Going In to Move Out

There is a basic paradox in the spiritual life.
One moves in in order to move out.

The motion is odd as the move to one’s inner life has the paradoxical effect of connecting one to the surrounding reality.

By stilling the self, becoming quiet, and centering, one paradoxically comes to sense a deep connectedness to all being. From the clarity of contemplation, meditation, centering, or mindfulness, one senses reality as inherently transcendent of one’s limited perspective as an individual. One emerges no more connected than before. What has changed is one’s awareness of that connection. This is the basic movement of becoming “woke”, that is, awakened to a primal sense, an awareness of connection.

Sensing that connection comes mysteriously. I am not sure if it’s the process of slowing down to look around that finally allows one to connect the dots. The precise mechanism evades me. I can only know it’s been true for me. And it seems to be true for others who have taken the spiritual life seriously.

It happened to Thomas Merton from the confines of his hermitage at his Trappist monastery. After spending significant time in the “monastic therapy” of his Benedictine community, he begged for the freedom of moving out into a modest hermitage in which he could experience solitude in an even deeper modality. And it was in this setting, Merton discovered his connection to other means and systems of reaching God, as in Buddhism, as well as an awakening and discovery of his deep social consciousness. It led him to write his conscience-fueled protest to our war in Viet Nam and to connect with the spiritual and social movement of civil rights. Odd, don’t you think? Solitude in order to discover connection.

It was a gift to my self during the desert of my doctoral work to study Merton’s spiritual development through the lens of Faith Development. While I could not interview him in person, he had left a trail of clues within his journal writing in which one could look in on his soul’s work, the way his viewing of existence altered, and the very way he thought about things changed. It was a transformation of consciousness that followed a pattern of spiritual development that we were in the process of codifying in the faith development theory.

One of the first books of Merton that I read was his spiritual autobiography of his early life , The Seven Storey Mountain. This book popularized Merton as a modern person searching for meaning in life. His questions were intriguing to other moderns who struggled to make sense of the world, and Merton offered an honest account of his personal quest which led him to visit that Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Like most of us, he was searching for Truth and found a glimmer of hope in the structure of Roman Catholic theology. And so, he went for a visitation to the monastery.

The book gives an account of a person who had bought into a system of thinking which divided the right from the wrong, the righteous from the unrighteous. He wondered if the monastic life might offer him a way of life that would center him in God and tame his surging passions. He concludes that it is, and prepares to make the change, to take the vows of a monk.

As his visitation period ends, Merton goes into Louisville to catch a bus back to New York in order to tie up loose ends and prepare for his new life as a monk. There, as he walks on the street with the masses, he is overwhelmed by his sense of the sinfulness of those who are not aware of God’s presence. He feels revulsion and runs into a Catholic church in order to escape the scene. Kneeling at the altar, Merton offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God that he has found his special path, the path of monasticism. This sets him apart, as “special”. Merton thanks God that he is not like other men.

After a few months, he returns, enters the discipline of the novitiate, and embraces the life of a monk in community with other monks. He describes this tough process of living with the idiosyncrasies of these other men who share this time and space with him. It occurs to me that it is not unlike the process of any relationship, such as marriage, of bumping up against the reality of the “other”, someone who reminds you constantly that you are not “unto your self alone”. Merton, like me, found comedy in the interplay of others who you are “stuck with” who talk too much, have annoying habits, sing off key, snore, not mention the maddening sound of one’s eating and drinking from a cup. This therapy, provided free of charge in a marriage or monastery, grinds of the edge of a sharp edged self-centeredness and affords one a fresh sense of ordinariness and participation in community.

Years later, at the same exact place, the corner of 4th and Walnut, in the middle of Louisville, after decades of monastic therapy, Merton finds himself looking at those same masses of people moving down the street, doing business, doing life. Only this time, Merton falls into an attitude of prayer,standing there among the people, thanking God that God had created him just like other men. What a transformation, an alchemical change in the character of the soul. This dramatic change took place over years of prayer, study, challenge, and search. But the truth is stark: he “moved inward” in order to connect with that which would have seemed outside, something that was “other”.

There are other stories of faith that track in a similar way. I value reading about the spiritual path that others have walked. How has it been for you? How do you find time to stop in the middle of your busyness to reflect on your journey? How do you slow down to notice the world that is spinning round you? Your journey may not take you to a monastery but it is the same journey for us all to find our place in God and in the Creation that God loves.

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