A cuppa tea with…Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

Silent Meditation vs Empty Chatter

In this chapter Thomas moves further into meditative prayer…what it is and certainly what it is not.  He encourages us that interior prayer is simple, silent, and often expressed through small acts.  He cautions us that we convince ourselves that to have a “true prayer life” we must be engaged in “compulsive routines” filled with wordy, repetitive prayers.  This behavior, Thomas states, builds barriers between our own spirits and the Holy Spirit who desires to commune with us.

Thomas brings in St. John of the Cross, “The more spiritual a thing is the more wearisome they find it.”  In other words, we continue in behavior that “stimulates [us] psychologically” but is in effect empty, worthless, and counter-productive.

God’s response is to enshroud us in “darkness” and “night” which feels lonely and isolating and horrible and painful.  It breaks our confidence.  It confuses our minds.  It makes us doubt our faith.

But it is this painful darkness that God uses to re-direct us back to His purity and simplicity and grace.  Thomas encourages us, “It is precisely in this way that, being led into the ‘dark night of faith,’ one passes from meditation, in the sense of active ‘mental prayer,’ to contemplation, or a deeper and simpler intuitive form of receptivity.”

When those dark times come, and we shuffle through the arid desert of our soul, Thomas directs us to turn to the Psalms or Holy Scripture rather than falling back “to the conventional machinery of discursive ‘mental prayer.”

A cuppa tea with… Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

Inertia.  Coldness.  Confusion.

Thomas speaks of these as we all experience them at some point (or many points) in our prayer life.  What do we do when faced with these empty spaces, these times when nothing seems to matter and nothing gains traction?

He warns that this might be a time when we have separated our prayer life, our ascetic life, from the rest of our existence.  This is folly and “bad theology.”

“Meditation has no point and no reality unless it is firmly rooted in life.”  We will fail to move forward in an ascetic journey if we cleave the two parts.

Another error is blaming ourselves when we “feel” separated from God.  There will be moments and times of elevation; there will be moment and times of “the night of the senses.”

He warns against discouragement and helplessness.  We must not rely upon feelings for fulfillment as they are immature.  Instead, during those times of night in the soul, we are to remain faithful and remember that God has given us the Spirit who will intercede for us with words and groans that we cannot utter (Romans 8:11-27).

“Our efforts…are directed to an obedient and opperative submission to grace…which implies our receptiveness to the hidden action of the Holy Spirit.”

A cuppa tea with… Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer


Thomas suggests instead of seeking a “method” of prayer, we should choose a “life” of prayer.  It should be intentional behavior to life and not akin to the enthusiasm of acquiring a new skill.  God calls us to life with HIm; prayer is that response.  In meditation we face the harsh realities of ourselves and the nothingness we are apart from God.  Additionally, “It would be a mistake to suppose that mere good will is…a sufficient guarantee that all our efforts will finally attain to a good result.”   Merton recommends spiritual direction coupled with humility.  That spiritual direction will help us to recognize God’s grace and movement in our lives, to learn humility and patience, and to remove those obstacles barring us from moving deeper in prayer.

A cuppa tea with… Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

imageThomas mentions the various forms of contemplative prayer including psalmodia, lectio, oratio, contemplatio.  These prayers are a way to turn from the world to God, but “to separate meditation from prayer, reading, and contemplation, is to falsify our picture of the monastic way of prayer.”  Singing hymns and songs of praise, sharing in the liturgy, and fellowship with our brothers and sisters certainly have their places.  It is the movement within contemplative prayer, however, which offers “watchful listening” and presents a prayer of the heart involving the whole man.  St. Basil wrote that the work of the hands is in itself a meditation, thankfulness, and glorification to God.  “In the ‘prayer of the heart’ we seek God himself present in the depths of our being and meet him there by invoking the name of Jesus in faith, wonder, and love.”

John 17:6-19

Pray with me.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Many of you have children. When you had your first child and became a parent, no one gave you an instruction book. I am reminded of the film that came out in the late 80s called Parenthood with Steve Martin. Steve’s character and his wife Mary Steenburgen have another couple over one afternoon for lunch. Steve’s little boy comes stumbling into the kitchen with a bucket on his head. The little boy missed the hallway and hit the wall instead. Oblivious to the notion that he could actually take the bucket off his head and see his way down the hall, he continued to bonk his bucket-covered head against the wall. The visiting couple, unsure whether to hysterically laugh or help this little mess, look to Steve and Mary, and Mary just shrugs her shoulders and says, Continue reading “John 17:6-19”

Without Ceasing…


The Angelus tolls in the crisp air, and I am reminded of the gift of God bestowed to the Virgin Mary.   As the bell continues its patterned ring, I speak my prayers and offer my heart to the Lord.  May this pause offer an opportunity to be mindful of Christ in my life and to keep Him present throughout my day.

The Angelus is one of many reminders we have throughout our busy days to stop and pause and pray to God.  We say grace at meals.  We pray before going to bed.  We pray when we get up.  We pray before taking a test.  We pray during church.  We pray at the flag pole.  We teach our children what prayer is and when we should pray.  We teach them specific prayers that we say at certain times of the day.  As we get older, we have memorized prayers that we rely upon for strength, peace, guidance, temperance.  These words offer us comfort, help to calm us, give us courage when we need it, reconnect us to our Father and God.

Fr. John-Julian, the Order of Julian of Norwich, designates a certain type of prayer, a “still” prayer, as “a state rather than an action.”  We pray at certain times and at events throughout our days and during our lives.  Fr. Julian takes our understanding of prayer deeper from that of an act that we do to a way that we are.  Prayer is a moment of sharing a conversation with God.  Prayer can also be more than just a moment; it can be a way of being that transcends the ticks on a clock.

God longs for us to speak with Him, to spend time with Him.  In the beautiful lyrics from musician Larnelle Harris, “I miss my time with you, those moments together, I need to be with you each day, and it hurts me when you say you’re too busy, busy trying to serve me, but how can you serve me when your spirit’s empty.”  God calls us to be with Him, and I believe He delights when we respond to His call and share moments of our life with Him.  I also believe that He aches to be with us during ALL moments.  1 Thessalonians 5:17 prompts us to “pray without ceasing.”  According to the verse, we are to be in a constant state of prayer.

But what does “pray without ceasing” look like?  No, perhaps we don’t get on our knees, clasp our hands together, close our eyes, and speak our prayers to God.  While some of our daily prayers may have that specific posture, God does not require that structured action.  Still, or contemplative, prayer is a quiet from within that fills the spaces and centers our minds and hearts on God.  Much like we can have a jar of pebbles that might represent our more formal prayers throughout the day, still prayer could be like the fresh water we pour into the jar that fills the spaces between the pebbles.  In still prayer we are open to God’s voice and direction; we are thinking of “what is true, noble, righteous, and lovely” (Philippians 4:8).

As the final echo of the Angelus fades from the air, my thoughts and attention resumes on the tasks at hand and the business of the day.  However, my heart and spirit remain connected with God through the Holy Spirit.  May we seek God and respond to His voice not only in the specific moments during the day but also within the quiet spaces as well.