Thomas Merton.  This very tiny book, Spiritual Direction and Meditation, after much discourse and examination of the benefits of pray informed meditation, enough to provide a course of action and reassurance, takes aim at our human ego just after cresting the mid-way point of the book:

 “Knowing at the same time the weakness and imperfection of my own soul fettered by attachments, I will above all pray earnestly and humbly for the grace without which I can never hope to conquer my impatience, irritability, aggressiveness and self-righteous impulses to judge and punish other men.”[i]

Irrevocably drawn in by the power and beauty of seeking greater unity with God by this point, flight from my own human failings is not an option.   But what if the book started off this way?  Would I have continued to read it with the same investment?  Would you?

I adore many of my worldly attachments to the point of constant distraction from unity with God.  Many of these attachments are perfectly healthy and rational affections that could even be defined as my calling and my duty (family, work, friends, and writing).   Others not so much like chess, poker, political junkie, sports and other adrenaline inducing activities.  Not so long ago the allure of the dark side of alcohol as well.  Aside from the latter, I have no intention of divesting myself from these attachments!

As for my impatience, irritability, and aggressiveness – is this not a normal response to the insanity we are faced with every day?   Some of these attributes drive innovation and success in my life.   Do I have a self-righteous impulse to judge and punish other men?  No, I have a self-directed mission to be an advocate for the oppressed and underserved.  I have an obligation to be decisive and to act.  God did not give us ability to have it buried in the ground hidden away.

It is easy to fall into the trap of arrogance with only a droplet of spiritual attainment being granted to the individual soul.  But note the last part of the quote – “to judge and punish other men!”  How often do we judge other men?  How often do we punish others based on our judgments?  Do not rule this out.   Punishing another can take many different forms that may not be obvious initially and be far from a benevolent act despite one’s intention to right a wrong.

How many fervent Catholics go astray with judging and condemning women walking into Planned Parenthood?  Are they inspired by true compassion and love when they are walking the pavement with murder signs held high?  Are they doing it for the glory of God, to defend the unborn, or to raise their own sense of righteous indignation?  How many are ready to punish these women regardless of any circumstance?


But what are we to do when confronted with the many evils of today?  This is our suffering.  This is our cross.  Thomas Merton says we are “obliged” to follow the example of Jesus Christ and to reproduce in ourselves his patience, meekness, and tranquility.  “He who does not take up his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”[ii] What an order.  All “I” wanted was meditation, prayer, and peace!

No wonder Mystic St. John wrote “The Dark Night of the Soul”[iii] that captures what can be a violent confrontation.  It is easy to get ahead of oneself and get lost in “false mysticism.”  Let’s take a step back.

Hence, entering into prayer and meditation I must pray humbly for grace to guide my meditation, my prayers, and my actions.  Thomas Merton’s book is packed with singular lines that can be expounded on ad infinitum.  However, the true intent is to inspire spiritual meditation that brings one closer to God, but here and now, and at the end of times.

Only way to evaluate the writing is to apply the knowledge.  On completing the book, I decided to apply Merton’s writings to my adoration hour.

“This implies trust in God and a sincere abandonment to the Holy Spirit, from whom we can at any time rely on the light of divine Counsel, provided that we are conscientious religious and try to be men of prayer.” 

This is another metaphysical challenge to jump with for complete abandonment and rely on the Holy Spirit for divine counsel.  I don’t know about you, but most believers, even the most devout, have had the grace of direct revelation from the Father, The Son, or The Holy Spirit.  And the latter is the most challenging concept.  Merton does not pause on this and presents simple direction on practical matters (no one can meditate for you) and principals that can guide (seeking union with God, having patience, having humility, having faith*, and with sincere searching and love ask for guidance).

*“We cannot possibly bring our souls to renounce our most powerful natural desires unless we somehow have a real and conscious appreciation of our contact with something better.”

But where do I begin.  Merton recommended “Lectio Divina” as a normal foundation for an interior life of meditation and prayer.  I am somewhat familiar with this from the influence of St. Ignatius spiritual practices.  Simply stated read sacred scripture deeply and sit with it meditatively or with spiritual imagination.

