The Chariot and the Desert

The world needs contemplatives. The world needs those who have the courage and the imagination to see beyond the superficial, to see through self-interest and to see that life in all its fullness is possible. The world needs contemplatives because we are all too easily seduced into thinking that all that matters is our own productivity, our own security, our own success. It needs contemplatives who refuse to discard any single person as nothing more than an instrument (or impediment) towards my own fulfilment. There is no tolerance of collateral damage in the contemplative life.


So what does it mean to be a contemplative of this sort? In a hastily written letter to a Cistercian Abbot of a monastery near Rome, and in response to a request of Pope Paul VI for a message of contemplatives to the world, Thomas Merton offered some powerful suggestions. The fact that he took so little time over it accounts for its directness, spoken straight from the heart of one committed to the contemplative life, one who was also well aware that his thoughts were incomplete. Here is one long, but magnificent, sentence that sums things up rather well:

“O my brother, the contemplative is not the one who has fiery visions of the cherubim carrying God on their imagined chariot, but simply the one who has risked his mind in the desert beyond language and beyond ideas where God is encountered in the 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 Monastic Journey p.173)

This, I think, is a useful corrective to some of the more banal accounts of meditation as a soothing escape from the trials of life. More importantly, it is an account of the contemplative life that underlines the fundamental truth that it is not a matter of self-absorption but self-forgetting, not a turning in but an expansive, outward movement, albeit one that is fostered in fearless ‘interior’ struggle. There really is nothing more important than this calling.