Merton and Contemplation

John 3:5-8, 14-21

Frontispiece

America is discovering the contemplative life. (TM, SSM, 453).

In the North Country (New York State just south of Montreal) I knew where I could find my people, mostly men, some women, in a mood to talk.  In the month of March, between milking times, you could find a circle gathered in the sugar house. The shadow of the roof made all seeing dim.  The steam from the boiling tank made of the hut a sauna, a steam bath, a welcome warming in the frigid March air. There is something so purely, and pleasantly sweet about the scent of the boiling sap:  have a donut, dip the donut, drink the syrup. Fathers and sons, aunts and nieces, talking. This is the month for north country, maple syrup…contemplation.

One of our dearest north country friends bore five children in a border farm house and raised them there, including the month or so of ‘sugaring’ each year.  The children danced in the steam and sweet air of forty gallons of sap becoming a gallon of pure Vermont maple syrup, brewed in New York State, but canned and bottled due east, to gain the Vermont mark-up.  She had been raised on an Indian Reservation in Washington State, was graduated from Bellingham College, and then scooped up by Senator Scoop Jackson to work in his Washington DC office, from 1968 to 1975 or so.  How she met her dairy farmer husband and moved to the banks of the frozen river St. Lawrence was never clear. One winter evening, with a light snow (6 inches) and some cold (10 below) she hosted our family at a lavish, gourmet dinner.  Her farm house, astride the barn, and 3 miles south of the Canadian border, had bare studs for the walls and an ancient linoleum flooring, warmed with a great hearth. The table sat their seven and our four and was laden: with pickles, with flowers, with simple china and silver, and with a king’s meal.  Ham lavish and delicious and presented with beauty. The vegetables of all varieties. Dessert, not just a pie, but some elegant tort. In the impoverished cold, she set a magnificent warm meal. It must have taken days to prepare. You can have all the money in the world, with shining golden buildings across the globe emblazoned with your name, and still make life ugly and tawdry and small.  Or, with her, having nothing, you can create beauty. She worshipped every Sunday, in season and out, with family or without. In the summer, with good weather, she rode her horse to church. She practiced contemplation of the Merton variety by writing long letters, hand delivered to the minister, after the benediction. In a fortnight of enforced hibernation this January, there emerged some time, digging through old boxes, to find those contemplative letters, to reread and rethink them.  One of them, in part, will conclude not this Sunday’s but next week’s sermon, which is set in some contrast, or at least in contemplative dialogue with today’s. We leave her just now, saddling her horse and heading home after church, August 1982.

Barry

In contemplation, many of you, this Lent, have been reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN.   As a way of honoring your communal contemplation of this, we quote here on of our congregation, David Barry, who writes, “This search for peace continued periodically for Merton, until the day he surrendered to it completely and decided to become a monk at twenty-six. Years earlier, still young and looking through a picture book on the French countryside, he was captivated by the beauty of the ruins of old churches. He felt drawn to the peace and solitude of these old places. He describes, “… my heart was filled by a kind of longing to breathe the air of that lonely valley and listen to its silence” (48).  The physical has awakened the spiritual…

“(One night Merton) had a powerful sensory experience. He felt the presence of his father and believed that his father’s spirit was trying to help him to escape from the directionless life that he had been living. “The sense of his presence was as vivid and as real and as startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me” (123).  Merton thought of the visit from his father as a “grace” (124). “I sat outside, in the sun, on a wall and tasted the joy of my own inner peace, and turned over in my mind how my life was going to change, and how I would become better” (125). Basking in the glow of the sun and remembered religious experience, he had found some peace at last.”

Merton’s Contemplation

Step by step, up the seven storey mountain, Merton finds his way.  One foot ahead of the other, or, better, on phrase ahead of the other, he plods along.  Howard Thurman had a sermon, not a famous one, but a good one, title, ‘Fear not the Fallow’.  It is sometimes in the quiet, snow covered, cold, non-descript patches of time as well as space, that something new and decidedly good is preparing to emerge.  But you cannot see it or hear it or sense it or feel it or touch it. Here, again, a leap of faith is needed. Listen to a few of Merton’s contemplative steps, phrases preparing him for the contemplative life, which begin to appear, in his autobiography, about 2/3 of the way through the book:

I was living.  I had an interior life, real, but feeble and precarious.  And I was still nursed and fed with spiritual milk. (303).

After Latin, it seems to me there is no language so fitted for prayer and for talk about God as Spanish (306).

It was as if I had been suddenly illuminated by being blinded by the manifestation of God’s presence (at Mass in Havana, following the performative language in the creed, at the Consecration) (311).

It was the light of faith deepened and reduced to an extreme and sudden obviousness (311).

God often talks to us directly in Scripture (321).

God began to fill my soul with grace in those days, grace that sprung from deep within me. (331).

