The Springs of Contemplation: A Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani

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9780877935988: The Springs of Contemplation: A Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani
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In the late sixties Thomas Merton invited a group of contemplative women to join him in dialogue at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. This book contains the transcripts of those conversations. Merton's thoughts are presented on the practice of contemplative prayer, monastic renewal, and "Zen, a Way of Living Life Directly."

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About the Author:

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is one of the foremost spiritual thinkers of the twentieth century. Though he lived a mostly solitary existence as a Trappist monk, he had a dynamic impact on world affairs through his writing. An outspoken proponent of the antiwar and civil rights movements, he was both hailed as a prophet and castigated for his social criticism. He was also unique among religious leaders in his embrace of Eastern mysticism, positing it as complementary to the Western sacred tradition. Merton is the author of over forty books of poetry, essays, and religious writing, including Mystics and Zen Masters, and The Seven Story Mountain, for which he is best known. His work continues to be widely read to this day.

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PART ONE Abbey of Gethsemani December 1967


PRESENCE, SILENCE, COMMUNICATION IN THE contemplative life we all face the question “What are we supposed to do?” One thing we can do is come together like this, as sisters and brothers in Christ, and let happen what has not happened before, this kind of searching retreat. Certainly what we are doing now is what we’re supposed to do: getting together in a quiet place, where we can talk and think and pray. An important key word is presence. We want to be present to each other and then trust what happens. If you’ve just read my books, you don’t really know me, so you better get a look at the real thing. Presence is what counts. It’s important to realize that the Church itself is presence, and so is the contemplative life. Community is presence, not an institution. We’ve been banking on the ability to substitute institution for the reality of presence, and it simply won’t work. There is a kind of Pentecost in miniature wherever there is Church. Pentecost means “new life,” and that means changes in our lives. But changes are not easy; new life is disturbing. The basic experience of religious in our time has been the struggle of knowing in their hearts that something is asked of them by God and yet somehow they are being prevented from doing it. It is true that a lot of young people who come to religious life feel they have to leave it in order to find God. For some this is probably true, even though for others it may be an illusion. All of us are trying to sort out things about our lives. It’s going to take a long time; the answers are not there. Take the question of silence, for example, our specialty here at a Trappist monastery. Silence can be a great problem or a great grace. When it becomes too formalized, it ceases to be a source of grace and becomes a problem because it is no longer a helping presence. For too long the rule of silence was a means of being absent from one another. This sets up a contradiction, and people suffer from it. A community can’t exist on those terms. Contradictions are a part of life, but systematic frustration of cultural values is another matter. A person has to be able to get along without a lot of distracting things in the culture, naturally, but that doesn’t mean we should never be able to hear a symphony. We Trappists have a bad reputation for that kind of thing. Our silence tended to operate in that mechanical way. Also silence almost meant you had to pretend that no one else was present. You were silent because you were more or less excluding people. When people come together, there is always some kind of presence, even the kind that can give a person an ulcer. What we have to do is arrange things in such a way that the presence is a positive and not a negative experience. This means we may have to talk more in order to learn how to be present in silence in a positive way. There has to be enough communication so that silence can be a grace. That kind of silence demands a deeper love, and until that much love is developed, there’s no point in pretending that the love is there when it isn’t. The justification of silence in our life is that we love one another enough to be silent together. Once we get into the depths of community life, we realize that there is a very special duty and grace in being silent together, but we don’t arrive at this by excluding others or treating them as objects. It happens gradually as we learn to love. A friend of mine, a Dutch psychoanalyst [Joost A. Merloo], has a very fine manuscript on silence. He points out that we have to keep readjusting our understanding and practice of silence so that it can remain a definite value. We recognize that we have been misusing it, but we see also that we need to keep it for its real value, we need to renew it. We renew our silence, not by going around talking to people endlessly or by giving up our way of life, but by letting the quiet be impregnated with presence and with light. Then it’s life-giving. Our being is silent, but our existence is noisy. Our actions tend to be noisy, but when they stop, there is a ground of silence