I heard an interview recently with John Phillip Newell who has been writing about contemplative and Celtic Christianity since the early nineties. He was of interest to me as he was talking about his publication, “The Rebirth of God.” He makes a great case in exposing the drastic change that occurred in Christian thought and practice after Constantine legalized Christianity in the 300s. His work as the Warden of Iona Abbey in the Western Isles of Scotland painted a beautiful picture of peaceful Christian practice.
In Christopher Page’s writings, which I found at thomasmertonsociety.org, he shared this from one of Thomas Merton’s journals:
June 18, 1966
“The real desert is this: to face the limitations of ones own existence and knowledge and not try to manipulate them or disguise them. Not to embellish them with possibilities. To simply set aside all possibilities other than those that are actually present and real, here and now.”
Now I’ve had a long-running contemplation of the difference between a hopeful faith and a denial of the practical realities of life. Asking the question flat out, am I in denial or am I exercising faith? So when I saw that a local group was traveling to Iona, boy did I want to go. Besides going into financial debt, the “manipulations” Merton speaks of come to mind. It’s not just about lifestyle choices, it’s about meaning we can pour into things. For me that means asking myself, do I want to go because I hate my life and think a trip to Scotland will reveal some magical formula that I have missed and help me heal, change, or whatever it is I desire for my life at this point? I’m not downing travel and new adventures, just reiterating the fact that why we do things means as much as what we do.
This type of thing comes up often in a singles group I am in. Expressions of loneliness are common. Our job on a practical level is to navigate the relational world without expecting a relationship to be a healer of personal problems. But there is a hope there as well, to meet and connect with someone who would add something to our lives. Make sense?
The same issue lies with career aspirations. The reality is that a rough financial state will create problems in life. But we can’t expect a job or financial status to satisfy the general desires of the soul either.
In my words, if I do a thing, or meet a person, or travel to a place, my reality doesn’t change, only I do that. And damn, I’m not saying those things can’t be life affirming and worth the effort either.
Merton wasn’t technically speaking of determining the difference between faith and denial, but he was speaking of a “desert.” A landscape to navigate. I complained about it being hard and a friend put it this way, “It’s not just hard Jill, but transcendent and necessary! You must strip away the superficial, transient self and give death to the need to make life the way we think it should be. …” God, it is hard, thank you friend for that affirmation.
Later on in the article I referenced Merton says, “Stay where you are.” I liked that. I sometimes lament that I live like Alicia Keys sings, “with my head in the clouds and my feet on the ground.” It’s a real stretch and maybe the contemplative path will help me make a connection between the clouds and the ground that makes real sense but doesn’t cancel hope.
He expresses it beautifully if you are interested (http://www.thomasmertonsociety.org/Journal/14/14-2Page.pdf)