O America, how I began to love your country! What miles of silences God has made in you for contemplation!  If only people realized what your mountains and forests are really for! (339)

And over all the valley smiled the mild, gentle Easter moon, the full moon I her kindness, loving this silent place (351).

Renewal of Spirit

Contemplation is attention to spirit.

A nominal belief is not much better than no faith at all.  Not a nominal belief in God, but an active awareness of God is born of the Spirit.  The Spirit creates an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing your thinking and deciding.  The Holy Spirit, God with us, is at work today, to refresh your heart and to quicken your life and to banish your fear.

Spirit is calling us today to move on from a nominal belief in God to the faith of a new birth, an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing our movements and our attitude.  Such a rebirth, the wind of God inspires. ‘Let us not doubt that by the Spirit of God we are re-fashioned and made new (people), though the way he does this is hidden from us’ (Calvin).

The Gospel of John is calling to you.  At every turn this strange, enigmatic Gospel is calling to you.  I mean you. To take up a step up in faith. To move up a step up in faith.  To receive a new birth in faith. Are you telling me you have gotten as far as you can in faith?  Nicodemus thought that until he saw he was wrong. The woman at the well said so, until she, her ownmost self, was revealed.  Those feasting on fish and loaves learned something else. Those in harsh debate with Jesus did as well. The man born blind, given sight, thought maybe all he would have was his illness and the pool of Bethsaida:  not so. And Lazarus, to top it all, was dead, down in the catacomb, four days. And a voice: Lazarus! Come out! The Gospel of John is calling to you. At every turn this strange, enigmatic Gospel is calling to you.  I mean you. To take up a step up in faith. To move up a step up in faith. To receive a new birth in faith. Are you telling me you have gotten as far as you can in faith? Take a step up.

And how so?

First. The new birth, a gift of the Holy Spirit, refreshes our hearts and makes us new people.  It is a pity that this passage, born from above or born anew, has so often been shouted out harshly, as a command.  You must. Yet the verb is passive, ‘be born’. You had little control over or management of your physical birth. You did not choose it, profess it, decide it desire it, plan it or supervise it.  Without your reasonable advice and comment, you were born. One wonders how it could possibly have gone off all right without our advice. Just so, affirms the Jesus of John, you are reborn by the Spirit, without which rebirth you will not see the area of God’s peace and love.  This is not a harsh word, but a gentle one, not a hurricane command but a light Lenten wind, gentle to refresh your heart today.

The leaves on your tree will never dance if they are forever sodden with the cold rain of the mind alone.  The mind rides the horse, but the power of Godly living, the horse herself, the great steed of the new birth, is the heart. ‘An entire change of heart as well as of life is necessary’ (Wesley).  The spirit is moving you from a nominal belief to a sense of transcendence, an active awareness actually at work in your life.

Second. The wind of Christ is gusting and blustering around your house now, quickening you and bringing you truly into the present moment.  Some parts of the past need to be blown away for a new day to dawn, for you. Let bygone hurts be bygone. One has been hurt by love, another by family, another by job, another by church, another by nature, another by accident, another by words, another by deeds.  As my friend wrote, ‘if everyone had a sign on his or her back listing all of their personal sorrows, we would all be kinder to one another’.  We can and should show each other our scars.  Pain shared is therapeutic. But let the dead bury the dead.  Pain is shared in order that it be buried, not given wings, be killed not perpetuated.  The Scripture warns us about the past, unfettered. It is no substitute for the present.  Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back. Jesus taught, ‘he who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is not fit for the kingdom of God’.   New occasions teach new duties. The Spirit is giving us another birth, shoving us away from nominal belief and toward an active awareness, actually at work in our life, influencing our thoughts and decisions.  The past is no substitute for the present. Nominal belief traps us in the past.

Third. The Spirit gives you rebirth as the Spirit banishes fear, and replaces fear with faith.  A nominal belief, a kind of superstition, only multiplies our fear. In faith, we have an active awareness of God in Christ, which is actually at work, influencing our thought and choice. “He who is born of the flesh fights to defend himself, looks hither and thither, employs his reason to make a living.  But he who is born anew reasons thus: ‘I am in God’s hands, who has preserved me and nourished me before in a wonderful manner: he will also feed and preserve me in the future, and save me from all sorrow and misfortune’.” (Luther).

Coda

A faith that takes you away from the adventure of life is a false faith.  You desire—and if you desire it one day you shall have it—a faith that sets sail on the adventurous sea of life, a faith that does not long lie in harbor or at anchor, a faith that lives freely, a faith that really lives, a faith willing to change, to risk, to move, to grow, to face life and to face death fearless and free.

It is faith you can ride to church on, and ride home on, and ride all week long.  So, saddle up, and ride back next week!

America is discovering the contemplative life. (TM, SSM, 453).

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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