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.

A Friendship With An Unpromising Start

“Intense, one-sided, humorless, propagandist, morally indignant” – not a promising description of someone you will later describe as a ‘firm friend’, yet these are the words written by the English Benedictine monk Dom Aelred Graham in Atlantic Monthly about Thomas Merton and his earliest religious writings, most notably his famous autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Graham found Merton to be narrow-minded and ascetical and his critique of such a notable religious figure caught the attention of Time magazine in 1953. The criticisms stung Merton, but if we fast-forward a decade, we find Merton writing in the warmest terms about Graham’s book, Zen Catholicism, in the journal America. What happened in between to change the atmosphere between the two monks?

Aelred Graham wrote a fascinating set of autobiographical reflections a couple of years after Merton’s death in 1968. In The End of Religion, he recalls that earlier spat with Merton and is regretful of the language he used in his critique, though not of his view of the sometimes harsh narrowness of the early Merton. He recalls how he invited himself to Merton’s abbey after the publication of his essay in order to engage face to face with the man he had so publicly criticised. He remembers long conversations and a gradual warming of their relationship into a friendship that would last until Merton’s death. As an example of how far they travelled, in his journal for March 10 1964,  Merton writes: “Good talks with Dom Aelred on Sunday. He is very open and sympathetic and one of the most pleasant, understanding people I have ever run into. A lot has gone under the bridge since the Atlantic article (which in any case was not so far wrong!). This is something to be grateful for and a real manifestation of the life of the Church in us.’

This friendship was to bear fruit in one most significant way. It was Graham who made the introductions and provided the contacts for Merton’s Asian journey in 1968. Graham was an early pioneer of Christian inter-faith exploration and had travelled in India and Thailand. He was able to supply Merton with a range of contacts who would introduce him to the living Buddhism he longed to encounter. In his Asian Journal, Merton also notes that he was, at that time, reading Graham’s new book, Conversations: Christian and Buddhist, a collection of transcripts of conversations Graham had had with Buddhists in Japan. This book is significant in the development of Merton’s awareness of Japanese Buddhism as it represented a widening of his sources which had, for a long time, been dominated by the rather partial views of D.T. Suzuki. It is a great pity that Merton never made it as far as Japan on his journey. His intended visit there would have brought him face to face with Japanese Zen practitioners in their own context as well as the three Jesuits of Sophia University – Dumoulin, Lassalle and Johnston – whose writings have done so much to further understanding between Christians and Zen Buddhists.

Aelred Graham’s own contribution, however, should not be forgotten. He was a true pioneer and a man of gentle yet probing spiritual insight. He may not have the lasting fame of his friend Thomas Merton, but I think he deserves a place in our growing appreciation of the spiritual revolution that took place in the Christian church in the second half of the 20th century, a revolution whose work is not yet complete and whose fruit continues to ripen.

Not Set Apart

The call of the Christian in today’s world is the call to contemplation. The call to contemplation is not a call to passivity or withdrawal, quite the opposite. The call to contemplation is a call to attend.

When Thomas Merton was approaching the beginning of his permanent move to the hermitage in the grounds of Gethsemani Abbey where he would spend the last short years of his life, he wrote the following words:

The ‘work of the cell’ is attention. What this means is not only attention to inner grace but to external reality and to one’s self as a completely integrated part of that reality. Hence, this implies also a forgetfulness of oneself as totally apart from outer objects, standing back from outer objects; it demands an integration of one’s own life in the stream of natural and human and cultural life of the moment. [A Vow of Conversation, June 8 1965]

Merton Hermitage

The call of the Christian in today’s world, then, is a call to integrate all of life in the life of faith. Indeed, I would go further: it is to see that there is no kind of separation at all between the life of faith and the life of the world. Merton’s words here show something of his debt to Zen Buddhism in his insistence that there is no distance between self and what, illusorily, we imagine to be ‘outer’. I think he took the rest of his life (and beyond) to work out the full implications of his own words and I am not convinced that most Christians today have yet fully joined in sharing his insight.

If we had, we would not persist with our exceptionalist views of our own religion; we would not continue in the folly of seeing questions of justice as an add-on to questions of faith; we would not continue to justify our refusal to see the equality of all people; we would not continue to talk about ‘the world’ as if it were something other. And if we did begin to live in tune with this insight that there is a complete integration of all things in Christ, we would cherish every work of art as a sacrament, every living creature as a sister, every human person an incarnation of divine life, every breath from every mouth as an act of praise to Life.

We don’t gain this insight from the intellectual work of theology but from the ascetical practice of giving attention. It is as if we should see on every street corner a deacon proclaiming the invitation of Orthodox Liturgy – ‘Wisdom! Let us attend!’