I placed myself in a sacred space (adoration chapel).  I prepared myself for prayer.  I humbly asked for grace and guidance for the time I was to be present and praying that evening. A large bible was within arm’s reach.  The gospel of John, chapter 14, on Last Supper Discourses was the scripture that presented itself.[iv]

John 14

Spiritual imagination transformed me to being in the room.  Disciples Thomas, Philip and Judas were struggling to accept Jesus’s plan to depart.   Anger, fear, disillusionment permeated the room.  I myself could not accept having travelled so far with Jesus, to have such an abrupt end.  Truth be told I did not think an end would come once I saw his miracles with my own eyes. But now, everything is upside down.  Outside these doors are enemies that I cannot stand up too without Jesus.  I do not hear the word of the father the way he does.  I do not trust my fellow disciples to stay.  My friends and family from my past will ridicule me on return – not listen to me preach the words of Jesus.  Jesus speaks to me.  At this point meditative prayer is broken with the hilarity that I could summon up the words Jesus would say to me!  His words to the other apostles sufficed.

And then, after clearly detailing the inevitability of his departure, Jesus tells me about the advocate he will give us:

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.

This is important to me.  I have been delving for a week or to now into prayer seeking greater understanding of the Holy Spirit and not quite getting it. And hear, Jesus was telling me directly about the advocate.  My complaining about following Jesus all this way above in my spiritual imagination became my complaining about my life journey and its hardships.

In a crack of silence, the journey and providence of traveling from Pelham bay in the Bronx as a child to the middle of Delaware was filled with the unseen hand of God at different turning points in my life.  And still in my obstinacy, despite all the graces I have been given, I question God…..Dela Where?     In an instant the worry and hindsight on how I arrived at where I am today were insignificant.

Significance is that ultimate truth lies within us if we pursue listening to our spiritual consciousness and are open to the mystery of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The advocate is there for us within us if we ask for it and we look for it with pure intention and sincerity to want union with God.

That sincerity will acknowledge the weakness and imperfection of our fettered souls with a desire to seek him. I do not know about conquering my imperfections.  I can only humbly ask God’s grace to eliminate those that can be ameliorated, help me carry those imperfections that are my cross bear, help me to not hurt others as a result of my weaknesses, and empower me to live loving as Jesus Christ exemplified.

Untethered thoughts cascaded into pleas:

I am no saint.  I am not a bible thumper or theologian.  I am damaged by my own fears and desires. I am engulfed in humanity and vulnerable to the attractions of the seven deadly sins. I cannot possibly meet God’s expectations or even my own!  I am in need of help and forgiveness every day for myself and for brothers.

Solemnity settled into the still room.  Neither elation nor despair was present.  As the disciples knew, challenges awaited them when they left the last supper.  So too challenges awaited me as I exited the chapel – not of course on the grand magnitude of those by Jesus’s side.

The night air was peaceful.  The Moon was bright.  Unseen I departed from the quiet place with my thoughts.   Perhaps I can conquer many things that create distance between me and God with the advocates help and prayerful meditations and actions.  it is not that complicated to pray.

“Meditation is almost all contained in this one idea:  the idea of awakening our interior self and attuning ourselves inwardly to the Holy Spirit, so that we will be able to respond to His grace.”

merton on life

[i] Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation (Action and Union)

[ii] Luke: 14:27

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21Rwj9sPBTc


[iv] http://www.usccb.org/bible/john/14:1



I had plenty of adversity today.  But that is not my focus.  Only a hundred pages into a  novel, Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War, and a cord strikes home:

 “After dinner they read books, sitting on either side of the fire.  They went to bed early in the room at the back of the house.  Isabelle had painted it and sewn the curtains.”  

The novel is on loan to me from a person who appreciates literature, loves family, and knows a portion of life’s secrets, the intersection of suffering and joy.  That escapes many. These two lines in their simplicity define the complexity of finding true happiness.

Today I bought to work 12 DVDS that a number of my staff listed as their favorite films. Thanks to amazon and microwave popcorn I was able to create a quick thank you to my staff.  Leaving today half of the films were taken home by staff and popcorn for relaxation.  A small deed — but so gratifying.

Another staff person stopped me today to tell me how a gentleman enjoys the chess game that is facing the walkway out front of our office.  Myself and a colleague have a game set up with one or two moves a day for all to see.  Many people stop on the walkway and study the game.  It is shocking, given the community has a stigma of being rough and other undesirable names  that many stop and enjoy the complex game.

Our plants were dying a slow death.  Beth only left a few weeks ago and already the plants have succumbed to neglect.  A neighboring business had a person who catered to their sites plants and saw our plants dying.  She grabbed one of my staff and asked to save our plants.  They have been rescued and will be returned by anonymous.

Everyday I am surrounded by wonderful people and opportunity to enjoy life.

A day in the life of Joe.






