Persistent Voice Calling

I just finished watching a couple of short videos about Thomas Merton, and it stirred this recurring conviction about my need to meditate, my need to seek solitude and become a contemplative. This is something I have been attracted to my entire adult life, but I have not done much about it because of fear. I am a nascent mystic, a seed buried deep in soil.

I have a hard time being by myself unless I am reading, writing, or watching television, anything to occupy my mind.  The idea of actually sitting and meditating causes my arms to weaken and my heart to constrict. When I have tried to meditate I usually go to sleep. My attempts at contemplation end up becoming introspective forays where I become consumed with peeling off layers and layers of self, trying to find God underneath. I don’t think, however, that God is present with us in this way. I don’t’ think that he can be found in some dark, neglected corner of consciousness. It is my guess that his presence with us is much like the mystery of the incarnation. It is not a reality you get when you first see it. I’m sure when people first met Jesus they didn’t think, “It’s the Son of God!” but, they probably thought there was something different about him. Over time, however, as the Spirit gradually revealed who he was, they probably wondered how they could ever have missed it. It is in this manner I imagine that God is present with us. We miss him because though he is not to be confused with us, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves. We cannot find him as an object that we can consciously point to, identify or analyze. We cannot find him because he his beyond the normal categories by which we process the world, and try to make sense of it. I do believe that God can be experienced, but even this is not subject to common scrutiny.

When I go to meditate, I have to be honest, I am seeking to have an experience of God, but I sense that I have to let this go. It has become something of an idol for me. So, In the midst of this struggle, again and again I come back to the word “trust” and related words like faith and believe. I have to believe the still small voice that persistently calls me is not mocking me. I have to believe that beyond my experience of floundering in darkness, beyond my bewilderment and fear, God has me in a way that I can hardly understand.


Thomas Merton


8 Responses to “Persistent Voice Calling”

  1. Scott  

    Interestingly, Merton correlates contemplation with rest, and together calls these man’s “highest activity.” I bring this up because, although I share your interest in the mystical traditions, I have never really been able to articulate entirely what mysticism means in a Christian context, nor what it means to be contemplative or to live a contemplative lifestyle. The concept of rest I suppose is more concrete to me – and with that in mind — I can identify with the struggle to rest. True rest is something I find difficult to achieve. Being, per se, ironically seems to require more concentrated effort than Being, per quod (the latter being that Being whereby I read, write, watch television — granted usually DVDs I have deemed worthy of my attention 🙂 ).

    Coincidentally, I was thinking along similar lines earlier this evening. I was thinking of my busy-ness. My constant need to be doing something both in the moment and in the larger scheme of my life. Two things have happened recently that have called my attention to this aspect of myself. Firstly, the arrival my daughter recently has taught me that my perception of time and of productivity within time is utterly and completely subjective. To my wailing daughter who needs me more deeply than any of my “projects” can be said to need me, the idea of productivity or busy-ness is completely irrelevant in the wake of colic and dirty diapers.

    The other recent occurrence for me has been my decision to enroll in a local drawing course. Not having done much drawing since high school, it was an itch I finally decided to scratch. What I am learning is that drawing is the single activity I can do in which I completely lose myself to the point of losing track of time. Occasionally this might happen with writing or some other creative activity – but only very occasionally. With drawing it is almost automatic.

    What this all means, I am not sure, but I have 2 thoughts: 1. Perhaps we can only truly begin to reach that higher level of rest/contemplation when forces outside ourselves shape our circumstances to make it happen. Perhaps the biggest “interruptions” can be the most significant graces. And 2, perhaps there is something about our rational/verbal mode of being that inhibits our contemplative ability and with that in mind, maybe the right kind of non-verbal activity can help you find that place of rest.

  2. Roger Green  

    I once had a “speaking in tongues” experience, or I guess it was. It never happened again and I never attended that particular church again, so I don’t know what to “do” with it, if you know what I mean.

