Chapter Talk – Third Sunday of Easter – April 26, 2020 – cycle-A
The present pandemic has turned our lives, world-wide, upside down. Covid-19 has affected the global community and its economies in ways that none of us have lived through before now. Through the pandemic we see how interconnected we all are. Are not the living ‘saints’ those in the medical field who willingly risk their lives daily to care for us? As we live surrounded by so much uncertainty about the present and the immediate future, perhaps it is good to step back and ponder our lives. What, as a monastic community, do we need to renew or work to change in order to continue to mission God’s enduring word of life, of hope, of love?
In a book I am reading about Thomas Merton’s ‘monastic spirituality’, Bonnie Thurston, the author, summarized three “presuppositions” that she says shaped the horizon from which Merton viewed the religious issues of ecumenism, social justice and contemplative spirituality (Shaped By the End You Live For, p.37). These three presuppositions are: Merton reverses our usual way of knowing, his monastic spirituality is based on the notions of true self and false self, and finally, monastic life is profoundly connected to ‘the world’ (p.38-46). I think as we ponder these three ‘presuppositions’, we will be helped in seeing what does indeed anchor our monastic vocation. For Merton the end goal was Christ and Christ was, as well, the immediate goal; these presuppositions are contained with this spiritual framework.
The first presupposition “is to live from the inside out rather than from the outside in” (p.39). This is a reversal of how we come to ‘know’. Think about this in terms of our prayer life: to have God or Christ be at the center means our interior stance is one more of listening than speaking. Do we not grow more into the life of God as we live from the inner depths where God is speaking as the ‘small still voice’ of the Spirit? Remembering these words of Merton: “The poet goes inward to create. The contemplative turns to God to be created” (Fred Bahnson, Video….). If we look at Jesus’ ministry, there are so many examples where we witness Jesus living from ‘inside out’. The story from John’s gospel of the woman caught in adultery is one poignant example: Jesus is being challenged by the Sadducees and Pharisees who tell him that in the Mosaic law such women are stoned and they ask, to trap him, what he would do with this woman. Jesus, aware of their intention, goes inward, he bends down and writes in the sand…There, in the silence, he waits for the Divine word…This is moving from inside out. Imagine when we are in a conflict with someone and we try and resolve it out there. Will it not be a war of words: ‘you did this’; ‘no, you did that’ and so on. We must step inside our hearts and go to the One who will utter a word of life, a healing word, a loving word, a word of forgiveness. Such a movement inward, as a first step, means we are ready to hear another voice than our own…This step inside begins slowly to change us, to change the inner emotional dynamic, and thus to change the emotional dynamic of the outer situation and relationship.
Not unrelated is the second presupposition of true and false self. In discovering our true self, we discover God, and the opposite is true, as we know more of God, we come to know more of our true self. Thurston quotes from New Seeds of Contemplation where we get a sense of how Merton understood true and false self: “‘Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.’ It wants ‘to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love. And we are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.’….On the other hand, our True Self ‘is hidden in the love and mercy of God,’ and we discover it by listening toward God who utters God’s self in us…‘God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself’” (p.42). Imagine: every person exists as a ‘partial thought’ of God’s very being…we are fully human, yes, but our humanity is not separate from this divine seed of our true self, a self that is created in the image and likeness of God. This true self is what we spend a life time discovering and struggling to live from. The false self keeps the ‘ego’ as central and in control, not God. And then, the true self helps apprehend the reality that this my sister and brother is also a ‘partial thought’ of God’s very being?
The third presupposition is that “monastic life is profoundly connected to the world” (p.44). Thurston writes: “The distinction between prayer and action is a false one because prayer, and a life of prayer, is action” (p.45). She quotes Merton who says: “Our true self is the self that receives freely and gladly the missions that are God’s supreme gifts” (p.45). It is our true self that receives the call from God. It is our true self that receives the various ‘missions’ that God invites us to in order to fulfill our vocation and to serve God and humanity.
All three presuppositions form a whole…if we could just hold one of them in our consciousness and let it help us renew our lives and implicitly the life of our community…For Merton “listening and interiority” are essential for monastic life (p.44). During this pandemic when we have even more quiet time and solitude, could we, alone and together, deepen in both listening and interiority, being more with ourselves and not with our neighbor’s affairs.
As we live in the middle of a world-wide crisis, let us hold close these three monastic principles: of living more from inside out, discovering more the self that is true and authentic, humbly realizing that prayer is a mission and gift for our Church and world. Renewing in any one of these will build up our community life and will be a humble offering for our world, so in need right now.
Sr. Kathy DeVico, Abbess