Magnanimity, Mindfulness & God

“This virtue of the great and the small, which always makes us look at the horizon.  What does magnanimous mean?  It means having a great heart, having greatness of mind; it means having great ideals, the wish to do great things in response to what God asks of us.  (It means also)……..to do well the routine……daily actions, task, meetings with people  –doing the little everyday things with a great heart open to God and to others.”  Pope Francis, June 07, 2013

Today’s entry inspired by reading:  the Church of Mercy by Pope Francis.  Rating:  10

Surely your head is nodding yes to a life of Magnanimity guided by your spiritual, religious, or philosophical ideals.  Meaning, even if you are not Catholic, you can draw from the Pope’s message to apply everyday actions to your idealism while keeping your eye on the larger picture.  It is not that easy in practice. Is your personal creed grounded and guiding you daily?  Is it pliable enough for self-correction as your wisdom grows yet rooted enough to remain focused on the horizon of your life journey?  Where do you draw meaning from in your life today?  Tomorrow?

In a recent training on the DSM V (Diagnostic Statistical Manual – the bible of Mental Health disorders)  Dr. Karnik, Ph.d  spent an inordinate amount of time on the human condition.  The eleven major organ systems (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnjmrrQ6xOs) of your body and the inner psychological internal world and its conflicts immersed in a world of 7.3 Billion people with a history of 6000 to 7000 wars make it hard to pinpoint the cause of mental anguish and discontent without even touching the spiritual dimension. Perhaps though, our evolution has brought us to a place where spiritual awareness should and can be the guiding principle?  (This sidesteps religiosity and its abuses, misinterpretations, and all too human application).  Can life’s real meaning be solely derived from our limbic system primal drives (survival, seek pleasure, and avoid pain)?  Dr. Karnik applies these drives to addictions and the addicted person seeking the “right thing in the wrong place.”  Addiction, at its heart is a person seeking to obtain and maintain the Cortical lottery:  bringing the brain to its peak pleasure point, as much as it can stand, and staying there (http://www.happinesshypothesis.com/beyond-gethappy.htm).

Unfortunately the thin line between that point and death is very fine and the pursuit of that goal ultimately leads to the opposite result – abject misery.   The treasure chest of addiction can be quite broad:  substance use disorders (including ETOH/Nicotine), Gambling disorders, Behavioral disorders (sexual addiction, work addiction, gaming, Facebook, fantasy, stealing, risk taking, coin collecting, etc).  Fortunately we can enjoy pleasure in many of these areas legally and without negative repercussions if they remain in their respective place and time commitment relative to your life’s purpose!  Back to being Magnanimous!

Everything you do small and large should in some way support your purpose and your view of the horizon.  Defining that purpose takes time and perspective and the shape of its expression may change over time.  Your job will probably change many times over in your life time.  You may even change your career a few times.  Your hobbies and entertainment will vary as well.  Underneath all this distraction is the real you that relates to other people, to animals, the planet, the unknown existential spiritual realm, and yourself.

This is where mindfulness and spirituality come into play.  It is easy to suffer and be discontent amidst the distractions of life, the limits of our physical body, and the pulls of the limbic system drives without being mentally ill or disturbed.  You can still be pretty unhappy.  You do not need to be an addict to find unhappiness.  Spending time on being aware of yourself and your motivation for life can distil life imposing on you anxiety, misery, and suffering.  You will still have anxiety, misery and suffering!  However, these experiences will be relegated to their respective place and time commitment relative to your life’s purpose.  Sound familiar?

Where your time is spent and is it spent wisely?  I turn my worries over to action (if some action is available) and to prayer when events are outside my sphere of influence.  I am not an evangelist, though I am Catholic.  I am not purporting to tell you “the way” to spiritual enlightenment.  I am saying to find a “way “to avoid the entrapments of the meaningless, of materialism, habituation, and other frivolities of life.  I have wasted a great deal of time in my life on such things and pray others do not have to endure the same mistakes.

The metaphysical term love is the goal I have found sustains me.  Appreciating others and the gift of love in all its shapes, colors and sizes is profoundly rewarding.  Reading of heroic acts of love and self-sacrifice of others is inspiring.  Avoiding self-contempt is also worthwhile when falling into the trap of comparison to the truly gifted.  And forgiving self and others is a compassionate, mindful practice.  I often self-deprecate myself which could be mistaken for seeking approval or a reverse lack of humility!  The truth is I have an awareness of my faults and misgivings of which there are many, and I am sure, many of which I may not be aware of or have yet to commit.

I pray for anyone who reads this that you live a magnanimous life filled and informed by your personal purpose, surrounded by people of like mind, and blessed by God’s grace.

Catholic reference on prayer and meditation: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p4s1c3a1.htm

P.S.  Catholics do not own the market on mindfulness.  There is the rich tradition of buddhism and secular mindfulness meditation practices as well.  Personally I think they all lead to the same place….but of course, being Catholic I recommend my faith!