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?

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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

 

Providence, Powerlessness, and Purpose

April 1, 2017

Today I find myself in control of my destiny.  My will and determination is paramount and the world is at my disposal.  If any frustration arises in me at their denseness, I recognize that not all can be blessed with the wisdom that I have attained and patience is the rule of the moment when faced with brothers who remain obstinate to my will and my ideas.  I am kind in all my ways, compassionate when called to be, selfless in all my actions, and next to my fellow-man, as perfected in spiritual attainment as near perfection any human may achieve.  I need not pretend to enunciate how I have achieved this elevation, for to do so, would be contrary to my deep seated humility.  Suffice it to say, I have arrived at my pre-destined place, at one with God’s will, forgiven and renewed in the spirit, never to stray again on the path of un-holiness.   And this I do of my own free will and sheer determination as gifted to me by grace of God.

“In all ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”[i]

Today is April 1, 2017, by some it is called a national holiday for all atheist.  I do not begrudge atheist or humanists that are able without the aid of a higher power to live a life as close to moral perfection as humanely possible.  I am a humanist by nature, a philosopher by spirit, and an amateur theologian by self-appointment.    That is not enough for me to live the life that I believe mankind is destined to pursue.  Left to my own devices and self-deception I will fail to my own subliminal definition of self that although not as grandiose as the first paragraph, nonetheless is elevated above the reality of my actions and in defiance of my inherited and self-created limitations.    The chasm between the two will create a separation between me and my fellow man, between me and my God, that ultimately will bring chaos and failure to fruition if left to my own devises.

In earnest I am speaking about the dynamism of Providence versus Free Will.  We are powerless in the face of forces of nature, manmade circumstances beyond our control, and the limitations within our genetics and psychological make up that provide us certain strengths and limitations.  For us believer’s, we are also aware of a certain sense of pre-determination, which ultimately if some outcome is God’s will it will be done.  In the face of Providence and Powerlessness that is undeniably present in the human condition it could be easy to lose all hope and drive to pursue individual and collective action to fulfill a calling or life purpose.    When confronted with suffering on so many existential levels and deep rooted soul felt pain, it is easy to abandon Providence or Free Will or both.

The reality is today, April 1, 2017, I find myself in doing everything in my power to do God’s will, not mine.  My will and determination is important but only if it is informed and aligned with God’s will.  Patience is the rule of the moment when faced with brothers who remain obstinate to my will and my ideas while allowing for the possibility and in many cases the likelihood, that it is my own obstinacy that creates frustration and disappointment. I strive to be kind in all my ways, compassionate when called to be, and selfless in all my actions – but I am far from spiritual attainment and perfection.  Pride and humility are a constant dance in my head that color my actions in shades of hue that cannot be defined with any self-assurance of accuracy.

In the face of adversity we are called to make informed decisions and act on these decisions with a ferocity and commitment commensurate with the challenge before us.    What challenges are you facing today?  What is God’s will for you with this challenge?  What is your decision?  What actions do you have to take today?  Who can help you validate your thinking and your plan are in-line with your reality or with God’s intentions?

If you are facing a challenge today, may you find the help you need, the resources at hand, a decision to act in accordance with your destiny, and find serenity in your life:

serenity

[i] Proverbs 3:6

Cathedral Basilica, Philadelphia

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A minor Basilica located in the heart of Philadelphia, originally built for 75,000 , now is facing a roof repair that cost upwards of 14 million dollars! It is a national historic landmark, a museum, and soon to be home of a shrine for St. Katherine Drexel (http://www.katharinedrexel.org/), and is also an active but aging parish.  
After mass today my wife and I enjoyed a tour of the church.  What a wonderful and instructive tour.  The church, aside from its own splendor, is also a repository of sculptures and artwork from smaller churches that have ceased to be.  As the Catholic church as seen diminishing numbers and the cost of maintaining churches has sky rocketed, valuable and impressive church artifacts are found new homes, including moving saints crypts.   

The mass was classical in style and included beautiful music played on the fourth largest organ in the city:  

organ

Afterwards the artwork and many alcoves tell so many stories of our faith.  Historically art was a way of storytelling and communicating the faith – etched in glass, ceramic, or painted on walls and ceilings.   

