On the Monastic Life

This is an essay by Thomas Merton, a prominent Trappist monk whose work I’ve found quite inspiring. I hope that you would find it so as well.

Let us suppose the message of a so-called contemplative to a so-called man of the world to be something like this:

     My dear Brother, first of all, I apologize for addressing you when you have not addressed me and have not really asked me anything. And I apologize for being behind a high wall which you do not understand. This high wall is to you a problem and perhaps it is also a problem to me. Perhaps you ask me why I stay behind it out of the obedience. Perhaps you are no longer satisfied with the reply that if I stay behind this wall I have quiet, recollection, tranquility of heart. It is true that when I came to this monastery where I am, I came in revolt against the meaningless confusion of a life in which there so much activity, so much movement, so much useless talk, so much superficial and needless stimulation, that I could not remember who I was. But the fact remains that my flight from the world is not a reproach to you who remain in the world, and I have no right to repudiate the world in a purely negative fashion, because if I do that my flight will have taken me not to truth and to God but to a private, though doubtless pious, illusion.

     Can I tell you that I have found answers to the questions that torment the man of our time? I do not know if I have found the answers. When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of ‘answers.’ But as I grow old in the monastic life and advance further into solitude, I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions. And what are the questions? Can man make sense out of his existence? Can man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world begun and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? My brother, perhaps in my solitude I have bed one as it where explorer for you, a searcher in realms which you are not able to visit. I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanation no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts. An arid, rocky, dark land of the soul, sometimes illuminated by strange fires which men fear and peopled by specters which men studiously avoid except in their nightmares. And in this area I have learned that one cannot truly know hope unless he has found out how like despair hope is. The language of Christianity has been so used and so misused that sometimes you distrust it: you do not know whether or not behind the word ‘cross’ there stands the experience of mercy and salvation, or only the threat of punishment. If my word means to you, I can say to you that I have experienced the cross to mean mercy and not cruelty, truth and not deception; that the news of the truth and love of Jesus is indeed the true good news, but in our time it speaks out in strange places. And perhaps it speaks out in you more than it does in me; perhaps Christ is nearer to you than he is to me. This I say without shame or guilt because I have learned to rejoice that Jesus is in the world in people who know Him not, that He is at work in them when they think themselves far from Him, and it is my joy to tell you to hope though you think that for you of all men hope is impossible. Hope not because you think you can be good, but because God loves us irrespective of our merits and whatever is good in us comes from His love, not from our own doing. Hope because Jesus is with those who are poor and outcast and perhaps despised even by those who should seek them and care for them more lovingly because they act in God’s name.

     God is not a ‘problem’ and we who live the contemplative life have learned by experience that one cannot know God as long seeks to solve ‘the problem of God’. To seek to solve the problem of God is to seek one’s own eyes. One cannot see one’s own eyes because they are that with which one sees and god is the light by which we see-by which we see not a clearly defined ‘object’ called god, but everything else in the invisible One. God is then the Seer and the Seeing and the Seen. God seeks himself in us, and the aridity and sorrow of our heart is the sorrow of God who is not known to us, who cannot yet find himself in us because we do not dare to believe or trust the incredible truth that he could live in us, and live there out of choice, out of preference. But indeed we exist to solely for this, to be the place He has chosen for His presence, His manifestation in the world, His epiphany. But we make all this dark and inglorious because we fail to believe it, we refuse to believe it. It is not that we hate God, rather that we hate ourselves, despair of ourselves. If we once began to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.

     The contemplative is not the man who has fiery visions of the cherubim carrying God on their imagined chariot, but simply he who has risked his mind in the desert beyond language and beyond ideas where God is encountered in nakedness of pure trust, that is to say in the surrender of our own poverty and incompleteness in order no longer to clench our minds in a cramp upon themselves, as if thinking made us exist. The message of hope the contemplative offers you, then, is not that you need to find your way through the jungle of language and problems that today surround God; but that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present too you, lives in you, dwells In you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons. The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and dare to advance without fear into the solitude of your own heart, and risk sharing that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you and with you, then you will truly recover the light and capacity to understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations because it is too close to be explained: it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God’s spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth One Spirit. I love you, in Christ.

Talking to Shadows #4

Why is it that the only time you feel like writing is when you’re hurting? In its own way, writing is a lot like prayer. It’s stuff in your head that you need to let out, that the universe needs to hear. Thoughts are things, right? Then why is it that the only things you ask of the universe are answers, answers, and even more answers? Sometimes, you’re not even asking the right questions. So, when was the last time you really, really talked to yourself–a meaningful conversation with every being you’ve ever been, ever life you’ve ever lived, and just enjoy your own company?

When was the last time you weren’t being selfish when you paid yourself a visit? Like visiting an old, rich uncle but only because you wanted tea and not because you needed to borrow money?