which is always there. Our job as contemplatives is to be in contact with that ground and to communicate from that level, and not just to be in contact with a stream of activities which are constantly moving. We have to keep silence alive for other people, as well as for ourselves—because no one else is doing it. We may think people don’t care about this, but in fact they care about it very much. Silence is greatly symbolic in our time. Even though there’s talk about contemplative life and its values not making much sense to people today, or not being of much interest to them, this is not true. Many people are looking to contemplation and meditation for meaning. You’ve heard of the Beatles, I’m sure. What are they doing now [in 1967]? They are seeing a yogi for instruction in meditation. The world is full of people who are looking for meditation and silence, and most of them are not Catholic. This is true in Russia and in the Iron Curtain countries. We had a postulant here, a Hungarian refugee, who was a seminarian. A friend of his, a Communist in Yugoslavia, an engineer and a world chess champion, had been brought up with no religion whatever. But he was assiduously practicing yoga because he felt the need of some kind of interior silence. Probably the biggest religious revival in the world is going to happen in Russia, because Russian scientists are very interested in the question of religion and God, much more so than a lot of people in Christian countries. In other words, people recognize these values; they know such values ought to be. Time and again people come here, often of no particular faith, who are sensitive to the fact that here is a place of silence and a place, presumably, where silence is understood and valued. Therefore, it is terribly important for us to be clear about our silence. The last thing we should do is get rid of it. We just need to balance things in a better way, allowing necessary talk but also providing time for people to be alone and quiet when they need it. This same manuscript [by Merloo] also speaks of “modulations” of silence, various degrees and kinds and levels of silence. Real silence is not isolation. People who live in silence can and do communicate. Silence can carry many different messages; it can be a powerful form of communication. Deep contemplative silence communicates prayer. There’s a great difference between the silence of a hermitage and the silence of a community at prayer. From the latter, you get the support of people who love (provided they are awake, of course! Otherwise, the sleep or inertia communicates itself in a dead silence). Therefore, the need is for a true silence which is alive and which carries a loving presence. So genuine silence is not automatic. Neither is noise. The tyranny of noise always has a will behind it. When there’s a racket, some person is usually causing it, not the birds or the wind. I visited New York once since entering the monastery, and [in 1964] I went back up around Columbia University and into Harlem. The volume of noise was incredible. It included all-night shootings; two classes of black Muslims were having a kind of war, shooting each other from the roofs. But that was minor compared to the buses on Lenox Avenue, which made an incredible roar. It was like having a jet plane go through your room. We have to realize that sometimes human beings deliberately create noise. People with frustrated wills come together to make noise that causes others to suffer while they themselves do not suffer. This is one way for a frustrated person to “get even.” We have to resist this. There is a note of supreme injustice in noisemaking: the noise made by one person can compel another person to listen. This applies to chitchat as well as to industrial noises. Since noise is increasing in all directions, the psychology of silence has taken on a special meaning. We are already so adapted to an abundance of screeching sounds that we are surprised when stillness suddenly envelops us. Not that this happens very often! We begin to see that the whole question of our relation to the world, both positive and negative, centers in something like silence. So our service to the world might simply be to keep a place where there is no noise, where people can be silent together. This is an immense service if only because it enables people to believe such a thing is still possible. Think of the despair of people who have given up all hope of ever having a real silence where they can simply be alone quietly. To come to a place where silence exists, to realize there are people who are content to listen and to live in silence impresses people today who are not at all impressed by mere words. It isn’t that words or preaching is bad. It’s just that people don’t want to hear any more words. In our mechanical age, all words have become alike, they’ve all been reduced to the level of the commercial. To say “God is love” is like saying “Eat Wheaties.” Things come through on the same wavelength. There’s no difference, except perhaps in the attitude that is adopted: people know they are expected to look pious when God is mentioned, but not when cereal is! Silence, on the other hand, really does speak to people. Another aspect of silence is its relation to buildings. No builder today seems to be concerned with the problem of preserving the quiet of the household. The walls of buildings are getting thinner all the time. Ceilings and certain types of new appliances often conduct sounds and noises much better than in the past. Some of our modern buildings are acoustical dis...

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