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I was also able to sit in the same chair as Pope Francis did when he visited and said Mass on Ben Franklin Parkway.  I think it’s the robes that gives him the air of authority and grace!    
A common theme in my writings always returns to a principal.  A principal I try to teach to up and coming social workers as well.  Often, it is not the words or the glamour of the presenter, the oration or eloquence, the skill level or technique – but genuine compassion, demonstrated empathy, and consistent authenticity.   How are we living today.  Are the American people and our elected leaders practicing genuine compassion, demonstrated empathy, and consistent authenticity?   Pope Francis has challenged us on several fronts as individual Christians and as a nation that we are not living or acting as a Christian nation in the areas of compassion, economic stewardship, social welfare, environment, and many other intrinsic values of Christianity.  Christianity is so much more than Pro-Life – and he has criticized us on that too in many dimensions regarding the value of life on all fronts.  
The church has frequent homeless individuals hiding in the confessionals to get some sleep and un-harassed peace.  The a.m. mass before ours had a homeless person taking one of the contribution baskets and fleeing out with a few dollars in the middle of mass – a common problem in this church that has its share of homeless and impoverished people in the community.   One statue requires a rosary bead to be present – it is replaced daily as it is always taken by visitors to the church. People are desperate and hungry for grace and for food, housing, shelter.  
My thoughts and prayers to the immigrants we are shunning, to the homeless we are ignoring, to the poor who are hungry, and to the spiritually starved who have lost faith in humanity and in God.   I pray with tears in my eyes that we as a nation find humility in our hearts, courage to accept the risk of being true leaders, and strength to demand we treat all people with dignity.   

Here is one of today’s readings.  Read and Reflect if you have time:

Reading 2, First Corinthians 1:26-31
26 Consider, brothers, how you were called; not many of you are wise by human standards, not many influential, not many from noble families.
27 No, God chose those who by human standards are fools to shame the wise; he chose those who by human standards are weak to shame the strong,
28 those who by human standards are common and contemptible — indeed those who count for nothing — to reduce to nothing all those that do count for something,
29 so that no human being might feel boastful before God.
30 It is by him that you exist in Christ Jesus, who for us was made wisdom from God, and saving justice and holiness and redemption.
31 As scripture says: If anyone wants to boast, let him boast of the Lord.

 http://cathedralphila.org/about/about-the-cathedral/

 
http://cathedralphila.org/

 

The Day After – A Dark Night

November 9, 2016:

 

I visited the Kennedy Center today for a family activity where check in was at the Hall of Nations and the seats of power were within eyesight.  This is no small reality check given the dramatic upset that transpired yesterday in US presidential politics.  The view in DC felt dark.

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That the winning candidate has given license to the worst of our society when it comes to racism, bigotry, and hatred.  He may not represent or be these things, but those that embrace these ideals (if they can be called ideals) feel vindicated and empowered by his victory.  And those that are victims of prejudice are afraid and protesting as I write this post.

Where can I turn when my nation takes a step backwards (in my opinion).  The GOP  win may actually benefit me financially.  But the policies proposed will hurt 22 million people insured by the ACA, young people who are using the health care of their parents thru age 26 until they get into this job market, people with chronic illnesses keep their insurance, and countless protections for vulnerable people.  The party of Christian values won an election on non-christian propaganda helped by a damaged democrat candidate and FBI interference.  And yet the party has so many good people and people of principle that allowed this to be their route to power.

Where to turn to at these troubled times?  The drive home went from DC rush hour traffic to back roads Maryland.  As the distance from metropolitan centers grew the radio turned to white noise, my daughter complained, I shut it off, my wife asked why!  I said I wanted to listen but could not focus on the station dials right now — had to focus on road.  She roused herself and found a new station and was about to drift back off when I apparently yelled aaagh……damn Deer in the road.  If I changed that station we would have had one really dead Deer.

deer

My wife yelled Jesus!  I yelled what are you yelling at!  She said you yelled I can yell!  My daughter just wanted to know the Deer got away unharmed!   (Yes – and the CRV brakes worked really well).

So we arrive in Delaware safely. I have adoration chapel and off I go.  It is raining.   I find quietness and presence in the chapel.  Among other things I read about Jesus teaching the disciples about violent rejection of his message that is to come and that the good news will not be an immediate conquering of evil and disbelief.  In fact, in his humility the power of the Divine life will emerge.  Jesus spoke of service as the key.  Service to the poor, in loving all of God’s children, and devotion to God.