  3. Anthony Velez  

    Scott – Functionally, mysticism could probably be equated with contemplation or rest, but to clarify a little further, it would be a rest that comes from a direct awareness of God’s goodness and strength.

    As far as outside forces shaping our circumstances, this is traditionally referred to as providence, and is often acknowledged in mystic writings as integral in prompting one to advance in mystical awareness. The other side of the coin, however, is that mystics often see the direct work of God upon the soul as something that moves the soul beyond the vagaries of circumstance. So, there is a creative tension here.

    Regarding the rational-verbal issue, the apophatic way within the larger mystic tradition is one that affirms what you are saying. The conviction of this way is that God transcends the mind and consequently when we become fixed in trying to formulate him, and hold him to our verbal categories we are likely to miss him. However, there is again another side of the coin: the incarnation, the implication of which is that Jesus marks the boundary of God’s revelation. If we take the apophatic way too far, we lose all distinctions regarding mystical/spiritual experiences, and it seems to me that if we do this we cannot talk about it in an intelligent way anymore.

    Finally, I pray that your baby and your endeavors in drawing will indeed become a catalyst to receive more of what God has to give you in Jesus Christ.

  4. Anthony Velez  

    Roger – I never pegged you for a Pentecostal. OK, really, sometimes, particularly when it comes to spiritual things, we may have experiences that won’t readily submit to conclusions. On the other hand, the apostle John calls us to be spiritually discerning. I always like the picture of Jesus’ mother taking in the odd, amazing, and hard things that Jesus said and did and pondering them in her heart. I think that she functions as a paradigm for all of us.

  5. Simon Jones  

    You know, I know the post isn’t about “speaking in tongues”, but I’ll confess to thinking that practice might actually be just utter bollocks! I used to attend a church where that “gift” was almost a must if you wanted to be part of the ‘super spiritual’ people. For that reason I think just about 100% of the time it was faked and even though I can’t tell, I don’t like to think that anyone is faking it, be that “speaking in tongues” or anything!

    It’s one of the many reasons why I am entirely turned off the whole experience of church, because it seems to require some kind of adherence to practices and procedures that are alien to me. I can’t do the wobly hand thing, or “speaking in tongues”, or any of the other happy clappy bullshit that seems to go with much of ‘modern Christianity.’

    However, having said that I also don’t particularly find sitting in a darkened room being contemplative very spiritually edifying either. Maybe that’s because I suck at switching off my brain, it’s constantly processing, albeit mainly crap. But as a westerner I am used to dealing with mountains of mixed messages in all kinds of forms, stillness in our busy overactive lives is very VERY difficult to achieve and excel at.

    I know a whole bunch of people who meditate and look for “inner peace” and all that spiritual enlightenment stuff. They are without question the single most fucked up bunch of loony toons I know. I like them, but they are usually one step away from depression or some kind of catastrophic mental breakdown. It frankly doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that people in darkened rooms who are meditating find God. Heck, I could probably find Elvis if I were left alone in a dark room long enough!

  6. Anthony Velez  

    Simon – First I want to say that your observations are valid. I too have had the same suspicions and struggles. Having said this, I have to call you out on your generalization, even though you did qualify it to some degree.

    Certainly, there are a lot of bullshitters in the world, and a lot of them are religious bullshitters. But, I want to assert that the genuine article is out there as well, but to be honest, I cannot quantify this for you. I have no idea whether such religious experiences are 80% genuine or 20% genuine. As I said to Roger, this is why I think discernment is called for, and discernment is something that requires patience, an appropriate sense of openness, a belief in spiritual boundaries, a humble awareness of our limitations, as well as a corresponding conviction that truth is something we need to pursue.