I’m not saying the answers are simple, really. What I’m saying is that its not always about the answers. Sometimes, you just really need to be with yourself and not be trapped in your head–to do something because it felt right and wholesome and not because you’ve prepared and planned for every possible outcome?

When was the last time you trusted yourself?

You have the urge to write, not to complain and bitch at how hard it is to find the right words to say to the right person, but to fill the world with words, honest meaning, to tell honest stories and sing honest songs.

Maybe those weren’t the promises you’ve made before–maybe that’s why you hurt, cos you’ve made and kept the wrong promises. Well, be the villain then–go break some promises.

Read what you’re written, read your life, and figure out where you went wrong. This isn’t about regret at all, though. This is about you looking back and being aware of what you’ve got here and now. Questions simply lead to more questions, but that’s all right. This time it’ll be you looking at old photo albums with your grandmother rather than paying for insight by the hour at your local shrink (by the pint, actually, cos you don’t have a shrink).

This is why this little journal exists, right?

Take a minute. Be with yourself. Keep your own company for a while. Enjoy it. No questions. No answers. Just get to know yourself better.

Smile 🙂

Talking to Shadows #3

Is it wrong to say there’s fire inside you? Of course not. You’ll recognize the lightness of it, as if the sun was given its corner in your heart and all things around you are set ablaze. Fire is how you build the universe. Fire is the stuff of stars. Fire, of it, the world knew light. Feel it, this glowing, sharp, vivid radiance emanate from within and infect those you love. Fire is inexorable. Fire is joy. Fire burns with savage grace. You are halo itself fallen onto earth to brighten all days. It takes but a smile, a face, a simple burst of laughter, knowing that others have been set alight.

Talking to Shadows #2

You just asked a girl out cos you wanted her to say no.

Yes, that is pathetic. Yes, you are going to have to go through a great deal of pain now for what you just did, cos you just couldn’t let what the women in your family get to you.

Of course, she didn’t give you a flat out no. Now you have to deal with the fact that you didn’t get a flat out no, that you didn’t get a free pass from jumping into the unknown. All this talk of being the fool, being the thing of fire and passion that always took the leap of faith and it took your sister and mother to make you see just how much of a coward you turned into, just how much you changed and let your pain and your desire to be something that you are not get in the way of who you always were.

You are fire and you are bright. You never used to ask so many questions. Fire doesn’t ask questions, it simply burns. You used to burn. Now that you are on fire again, you curse yourself.

You are cursed now, cursed to find out who you were before you let your fear douse you. Yes, fear is comforting, fear is a delightful blanket against the dark when the shadows seem to take a life of their own.

You just lost your blanket. You just lost your excuse.

What now?

Talking to Shadows #1

Hey, it’s okay. I know why you like her. She’s the sweetest girl, probably the sweetest girl you’ve ever met. It’s okay to want her. Life knows what it wants and sweetness is good.

Just don’t creep her out, man. That isn’t love.

I mean, yeah, sure, you were a total douche–have been a total douche everytime she’s there–stop it. Don’t creep her out. don’t go anywhere near her when the only thought running through your head is to create demand and provide supply. That’s not what cool is, man. That’s not how you make people’s lives better. That just makes you pathetic.

You want her to know? Course you do. All feelings worth feeling wish to be free, but don’t pull her aside and creep her out with some drawn out marketing spiel out of nowhere. You’ll get your chance, the right time and place, just be cool.

No. Do not text her.

Do not say you’re sorry for being a douche when you don’t even mean it. An apology is not an excuse to talk to someone; it’s a promise to be kinder. I know exactly what you want and it has nothing to do with being sincere and better. A single reply is all you want. An opportunity to stretch one sentence into the longest idle conversation you possibly could cos table scraps are better than nothing is not love–this is not cool. I know what you want and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be with someone.

Right place, right time; her terms, but your words; her rules, but your choice. Love is not a game but desire is–learn to know the difference. You don’t actually even have to play at all. Nobody wins when you belittle life.

Just be cool.

Cool is not what you’re thinking. Cool is a state of mind. It’s one thing to be cool, another thing to play it cool. It’s one thing to be awesome, it’s a whole other thing to pretend you are. Learn to know the difference.

Be cool.

And I know, believe me, I know how it feels. There’s nothing wrong with what you feel. What you feel exists for itself. She doesn’t even have to know what you know, taste what you taste, devour your books, close her eyes to your music, warm from your smile, or even touch what you touch.

It’s enough that you smile. How often do you even smile? Not often enough I think.

It’s enough that you know her. It’s enough that the mere sight of her fills you with soft, golden fire and only you could see the flames. It’s enough that she exists.

It’s enough that words could paint her portrait even if she’ll never see it. Love is selfish; love doesn’t need eyes. It is its own pursuit so be well, be lucky–enough to be alive and feel the void burst with butterflies fluttering everywhere. It hurts, I know, to have to keep all that inside you, but pain is good when nothing is empty. Bear it, inside, just because it makes you smile.

Bittersweet, I know.

But at least she’s here.

She is real.