My Mornings With Thomas Merton

My Mornings with Thomas Merton: The Craft of Devotional Living

A Meditation on the book “Contemplative Prayer”

The Craft of Devotional Living

Devotion living is a craft to be learned, a connection to Christ, and a commitment to grow in Grace. While this article is a commentary on a particular book, I offer a starting point for forming your personal plan for spiritual growth that could use the Bible or any book that touches your faith.

One mark of the Christian disciple is to desire growth in intimacy with God. The process of growth takes time, intention, and faith in Christ. God provides the faith and we learn how to craft activities together that add spiritual muscle. A balance of prayer and meditation, described as meditation, prayers of the heart or contemplative prayer, are the foundation of devotional time and books are tools to build with.

TIMING!

Devotional living must be daily, at your most alert time of day, focused and guided. Time with God can too easily become talking to oneself or vacant naval gazing without a plan. Any appropriate book, whether a “Devotional”, a timely topic or a book of the Bible, can provide direction.

I want to know how to grow into the next level of prayer and chose the book “Contemplative Prayer”, written by Thomas Merton in 1968 as a guide. Contemplation/Meditation is not natural to me but is learnable and does fit my goals.

This is a brief writing with depth and it leaves you with the feeling that there is something more discover. It is also written in short chapters which fit nicely into daily readings.

My devotion time is in the morning on front porch bench. I am most creative in the early times of day and can imagine myself sitting with Merton in my prayer time, encouraging me onto a deeper relationship with God.  From that I have a conversation of sorts and journal my responses.  Here is my journey with Brother Thomas Merton.

Here is my devotional journey in brief bullet points:

• First, the goal is to grow spiritually and discover where contemplative prayer/meditation help? The start is with a simple plan-this post is a suggestion- a listening ear and GO!

• This article is about learning your devotional process more than a book review. Your process will differ and the only wrong way to spend time with God is NOT to do so. This is a starting place to trying new things. God honors disciplined action with faith.

• The Holy Bible is the obvious choice for a guiding book and the book of psalms is the foremost devotional guide and should be present in devotional living.

• “Contemplative Prayer”, by Thomas Merton, is my companion with scripture for this season and not a replacement. Check out my journal entries below for more content and LEAVE COMMENTS. Don’t worry if you have to look up a few terms in the reading. Fr. Merton uses a few technical terms that you may have to Google.

My daily rhythm is: BE SILENT AND STILL-Turn the phone off, Read the passage and then journal answers to: 1: What did I read? 2: What did I learn? and 3: What will I do with it? Leave your meditation with a Bible verse or Psalm. I allowed an hour a day with 20 minutes spent reading. Some chapters took more than one day and I missed a few too. Silence is critical. Don’t rush. Make the time! I had to get up early and it takes as long as it takes. Don’t have an hour? Give God what you have.

• Merton’s message overall is: The goal of the interior life is to pass through the spiritual desert to find that raw, honest and unhindered connection with God. Contemplation, a Christian based meditation, is where you invite these “dark nights” and form a genuine faith- connection by faith. The interior journey is a balance; empty self to be filled with God, find true humanity to know God’s divinity, silence to hear God’s voice, and experience dread to find eternal joy in Jesus Christ. He fleshes out numerous controversies within Christian contemplation and struggles with them to find balance.

• I learned that meditation is indeed a Christian principle and not owned by other world religions. Also, how important this emptying time is to healthy and productive living. Another is that the interior journey is not the domain of the pastor or other Christian vocations but ALL who seek to live in Christ. This is a skill for all honest and seeking Christians and is supported by scripture in the new and old testaments.

• My direct action from the readings is to take more time writing and creating prayer benches, which is “sawdust therapy”. I cannot stress enough that silence in the morning is more important than talking and reading. I learned to grow in comfort and fearlessness as I face contemplation’s darkness and “dread”. This is where faith is formed

I am better for the journey and wish you the same. Ready to grow in Grace? Set spiritual goal, assemble spiritual tools and set a time for disciplined, focused meeting with God. It’s really that simple. Find your own scripture and companion books. Start with the expection that God is meeting you on the way!

Journal Entries

Following are book details and a final reflection on how God grew my soul through this journey

** the journal entries are under construction**

This is my journey and you are welcome to travel with me and make comments while reading the book for yourself.