That is the focus we need.  If our focus is on a human being like Donald or Hillary to save the day (and save what?) we have given up our spiritual selves.  And what was the driving message in this campaign other than money, fear, and hatred?  Looking for solace and serenity can only truly come from the presence of divine presence in our lives?     A divine gift.

A quote from my reading tonight regarding if you have the gift of living a divinely inspired life:

“You won’t need your assumptions, prejudices, worries, or even your hands and feet.  However if you reject this gift where can you turn?  You will have nothing but the empty pageantry of your pretensions; you’ll have nothing, you’ll have death.” Paul McCarren, SJ

Reading the above shallow thinking Reds and Blues can easily nod their heads in agreement as if the other side has committed the errors of turning their back on God’s message and placing their worth in false gods of power or elitism.  I do not believe either side in the majority has conscientiously done that – but we are far from living divinely inspired lives.

The more we listen to others, the more we will see:

“the struggle of others to be cured of their ignorance is just like yours.  You will begin to see yourself in them.  You’ll find yourself at peace with them.”    Paul McCarren, SJ

McCarren drew these conclusions from select readings from the Gospel of Mark and other bible references.  This listening and empathy for our neighbors, friends, family, political opponents, and enemies is virtually absent in social media, newspapers, and conversations.

When is the last time you found yourself at peace with understanding rival ideas and the people who threaten your anchor, your identity, your deeply held beliefs?  

This does not mean to abandon your beliefs or silence them – it does mean to deeply listen to others, reflect, pray, and strive to understand.  It may also mean for Christians to repent (when you have failed), turn, ask, and accept God’s help.  It also means to not be afraid when tragedy strikes or things do not go our way.

This reminds me of a neighbor I had from Cuba who said, they need a church on every corner, every corner, not for me, not for me, for those xxx, xxx, xxx, who graffiti-ed my fence.    Sometimes we fall in to the trap of the other ones need help forgetting our own blindness and limited knowledge of living a truly divinely inspired life.  It didnt bother me much re-painting my fence every so often – I kept a ready tin of paint back than and I new I owed as much from my own youthful errors.

So I leave the chapel and head home.  A block away from the chapel, off to the side of the road, is a deer, just standing there, twenty feet in on the grass in the middle of Dover, De, watching me go home, feeling like, we have met before in Maryland just few hours and 50 or so miles ago?  Providence?

Now I am up a second night late – but the driving force of my deprivation of sleep is much more comforting, purposeful, and hopeful than watching the human folly the night before. People will blame Christianity for division and others will claim Christianity as their defense for their vote.  Christianity in its true form should do neither – it is loving, caring, compassionate, and modeling all the time the way of Jesus Christ.  It is a way of living that I believe no human can live perfectly except one that has come before us being both God and Man.

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Skeletons Dancin’

The tight rope between Ezekiel’s description of dancing bones (37:7) as a “rattling of bones came together bone to bone” to the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Lucan Gospel, although laced together with scriptures all throughout the Old Testament and the Gospels, defies the imagination. Ezekiel prophesized a vision as follows: “So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.” This was to his people who were exiled and needed hope and vision of a glorious return. The improbability of the original vision is perhaps as challenging as the delivered savior: a suffering savior who dies to give us life and is resurrected corporately (for everyone), body and all. The faith of the exiled Israelites expecting a savior and the faith of the disciples when presented with a savior is not a given despite tangible “miracles” and visions.
In the Lucan gospel, the visitation to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, cannot discern Jesus Christ has joined them on the road in conversation. They do not recognize him until the act of breaking bread, which was preceded by scripture (revelation by Jesus though not discerned). The Gospel discusses that not all can see. Several accounts are given of the disciples themselves being in disbelief.
How than, can we in modern day believe? Is it not so much harder? The answer is no as we have the same tools of discernment as the disciples: scripture and breaking bread (receiving Jesus Christ). Scripture prepares the self with knowledge of God, breaking bread is accepting God’s gift of Jesus Christ sacrifice, and union with God is perfected in our pursuit of proximity to God and God’s providence. Man cannot discern God alone, in the past or in the present.
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