I originally purchased Thomas Merton’s “Spiritual Direction and Meditation” because I’ve been in the midst of changing spiritual directors, and I wanted to read more on the topic as I reflected on whether the Lord was calling me to continue with spiritual direction, and if so, who I should ask to be my new spiritual director. I’ve learned a lot about spiritual direction by reading Thomas Merton’s book, as well as through my own personal experience. I learned that spiritual direction is an incredibly helpful gift for those who are seeking guidance in matters of the faith. I learned that what your spiritual director tells you in times of spiritual quiet is just as important as, if not more important than, what he tells you in times of spiritual confusion. The advice that we are given when things are going smoothly in our lives will determine how we will handle bumps in the road. We seek spiritual direction during the calm so that we can be ready to face the storm when it comes. I also learned that even though spiritual direction is a great gift, it is okay not to have a spiritual director. Sometimes it is better to have no spiritual director than one that is not a good match. There is no requirement that every good Catholic must have a spiritual director at all times. It is okay to go through a transitional period without a spiritual director, and that period does not have to have a definitive time frame from the very beginning. When my spiritual director and I mutually came to the conclusion that our time of direction had come to an end, the first question was not a matter of replacement, but of determining if the Lord was calling me to continue spiritual direction immediately. As of now, I have a few spiritual confidants, but no clear spiritual director, and that’s okay for now. It’s something that I continually take to prayer, and I am confident that when the time comes to find another spiritual director, I’ll know.
The second half of Thomas Merton’s book dealt with a topic that I had a lot of experience with, though I was by no means an expert: meditation. When I was in the convent, we spent half an hour in silent meditation before Mass and morning prayer most mornings, and it was one of the most difficult aspects of the religious life for me. Though most people assume that I’m a morning person, 5:40AM is too early for even the earliest of early birds. The sun’s not even up at that time, never mind the birds. By the time I tiredly dragged myself across campus to the chapel every morning, I had already been up for about 45 minutes, showered, and gotten ready for the day. But I was by no means awake. That was definitely demonstrated by the frequency of incidents where I fell asleep during meditation. I sometimes joked with my companions that I spent nearly as much time meditating on the inside of my eyelids as I did on the Scriptures. And I was only partially joking. As much as I struggled to stay awake, I often succumbed to the need for sleep. The six or seven hours that I usually got just wasn’t enough, and morning meditation was definitely at my weakest. I related very closely with St. Therese and the struggle that she had with staying awake during morning meditation, though I suspect she was more successful than I was. But anyway, despite my repeated failures at meditation, it was also one of my favorite parts of my day. It was so peaceful to be able to spend the first part of my day in silent meditation, just talking and listening to God, before I went out to face the day’s activities. And if I’m going to be completely honest, I relied very heavily on my morning meditation; I viewed it, coupled with Mass and Morning Prayer, as my spiritual charge for the day. I really struggled with some of the day-to-day tasks of formation, and I came to rely very heavily on our morning prayers to give me the strength that I needed to face the day. As I struggled to discern where the Lord was calling me, my relationship with Christ definitely deepened, and I truly believe that this had a lot to do with my morning meditation time.
Meditation is an extremely valuable spiritual practice, though it is definitely one that most Catholics, if not most Christians, struggle. A lot of devout Catholics just don’t know how to meditate. Some really would like to, but don’t know how. Others are completely unfamiliar with the beauty of this gift, and thus don’t have very much interest in learning more about it, except perhaps for purely intellectual purposes. If you fall into either of these two categories, and even if you’re a novice at meditation, reading this book might be worth your while. And if you don’t have time to read Thomas Merton’s “Meditation,” I’ve provided a few of my favorite quotations from the book.
“Reflection involves not only the mind but also the heart, and indeed our whole being” (31).
“Meditation is for those who are not satisfied with a merely objective and conceptual knowledge of God- about life, about God- about ultimate realities. They want to enter into an intimate contact with truth itself, with God. They want to experience the deepest realities of life by living them” (31). Meditation goes beyond just academic learning. Sure, sometimes I’ll meditate using a book that was read in my theology class, but the way that I approach the book differs if I’m reading for class or reading as part of my meditation. For instance, I read “Jesus of Nazareth” for my Christology course, but I also like meditating on the text, particularly during Holy Week. The outcomes are very different- after half an hour of reading for class, I might have made it through about 20 pages or so, which have been highlighted with additional notes in the margins, but after half an hour of meditation, I might have read a couple of pages and journaled extensively on the topic. I found Benedict’s book to be a very good resource for meditating. As you’re reading and reflecting, you really begin to see Jesus Christ not just as someone who we should know about, but someone who we should know. The same goes for Scripture. Meditation isn’t about growing in knowledge as much as it’s about growing in relationship with Jesus Christ.
“The distinctive characteristic of religious meditation is that it is a search for truth which springs from love and which seeks to possess the truth not only by knowledge but also by love” (33). This relates to what was written above: meditation is not just about discovering the truth. How you discover that truth is just as important. It has to be discovered in love. You learn not simply for the sake of learning, but for the sake of loving. You learn not simply to deepen your knowledge of the faith, but to deepen your relationship with God.