“Contemplative Prayer”

The foreword and Introduction:

Merton sets the stage for the reader to understand this book’s journey to know Christian meditation/ Contemplative prayer. “Prayer is to religion what original research is to science” (xvii) It is hard work and not the possession of the monastics. Mental or listening prayer must never be complacent or centered in oneself but quietly focused and genuine. This is the foundation for a life of prayer rather that just the act of praying. This meditation is never a “Psychological trick but a theological grace.” (XX). This grace is a call of God to devote ourselves to metanoia or conversion. This is done by emptying through solitude, fasting etc. and being filled with abandonment to God. Contemplation is simple really but can only be done with the beckoning of our Lord Jesus the Christ and keeping His name ever present.

Chapter 1: Contemplation creates “Flowers in the Desert”.

1. What Merton wrote; Prayer is a. “Twofold consciousness of sin and redemption, wrath and mercy. This is especially evident to those who dare to look at the internal life whether by Psalm, liturgy, Bible reading or personal prayers of the heart. This is not a communal act BUT we need a praying community to keep us invested.

2. What I learned; I learned of the importance of an accountability partner in this process of learning. I learned that the negatives of sin etc. are not failures but necessary to work through honestly in order to know the Grace.

3. What action I will take; I meet with another pastor each Monday morning and will keep my friend and accountability partner up to date on my journey. I will keep a silence each morning and at odd times throughout the day. Focused on Psalm 41

Chapter 2: The Way of Prayer and its Components

1. What Merton wrote; The Psalms, Readings, personal prayer and Contemplation are parts of the unified life of a praying Christian. It is the means and the end of the journey to seek God’s presence. Silence must be sought and is inseparably in unity with monastic prayer (5). It is more of a resting than a working. Contemplation is an Easter notion but these “Prayers of the heart” truly seek God and are rooted in the Christian’s being. Again, there is no division in the parts of prayer, they form a whole. Monks and laymen alike can share this simple, Bible based prayer life.

2. What I learned; I tend to complicate the process rather than keeping things simple and speak to build awareness rather than just being with God. I crave the silence more than I really thought and the depth of it all can be scary.

3. What action I will take. Force myself into silence in the morning and find odd moments in the day to be still. “KISS” (Keep it simply and sweet) is God’s way. I will begin this time before the news and not after. Psalm 37

Chapter 3: The System is not Meditation.

1. What Merton wrote; Rather than planning your method, simply “Cultivate and attitude, an outlook: Faith openness attention reverence, expectation, supplication, trust, joy”. (10) Ask for faith because faith is always the sufficient answer to prayer. Good intentions are not enough. We must meet God with humility and acceptance or Acedia/Spiritual apathy will be the poisonous fruit.

2. What I learned; Keep your plans separate from your devotional time. Go to devotional time with a Bible and a minimum of anything else-not even a pencil or coffee. Bring your faith or lack of it to God and expect to rise from prayer better than you sat down.

3. What action I will take; leave my work, prayer list and the usual stack of books inside. Go to the bench on the porch with empty hands and ask God to fill them up. This gets harder before it gets easier, It will not always feel this clumsy. Psalm 37

Chapter 4: The Obstacles are Real.

1. What Merton wrote; Many quit the prayer life due to a lack of confidence, discouragement, confusion, helplessness, and even cowardice. This can imprison you.The drier your inner life, the more likely you are to have a false start. “Meditation has no point and no reality unless it is firmly rooted in LIFE”. Faith is the way forward and a “cooperative submission to grace” the way. (18)

2. What I learned; This is the third time I have read through this book. The first two, I was illuminated by not touched in the heart.

3. What action I will take; I announce this project to my coach and congregation. I cannot “weenie” out now. It is time for a real follow through. Psalm 37

Chapter 5: Deep Silence is Deep Power

1. What Merton wrote; Prayers of the heart can run deep if you let them. Kept simple and will few activities or words you can become more receptive to the working of the Holy Spirit. Remember that God and taken you to the “darkness”. This is not a punishment but a guide. To work through a dark time is to know spiritual cleansing. The darker it seems, the brighter the light. Again, psalms, prayer, meditation, Bible reading and liturgy and ways to prepare for a brighter inner light. Obscure prayers come with pain. Receptive prayers a few simple words from a psalm bear fruit.

2. What I learned: There is much more to be experience in the life of Christ through contemplation/meditation. The Bible can indeed focus your mind on the way to roughing your heart.

3. What action I will take. Shut up before going to prayer and never take the sermon text to it for the sake of writing. Focusing on God will bear better words from me. This takes time.

Chapter 6: The tension that isn’t There

1. What Merton wrote; The early fathers and mothers of the church did not find conflict with public, private, liturgical and contemplative prayer. Modern Christians have divided and complicated prayer. Contemplation is the connection to all of them. It is good to prayer privately and even secretly but stay in your community/Church. Have a “Cell”/specific prayer place and use it but don’t hide from the world in it. Prayer should also be experienced in the work of our hands, whatever that might be.

