Friday, November 5, 2021

The challenges that abound in being a contemplative

                      Learning in new ways to appreciate God’s revelation of himself to us.

Thomas Merton was an American Trappist monk who was also known for his writing, being a theologian, a mystic and a poet, as well a a scholar of comparative religion.  I came to know a few notable Trappist priests when I was a seminarian, and they introduced me to his writings back then.  He was a treasure whom I was blessed to know through his writings and thoughts who was known for having had dialogues with prominent Asian spiritual figures like the Dalai Lama, various Thai Buddhist and Vietnamese monks and he traveled rather extensively to be able to meet up with them a he attended international conferences on religion.  

In my few weeks of having had to be on medical leave prior to my skull surgery that is coming up soon, I have been blessed to have received a few very precious spiritual books given by kind and friendly parishioners.  One of them was by Thomas Merton himself, entitled New Seeds of Contemplation.  It was a book that was written by a lady Sue Monk Kidd who first read his book when she first visited the cinder-block monastery where Merton lived for the last few years of his life.  It must have impacted her deeply for her to take on such an onerous task of getting this book reprinted with her own thoughts and reflections.  Would I recommend it easily to others?  After reading it from cover to cover, I would be hesitant because it is facile to say that just reading a book on contemplation would lead anyone to adopt the challenges that face anyone who feels compelled to become contemplative.  Yet, the effect of the book stimulates my own attempts at contemplative prayer each day, purifying my efforts at encountering God’s love and providence in life.  

Distractions abound in everyone’s path toward wanting to truly become a contemplative in life.  One of the things that confuse a newcomer to the the life of a contemplative is that it is all about technique.  Those who have read the book would agree with me that Sue Monk Kidd handles this challenge right from the start of the book.  She makes it clear that the pathway to a contemplative is to not take God as an object of one’s heart and desire.  Contemplative prayer is much less to do with feelings and emotions, thrills and delights than it is to do with encountering God in his goodness and loving providence in life.  One can use sacred scripture to lead one to encountering God through his words, and one of the noted recommendations is to use the Book of Psalms, especially the first 20 chapters which help us to encounter how rich and providential God is to his beloved people.  What Sue Monk Kidd does very well is to instruct any beginner to not attempt to ‘construct’ in his or her mind the ‘kind’ of God he or she would like to encounter.  This, to Kidd, is a needless and rather superfluous exercise especially when there is a trove of richness already there in the Psalms.  

In contemplation, the means is to use the words provided us through Scripture to thread a pathway for our hearts to get to the heart of God.  Once we do that, God can (and does) use the scriptural texts to reach our searching heart without our attempts at God-constructions with our imagination and fantasy.  

It is wise that Kidd has written in some of her later chapters of the book that it might not work to look physically for a contemplative monk to become your spiritual director or leader to bring you to a good experience of contemplation.  This may not always work, as many contemplatives themselves went the hard way to reach the depths of contemplation, as as such, may not be suitable teachers of the craft.  

But after reading the book, it is possible to come to a conclusion that it is good to go to a recommended monk or contemplative to have a heart to heart conversation with him about your needs and what you hope to attain as you learn from him or her.  Do this with an open mind, and try not to only look for the ‘gold’ in seeking someone well known and already accepted by many to be an ‘expert’ on contemplation.  

I would recommend going out to get a copy of this valuable book yourself and get a notebook to write the precious thoughts that come to you as you read its valuable chapters.  This note book will come one very handy when the day comes that you get to have that precious chat with a contemplative who could well be your guide toward knowing and loving the God of our lives.  

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