    I think that tongues is a genuine gift of the Spirit that is currently present in the Church. I have to confess, however, that I resist it on some level, because it looks and sounds silly. Moreover, I don’t want to be duped by false spirits, groupthink, ecstatic emotionalism, or mass hypnosis, all of which I am sure are responsible for some of the occurrences of speaking in tongues. But, not all. In the midst of all the occurrences of tongues, some of it is the result of God’s Spirit intimately touching people in ways that can hardly be understood, but is yet real. The problem with being broadly dismissive about the whole phenomena is that we risk insulting the Spirit of grace, and in the end, don’t we all want grace and mercy.

    Regarding certain practices and procedures feeling alien, I am with you in this. However, I apparently interpret it differently than you. I think I am a fallen creature and that my deepest sensibilities and feelings have been blighted by sin, by living in a fallen world. For this reason I see myself as one ill fit for heaven. The analogy that comes to mind is that I am deaf, or at least tone deaf, and heaven is a beautiful symphony that I can hardly enjoy. All of this means that I must be healed and enabled to enjoy the realities of heaven, many of which, in my current state, may be more than I can withstand, and would actually, in some ironic way, make me miserable. Another analogy that comes to mind is beer (oh yes, I am going to equate heaven with beer). Most people, particularly youngins, don’t appreciate beer when they first taste it. However, as we continue to be exposed to it, and drink it, we develop a taste for it. Our tastebuds, begin to develop an appreciation for its hoppiness, its bitterness, the various subtle interactions between the alcohol, the various grains, and the containers that it was fermented in. At first it doesn’t seem natural, but after awhile it becomes very natural and at times amazing. So, all of this to say that often the practices and the procedures of Church are much like beer, you have to acquire and develop a taste for it. Of course, some of the practices and procedures in Church are just crap: the product of human falleness and egoism. This means that we must learn to discern so that we can plot an appropriate course of action. In some instances we have to realize that our feelings and sensibilities are lying to us about the practices we encounter at Church, and in other instances we have to realize that indeed, there is poison there.

    I know this is harsh, but most Church cynics that I know fail to make this distinction and allow their immediate, gut level reactions to function, as their spiritual barometer. I big time struggle with cynicism, and I know a lot of cynics (as the saying goes, “birds of a feather…”), but over the years I have come to relate to my cynicism in a different way, and honestly I think I have made some strides toward maturity as a result. I know I am tooting my own horn here, but I have seen religious types demonizing non-religious types, and I have seen non-religious types equally demonizing religious types. In the midst of it all, I am keeping my eye on my own brokenness, the faults for which I want mercy and compassion, and I am trying to have mercy and compassion on those who are also broken, no matter how differently they may be so.

  7. K.L.B  

    There is an aphorism which is sometimes attributed (yet not verified) to Albert Einstein, and it states: “Everything should be made as simple as possible; but not simpler.”

    In that vein, I recall this pithy aphorism, because it expresses simply and succinctly about that which I’ve just read: “Here I sit all lonely hearted, tried to shit, but only farted.”

    Hoping to do something big, wonderful and great, and then being disappointed by this… “When I have tried to meditate I usually go to sleep.”

    Is it not much ado about nothing to be so self-critical that the criticism destroys the gift?

    Meditation is not sitting in some corner in a lotus position, chanting “ooooooommmmm.”

    The contemplative life is on the go.

    Now, it’s time to go.

  8. Anthony Velez  

    Kevin – Though I appreciate your humorous characterization of one who meditates, and I affirm the idea that the contemplative life can be on the go, I don’t agree with you, at least not fully. Solitude and being still before God is a discipline clearly woven into the Scriptures and the history of the Church. Like all spiritual things, discernment is needed, as meditative practices can turn into so much navel gazing, particularly of the neurotic variety that Simon mentioned. However, to say that “the contemplative life is on the go.” without acknowledging the need for sitting still before God is to have a myopic view of the contemplative life. Sitting still, body and soul, is a damn hard thing to do. I think this is because we are wired, particularly in our culture, to find a sense of ourselves through what we do, through action. Contemplation, however, puts us in touch with the awful, ego crushing truth, that we are not the definers of our being, God is.