Editor’s Note: For the season of Lent, Ed Cyzewski has created a daily email list that shares quotes from Trappist monk and contemplative prayer author Thomas Merton. Each Friday here on CSA, Ed will share a few reflections on Merton’s wisdom for us today based on these readings.
At the start of the morning work at his monastery, author and monk Thomas Merton made the following observation about the newest members of his Trappist order:
“This morning I watched the novices milling around getting ready for work—standing in their patched coveralls and their funny hoods, some being very recollected, some very efficient, mostly quite happy.
I was moved by the sight of them and the awareness of how much we all impede ourselves with useless spiritual baggage.
How difficult it is to try to help them without adding to the baggage instead of relieving them of it.
I can at least love them and thus create, or keep alive, the climate in which the Holy Spirit does the work.
I do love them, but what are they getting into? At least let me not give them illusions.”
It’s hard to see, but sometimes the greatest barriers to our spiritual growth and flourishing are the things we’re already carrying or that we assume are essential. We may have picked them up on our own, or others may have placed them on us.
…sometimes the greatest barriers to our spiritual growth and flourishing are the things we’re already carrying.
These burdens can weigh us down, prevent us from receiving God’s gifts, and keep us from seeing the needs of others. At the very least our baggage can distract us from the good things God desires to do in our lives.
The baggage and distractions of the spiritual life were a chief concern of Thomas Merton throughout his time as a novice master, in charge of guiding the novices who entered his monastery. Throughout his writings, he addressed the ways we can face the burdens and the baggage of the spiritual life, as well as the reasons why we may be carrying them in the first place.
There Are No Shortcuts
“The only trouble is that in the spiritual life there are no tricks and no shortcuts. Those who imagine that they can discover spiritual gimmicks and put them to work for themselves usually ignore God’s will and his grace.”
—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer
Instead of riding someone else’s spiritual high or waiting for a gimmick that won’t deliver, we have an invitation to wait on God’s presence and salvation. In the spiritual life, shortcuts and simplified hacks can prevent us from seeing the grace and presence of God for us in our own situations.
Once we place ourselves fully under the mercy and grace of God, we’ll have no choice but to face what we’ve been holding onto. There is no shortcut for facing our pain, the failures from our pasts, our illusions about ourselves, or the ways we’ve misconstrued God.
God’s presence and love are here for us, but the path to that presence will appear costly at first. We may have to go through some of the illusions and fears we’ve been afraid to face. We may wonder what we’ll have left once we bring it to God in prayer.
On the other side of surrender is an opportunity for healing and mercy. Jesus described his mission on earth as that of a doctor, serving those who needed healing. That message is still true today.
Happiness Is Not the Same as Healing
“Another law of the contemplative life is that if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or worse still, happiness, you will find neither.”
—Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience
When we pursue contemplative prayer, there is no guarantee of any particular result, especially happiness. While over time contemplative seekers may find relief from anxieties and even discover joy in God’s goodness, these are quite different from the simple pursuit of happiness.
Merton assures us that the pursuit of God in silence and attentiveness is the pursuit of God alone, not emotional experiences or a sense of happiness. There is a fine line at times since those who make space for prayer are often more joyful, and may even appear happy.
…the pursuit of God in silence and attentiveness is the pursuit of God alone, not emotional experiences or a sense of happiness.
The difference is that those who make space for silent prayer have found this joy in a kind of self-emptying, letting go of their illusions and surrendering their wills to God. Over time it may feel a bit like prying one finger after another from their desires or plans, gradually submitting themselves to God’s healing and direction.
Solitude Clears Away Our Baggage
“The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smoke-screen of words that man has laid down between his mind and things.”
—Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
Earlier this week I spoke with a friend about how I made more space for solitude and prayer in my life, and he remarked that he genuinely fears being alone with his thoughts. He’s not the only one.
Solitude is where our illusions, our fears, and our negative thoughts spring out of hiding in order to confront us. While solitude creates the space for this conflict, it also places us within the reach of God’s mercy. This sometimes frightening encounter with our thoughts in solitude rips away our illusions and allows us to come to God exactly as we see ourselves.
In the midst of this bracing honesty about our baggage, we can receive the affirming parental love of God. This is certainly disorienting in the moment, but it can ultimately lead to a sense of liberation. We may even feel like a weight has been lifted from our shoulders.
Ed Cyzewski is the author of Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth, and other books. He writes weekly at This Kinda Contemplative Life at Patheos, and he lives in Western Kentucky with his wife and children.