success stories

Get A Life

A Commentary on Merton's: The Inner Experience

"The worst thing that can happen to a person who is already divided up into a dozen different compartments is to seal off yet another compartment and tell him that this one is more important than all others, and that he must henceforth exercise a special care in keeping it separate from them. That is what tends to happen when contemplation is unwisely thrust without warning upon the bewilderment and distraction of Western man.

The first thing you have to do, before you start thinking about such a thing as contemplation, is to try to recover your basic natural unity, to reintegrate your compartmentalized being into a coordinated and simple whole, and learn to live as a unified human person. This means that you have to bring back together the fragments of your distracted existence so that when you say "I" there is really someone present to support the pronoun you have uttered." Thomas Merton

When I first read this section from "The Inner Experience" I found the opening paragraph deeply insightful — it named everything I have always felt was wrong when "contemplation" is presented as a "fix" or a technique. So when I began reading the second paragraph I thought, "This is great! Now Merton is going to tell me what I have to do in order to have a spiritual life, to recover my authentic self."

Then I read his next words: "The first thing you have to do . . .is to . . .learn to live as a unified human person."

I though, "Right. You bet." I thought this recovery of self was the pearl of great price that came at the end of long contemplation experience, but here Merton is telling me that it is the first thing I must do before I even think about contemplation.

Then I recalled a remarkable moment in a Merton tape I heard years ago, a tape in which Merton is speaking as novice master to the young monks of Gethsemani. As the tape begins, you can hear the rustling of papers and the sounds of people settling into their chairs. There is a brief silence, and then Merton suddenly blurts out, "Men, before you can have a spiritual life, you've gotta have a life!"

I turned off the tape. "My God, I've got to go out and get a life before I can be spiritual."

The thought came "My God I've already got a life — and it's a complete mess! It's full of loves and hates, joys and anguish, happiness and defeats! Merton isn't telling me I need to get a different life. He's telling me something much harder — that I must embrace the life I have, the only life I will ever have, as the only true source of my own spirituality."

That, I think, is what Merton is saying in the quote at the beginning of this second movement. Before I can even think about contemplation, let alone do it, I must accept the life I have, stop fighting it, embrace the whole of it as the source of my own wholeness. Similar words, words that Merton would have loved, were penned by Florida Scott-Maxwell in The Measure of My Days: "You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done . . . you are fierce with reality."

I have a theory that God creates nouns but we create adjectives — which we the use to mess up the lovely nouns God has given us, qualifying them and distorting them beyond recognition. For example, God creates people; then we start piling the adjectives on: male and female people, black and white people, gay and lesbian and straight people, conservative and liberal people, good and bad people. With the adjectives we make distinctions, usually invidious — and with those distinctions we destroy the essence of created goodness that the original noun embodies.

So God creates the noun "life" and then we louse it up by saying, at some point, "I've got to have a successful life," or "I've got to have a spiritual life."

I think Merton is calling us back to the nouns that God created in us, back to the giveness and giftedness of our own experience, back to the simplicity and everydayness of our loves and hates, our joys and anguishes, our happinesses and defeats as the source of our deepest treasure — because the adjectives diminish our lives. I am clear that he is telling me, at least, that by seeking a "spiritual" life I may lose the life I have — but by claiming my life as it is I may find what I am seeking, right here, right now.

In earlier years, I experimented with different forms of contemplation. I tried techniques beyond number, and none of them worked for me. I finally figured out that I am not a contemplative by intention; I am a contemplative by catastrophe. One of the great gifts of my life has been enough catastrophes that I could have become a world-class contemplative — if I had been paying attention.

I think often of a woman I know who is the single mother of a child with severe retardation. This woman does not have an extra five minutes a day to sit cross-legged and chant a mantra, for she must live two lives. If her child is going to move, she must move for him; if her child is going to eat, she must help him eat; if he is going to play, she must be there to play with him.

But despite her lack of "retreat" time, as classically understood, this woman has become a contemplative on the order of Teresa of Avila. In the very raising of her child, she has had to penetrate all the cruel illusions that this society harbors about what makes a human being valuable — things like success and physical beauty and wit — and she has grounded herself in the truth, the reality, that there is an essence of personhood that makes all of us precious just as we are.

If I ask myself when it is in my own life that I penetrate illusion and touch reality, the first answer is "Not often enough." But the second answer is, "When times are tough." Gain and success do not put me into an especially contemplative mood — indeed, they seem to generate more illusions than they penetrate. But failure and lost force me to reflect long and hard on who I am and how I am and where I am, and the result is sometimes a breakthrough into reality.

. . .We moan, sometimes, about the "disillusionments" that come with the hard experiences of life — and if someone comes to us complaining of having been "disillusioned," we tend to put an arm around their shoulders and say, "I'm so very sorry. How can I help? "

But if we understood contemplation properly, we would respond quite differently. We would shake their hand, saying, "Congratulations! To be ‘dis-illusioned' means that you've just lost another illusion! Tell me how can I help disillusion you more?"

. . . My life at times was not like the famous "seven-storey mountain" of Merton's life, but more like a seven-storey apartment building with no stairs and no elevator and no hallways and no telephone system. No communication was going on between the various parts of me, between the good stuff and the bad stuff and all the in-between stuff. I would live out of one or another of those parts at any given time, while hiding the others away, ignoring and denying their existence.

I got great help from a person who said, "You seem to keep imagining your depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Why don't you image it, instead, as the hand of a friend trying to press you down to safe ground on which to stand?"

Eventually, I came to understand my depression as a life-giving force bent on demolishing that seven-storey apartment building so that those isolated compartments would have to connect and communicate with one another — so that I would have to move toward wholeness, or die. Wholeness — the movement from self-impersonation to authentic selfhood — is the great gift contemplation can bring, a gift often hear-won through the catastrophes of our lives.

. . .The words I quoted from Thomas Merton at the beginning of this movement seem daunting, but his advice is actually quite simple and realistic and to the point: "The first thing you have to do, before you start thinking about such a thing as contemplation, is to try to recover your basic natural unity, to reintegrate your compartmentalized being into a coordinated and simple whole, and learn to live as a unified human person."

Before we take on anything as complex and challenging as a contemplative life, we need to take on life itself with the simple act of writing that letter of dissent or of sitting at the front of the bus. Once we do, our contemplation will have commenced and nothing will ever be the same.