Contemplate This

7 Oct

A nice picture of Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama, both quite ecumenical.

When I was in my 20s and had the luxury of time on my hands, I hung out with a group of people who were into contemplation.

Not the thinking kind of contemplation; it’s a form of prayer in the Catholic tradition practiced by Benedictine (Trappist) monks and is related to Buddhist meditation.

At an area church connected to a nursing home, there lived an actual Benedictine monk with responsibilities outside his monastic community. I think he’s still around Columbus, Ohio but have lost touch with him. He hosted weekly gatherings at his house where a group of us, called “lay contemplatives,” would gather for this particular form of prayer. The idea is that you do this at least once a day, as a lay contemplative, to extend the dedication to prayer built into the discipline of Trappist monks at monasteries all over the world.

The best way I’ve seen it described is “prayer of the heart.” Instead of praying FOR something and thinking about the conversation with God, the purpose is to open your heart and quietly be open to God for a period of time every day. Trappist monks pray through contemplation and chanting at least seven times a day (at specific times called “offices”) in addition to daily practice with the rosary and a daily mass.

For we humans who try to overthink everything, the concept of contemplation is both very simple and extremely difficult:

Stop thinking and doing. Be alone with a quiet knowing.

Several times per year our group of lay contemplatives traveled to Kentucky, home to the closest “mother ship” of contemplation: The Abbey of Gethsemani. This is a place that’s mostly silent, so that retreatants can converse with “God Alone.” There’s a large retreat house, acres of trails and a chance to pray and sing with the monks, beginning as early as 3:15 am. Amazingly, a stay at Gethsemani, like all monasteries and in the Benedictine tradition of hospitality, is free–by donation only.

I’ve tried to practice this life of quiet and unassuming prayer as life has become more complicated, with husband, kids and career. In concept it doesn’t require a huge time commitment; only a few minutes per day. I haven’t always done it well, but I’ve tried. I’ve tried to be comfortable in the unknowing of this silent prayer.

This prayer by Fr. Thomas Merton, who lived at Gethsemani prior to his untimely death, is a good guide for those of us seeking but not feeling quite perfect along the way:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

– Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”
© Abbey of Gethsemani

Worth a view is this video of the recently deceased Fr. Matthew Kelty, poet and mentor of Merton’s, reading that prayer. I had the pleasure of hearing Kelty speak on dozens of occasions and was charmed by his Boston accent and cowboy boots worn below his robes. Kelty was also a gifted poet.

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One Response to “Contemplate This”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. RIP Kurt Cobain « To Know Better - April 5, 2012

    […] years ago today, I had just finished a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. I’ve already written about how special this place is to me–a place where I can go to be with “God […]

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