2. What I learned: Prayer is not an excuse for not serving, serving in not an excuse for not praying. All things spiritual are inter woven-especially in the apostolic and pastoral callings. Before praying for others I must connect with God alone first. This is the root of distractions and a lack of fruitfulness.

3. What action I will take; Pray beyond the prayer bench and find moments of solitude in the day. Turn the car radio off and pray when my mind wanders and wonders about things that it shouldn’t. Find solace in God before initiating the vocational stuff.

Chapter 7: Prayer as Work, Work in Prayer

1. What Merton wrote; Is prayer better than service? Is service a distraction to the Christian’s calling to pray? St. Benedict prayed in the wee hour and then called everyone to work after morning prayers. This was the example of Christ at the cross, lived our in Benedict, and taught to other. Contemplation seem to be better than action but “prayer-with-work” is a way to achieve a balance and create a deeper connection with God. This applies to secular business, pastoring and other active pursuits.

2. What I learned; service is a part of the Christian’s prayer life. Action treated as prayer creates either contemplation or distraction. When God is the point you fill up as you act, when the work is the satisfaction you get dry and empty.

3. What action I will take: Pray before work and work as a means to a deeper relationship with God and not affirmation or job-satisfaction. Exhaustion is not a trophy. Find daily rest, weekly sabbath, monthly retreat and annual reflection. How often I have re-learned this lesson. This year has been must more disciplines.

Chapter 8: More on the Action-Prayer conflict

1. What Merton wrote; Action conflicts with contemplation. You can’t do both at the same time, yet you must do both in balance. Contemplation is a priori, “rest from exterior action”. This creates a conflict in our workaholic culture. Time apart in prayer yet “Alone with the alone” in community is essential and should be a part of church-life. Thomas uses the story of Christ with Lazarus the penitent, Martha the active and Mary the contemplative, to demonstrate that we must have all three in union within our life in Christ.

2. What I learned; It’s ok to crave some alone time and at the same time wish to be at a task with your people that is bigger than just working. I am neither extrovert nor introvert but what one writer calls “ambivert”. Lived in balance this can lead us to a deeper and more honest elation ship with God.

3. What action I will take. I cannot default to the work of ministry as the Christian life. Caregiver fatigue and burnout stem from a lost if intimacy with God. Pray then work, pray then work with others, picture God looking over your shoulder and examining your motives as you work. *

Chapter 9: Virtue Matters!

1. What Merton wrote; Using the example of the great monastic reformers, and Thomas’ personal heroes, we learn more of the interplay between Mental/liturgical or active-Prayer and Meditation/contemplation-or prayers of the heart. “without virtue there can be no real and lasting contemplation. Without the labor and discipline there can be no rest in love.” (37) God. Is a work in us best when we rest in Him. The conflict of “Active” and Contemplative is a false competition. These notions both work together. From John Chrysostom “It is not enough to leave Egypt, one must also enter the Promised Land.”( 38)

2. What I learned; Quit worrying about what you label things and PRAY. Don’t use prayer as an excuse to stay home while there are active pursuits to accomplish. Contemplation is not some badge of honor. Prayer at worship and in your words is still valuable-even necessary. Leave the old and enter into the new relationship with God through deepening both aspects of prayer.

3. What action I will take. Build more benches for others to pray upon but use them personally first. Separate the sermon texts from the morning readings with contemplation. I should start with readings for devotion, then pray, then study sermon and other pursuits. This is a proper privatization of God.

Chapter 10 :The Harmony of Liturgy and Meditation

1. What Merton wrote; Liturgy is active while meditation is contemplative but the two acts live in harmony. The conflict that meditation and action seems to bear is false.  When they come together, they form the foundation for the Christian life. Liturgy is less laborious while contemplation is more spontaneous and much more work. Both may “at any moment be illuminated by contemplative grace.” (40”) Sadly, structured liturgy can lose its soul and editation is too often seen as the curative by adding disciplined personal piety. Contemplation does not have to wait until the daily office is over to begin. “Actives” tend to be in charge while “Contemplative” tend to be heralded as more genuine. This deepens the false divide of these two stations of prayer. The Christian life requires both.

2. What I learned: Liturgy is genuine and a means of grace when embraced in the Spirit of God. Contemplation can and should flow from liturgical/shared prayer. Liturgy should be more effective when it flows from the quieted mind.