“The contemplation of philosophers seeks nothing but the perfection of the one contemplating and it goes no further than the intellect. But the contemplation of the saints is fired by the love of the one contemplated: that is, God. Therefore it does not terminate in an act of the intelligence but passes over into the will by love” (34).
“[T]he beauty of mental prayer and of mystical contemplation is in the soul’s abandonment and total surrender of itself in an outburst of praise in which it spends itself entirely to bear witness to the transcendent goodness of the infinite God. The rest is silence” (34). The importance of silence in meditation is understated. When I began meditating as part of my daily schedule with the sisters, I naively made the mistake of using the entire half hour allotted for reading and writing. And don’t get me wrong- the reading and writing were central to my meditation (especially the writing part, since I have yet to master the idea of mental prayer, particularly at 5:40AM). But silence is equally important. Normally, my early morning meditations, when I did attempt to quiet my heart in silence, ended in sleep, but recently, I have really come to appreciate the importance of silence during meditation. There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting in both external and internal silence before the Blessed Sacrament, even if it’s just for a few minutes. It’s during those few moments of total peace and quiet that I feel closest to God.
“[T]he way of meditation is the way to perfect happiness, because it leads to the knowledge of the living God, to an experience of who He really is!” (37).
“Christ is everywhere in the psalms, the Law and the Prophets. To find Him in them is to experience their perfect fulfillment because we find Him who is the life and meaning of the psalms, living within ourselves” (38). I cannot write enough on this topic. There is nothing I enjoy more when reading the Scriptures than finding traces of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. I have always been fascinated by the many connections between the Old Testament and the New. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of every promise made by God to the Hebrew people. He is the Word spoken at creation, the sacrificed Son, the Passover Lamb, the Davidic King, the true Prophet, and Daniel’s Son of Man. Jesus Christ’s name is written throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, whisperings of His eventual Incarnation, the culmination of millennia of anticipation. I don’t think I will ever tire of meditating upon those Scriptures that foreshadow the coming of Jesus Christ.
“This is what meditation meant to St. Paul: the finding of ourselves in Christ, the penetration of the Scriptures by divinely enlightened love, the discovery of our divine adoption and the praise of His glory” (39).
“[S]ince the fruit of mental prayer is harvested in the depths of the soul, in the will and in the intelligence, and not on the level of emotion and instinctive reactions, it is quite possible that a meditation that is apparently ‘cold,’ because it is without feelings, may be the most profitable” (40). Throughout my eight months in the convent, and continuing even to today, I have often been stunned by the lack of emotion connected with my meditations. More often than not, my meditations are rather ‘cold;’ they are not overly emotional, and sometimes I even feel somewhat detached from my own meditations. I am easily distracted, and while I was in formation, I often struggled with the intellectual dullness that comes from lack of sleep. But there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that. We do not always have to be on an emotional high, and we will all experience dryness in prayer from time to time. The answer when this occurs is not to fake the emotions, to pretend that we are feeling when we are actually feeling a bit cold. There is no reason to force what is not there. Instead, we simply must admit our spiritual dryness and offer it up to God as we persevere in prayer. Even the saints experienced periods of spiritual dryness and even desolation. The different between the sinners and the saints is that the saints never give in to despair, but cling to hope even as they walk through the dark valley. Have faith- the light will come.
“Those who think that their meditation must always culminate in a burst of emotion fall into one of two errors. Either they find that their emotions run dry and their prayer seems to be ‘without fruit’…or else they belong to the category of those whose emotions are inexhaustible. They can always weep at prayer…Emotional versatility is a help at the beginning of the interior life, but later on it may be an obstacle to progress” (40). This section is a continuation of what can be found above, but there are a few things that I’d like to consider. For one, your emotions will always run dry; they are by nature fleeting. For this reason, our spiritual life cannot be rooted in emotions. As Thomas Merton suggests, emotion has its place, but it is at the beginning of the spiritual life. It is a spring-board to go deeper, but should not serve as a foundation. Emotions are fleeting, and our relationship with Christ must be rooted on solid ground. This is often misunderstood by newcomers to the faith, particularly young people. I have met quite a few teenagers who return from a retreat on a spiritual high, and for the first few weeks, things are great. They are on fire with the love of Christ, which is fueled by the passion of fellow retreatants. They attend Mass regularly, volunteer, pray before meals and before bed. But then the fire begins to fade and the emotions begin to settle. The retreat high slowly recedes, and unfortunately, more often than not, the teenagers are lost. Without the spiritual high that they’ve experienced, they don’t know how to continue living their faith. They have relied too heavily on their emotions, and now that time and emotions have passed, the young people do not know how to move forward. Without proper guidance, they begin to struggle and return to the lives that they led before the retreat. The spiritual life cannot be rooted in our own emotions; it must be rooted in Christ. Emotions are fleeting; God’s love is everlasting.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!