Contemplation and Concentration
A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.
The quotation above by Thomas Merton, is one of my favourites and stares at me as a screen saver whenever I switch on my computer. It is very powerful: we are shaped by the end we live for – that we, in essence, become what we most desire. But it is a totally orthodox statement. Our desires are a kind of food. Just as receiving Christ makes us more like Christ so both the good and the bad things we desire will, over time, change us into that thing or that person. Lately, I found myself wondering what I truly do desire. I would love to say my life is all spiritual. I would love to say that loving God and allowing him to love me is the end for which I am living and which I desire with all my heart. The problem is that when I come to God in contemplative prayer, I realise that I am driven by all sorts of voices inside me, many of which are so buried that it is hard for me to be aware of them. Labels, masks, false selves: how am I to know who I am or what I really want?
The great eye opening to my lack of real desire for God shows most when I try to settle into contemplative prayer. Not only is my mind busy with all the many things I have to do today, but there is a constant running commentary as if everything I think and do becomes a vehicle for performance, for conversation, is turned into a project, a piece of writing or teaching; is, in a way, offered to others. And then there is the constant, “What will people think?” “Is it okay?” “It costs too much and I am exhausted.” “I don’t want to take the chance.” Perhaps these show more than other things what my real desires are – for an easy life, in which I will get things right and no one will tell me off!
The great gift of all of this is that it shows how little I can do of myself to help myself: how much I need God and the help that only he can give. So as I sit down yet again to try to concentrate; perhaps the hardest thing in learning how to contemplate, I am comforted by this wonderful poem by Denise Levertov.
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
into sacred places:
a quick glance, and away—and back,
I have long since uttered your name
I elude your presence.
to think about you, and my mind
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I who am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom
all moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?
Perhaps in the end all any of us can say is, “I want to want to be spiritual. I want to want my deepest desire to be a longing for God.”
(Launde Abbey has its own Thomas Merton retreat, “Attention to Paradise: A Guided Retreat with Thomas Merton,” starting on July 14th.)