3. What action I will take. I will read and write liturgy. Some could be shared but all can be a point of focus for deeper prayer in general. Our shared worship has lost its taste for the shared word. Perhaps this should be reclaimed.

Chapter 11: The Purpose of prayer

1. What Merton wrote; The purpose of prayer-the sum of all of its parts is, “yearning for the simple presence of God.”(45). The outcome is 3-fold; A personal understanding of God’s Word, God’s Will, and the capacity to hear and obey. Prayer is about understand God AND understanding ourselves with God. Meditation penetrates our life to reach into God’s will and then live it. This is an “imitation of Christ” and not and “Impersonation of Christ.” Prayer renews God’s gifts of grace, mercy and faith. These are not ours to merely possess. Humility must be our attitude and receiving this grace our desire. God wants us to have these! (49)

2. What I learned: How humble I am not and how much negotiating I do with God while calling it prayer. My disciplined time is usually pretty focused but the busyness and overwhelming interruptions of the day can derail it quite easily. Thomas Merton is asking us to unmask our true and often hidden self (49) in prayer. This can only be accomplished my humbling ourselves in a time of prayer, silent and alone with God.

3. What action I will take: Daily re-commit my prayer time, Daily , create time for silence and seize control of my calendar by removing trivial-though good-things from it.

Chapter 12: The Discipline of Virtue as Freedom

1. What Merton wrote: The life of self denial and sacrifice are not sufferings for their own sake. Our is not a “cult of suffering”. These sacrifices are transforming. Allowing God to be ginger than our thoughts and desires requires and provides freedom. This is the freedom to put God first, relying on the Holy Spirit to convey the power of God. Self imposed sacrifices often become pretense and “Symbolic Gestures” (52). Interior prayer is both serious and humble but the external routine is not the point. The true sacrifice is that of ourselves-union of prayer and sacrifice-then letting God decide about our progress.

2. What I learned: How easy it is for the spiritual process to be the standard of spiritual progress. I have tried to focus my time with routine and have done so with some success. However, have I become prideful that I have done these thing more than I have actually grown in Christ.

3. What action I will take: Recommit secret prayer time and financial giving. I will do these as sacrifice for my awakening of the Holy Spirit rather than a sense of accomplishment.

Chapter 13: The Mysterious Language of Prayer.

1. What Merton wrote: Language about prayer is not “scientific” and precise. The goal is not understanding but “Unitive”. (53) “Aridity can almost be taken as a sign of progress” more than a richness of sacrifices of our own choosing. the unconscious takes Ofer and anxiety rather than peace is felt more acutely. In prayer we face darkness, fear and doubt. It is easy to find that we don’t know what we are doing. Don’t doubt God! In the dark, God is more accessible and not less. This is the field of testing and the win is finding God, to know that God is Lord.

2. What I learned: I do many spiritual activities so I may teach them rather than simply being with and unifying with God. Knowing the lingo is not as important as knowing the Son. By focusing on Jesus while in the darkness, I am more able to teach the lesson.

3. What action I will take: Add more silence into my mornings and mid afternoons. To seek God in times of anger and anxiety through silence rather than seeking human council and self wrought strategies. Fewer Books-More Time.

Chapter 14: Knowing God Beyond the Ideas of God

1. What Merton wrote;

2. What I learned

3. What action I will take.

Chapter :

1. What Merton wrote;

2. What I learned

3. What action I will take.

Chapter :

1. What Merton wrote;

2. What I learned

3. What action I will take.

Chapter :

1. What Merton wrote;

2. What I learned

3. What action I will take.

Chapter :

1. What Merton wrote;

2. What I learned

3. What action I will take.

Chapter :

1. What Merton wrote;

2. What I learned

3. What action I will take.

Chapter :

1. What Merton wrote;

2. What I learned

3. What action I will take.

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[i] Ephesians 4:11-13. “He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.

[ii] See Luke 10: 38-41 for the story and John 11-12 for more background.  This is very helpful to me!

[iii] http://www.talentsmart.com/articles/9-Signs-That-You’re-An-Ambivert-952454316-p-1.html   From the book “Emotional Intelligence 2.0”, by Travis Bradberry, A spirit lifting read.

* The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, Oswald and Jacobson, 2015, An application of relationships through the eyes of the Christ and His gospel. Look at effectiveness in Chapter 11

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One thought on “My Mornings With Thomas Merton

  1. Thank you “Thoughtful Pastor” for this insight.. so much of details and well thought. It takes a lot of devotion to write and do the things that the Lord calls us to do. I pray you may be given revelation to write and share the gospel according to his perfect plan. Amen.

    Liked by 1 person

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