"Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial ‘doubt.’ This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion."
~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p.12
These are the quickening days of spring. Those earthy aromas even visit the cities. Yesterday, I found a small mirror, and being well aware of its reflectance I brought it outside as a subject for some images. The glass itself has a surface, yet as many of us know, to be able to clearly see what is being reflected it is necessary to focus to the distance of the subject in the mirror- not the physical mirror as an object in itself. When we look within, the tangible surfaces in our lives barely begin representing an inner life calling from beyond our depths. What we see reflected are hints just definable enough to draw us onward.
The contemplative life is confrontational. A very clear memory comes to mind now, of my first visit with a Quaker congregation at their meeting-house. The large group unpromptedly descended into a deep, palpable silence. Not being certain of the procedure of things, I tried settling the racing thoughts that seemed to bustle in with me from outside. It also astonished me to see all the young children in the group also sitting in complete and patient stillness. Then I, too, entered the unspoken prayer of attendant silence. Between immersions into the quiet waiting upon the Holy Spirit, I sometimes opened my eyes and noticed the beautifully austere and ancient meeting-house church, bright floorboards as wide as my feet are long, and my ungrasping hands. And when I described the morning’s adventure later to some friends, I said "there was nothing to hide behind. It was unobstructed and confrontational." Indeed, a solid hour of unfettered silent contemplation has got to be an acquired taste, but for me it was surprisingly liberating, and both a self-confrontation and an entirely serene Divine encounter- much as I’ve experienced in monastic silence.
Contemplation calls the pilgrim soul; the Spirit that gives us life beckons and persuades us to face our creation and created selves as fully as possible. In responding by embarking upon a life of trust, it has been quite natural for me to be able to find the graces in my midst, wherever I go, but also the more difficult events and setbacks- even many uncertainties- can be stood down. Peaceful times of contemplation can burst forth into a focused and animated life, attuned to be offered for the service of others. If a sincere descent into one’s heart can happen in an austere room, we can surely be reminded of the immateriality of the contemplative life. There are no limits. Often, the language of introspection applies the comparison of the butterfly’s crysalis. Just as contemplative reflection is transcendent of place, so transformation is unlimited by time or circumstance. Transforming changes have come to me, both in the midst of fleeting workplace moments and during lengthy sojourns of withdrawal from the din of commotion. The image of a crysalis reminds us of the necessity to look deep within and focus, in order to heal those lingering anguishes that obstruct our view of all that unfolds before us. Paradoxically, in reclaiming my self and remembering what truly identifies me, it becomes possible to cut loose those past perplexities that can blur a clear view of the present. Revisiting the past runs the risk of entrenchment. When I find myself looking back, I try to think of it as glancing archival documents: they attest now to a time that was, or in the parlance of archivists these are "non-current records, of evidentiary value," based entirely upon their context. Research, like introspection, isn’t meant to be a dwelling place, but a springboard.
We don’t always choose to confront ourselves and challenge our direction. At times, we may innately sense having lost our way- or what radio listeners call "signal drift," requiring some re-tuning. Other times, our circumstances- or events within which we find our context- impose our self-evaluation. And, to be certain, the lure of contemplation cannot be for me to self-engross, but an understanding of my being and purpose actually frees me from centering on self. Contemplatives are often misunderstood, and I am long past trying to legitimize my intrinsic sense of introspection; or at least I should be undaunted. An adolescence of rejection gave me plenty of practice. So I say healthy doses of reflection are not excessive, but actually vital, especially if such exercises are means aimed at holiness. It is essential to know oneself. Our very complexity is itself compelling and demands some resolve. It sure doesn’t mean stopping everything until I can think clearly enough. Indeed, we can keep moving along with our functioning consciences! Strength from within lets us think on our feet and proves to be of great significance when we must stand solitarily upon our own merits. Our own voice must be so familiar to ourselves that our task is simply to connect our well-established convictions with unambiguous narrative, allowing us to listen for the spirit in our midst. Clarity of vision leads to the solidity of thought and direction needed to create and navigate wherever our steps find us.
Pursuing and continuing the inner journey can be undermined by our own doubts, inevitable as they may be, however these tentative impressions can be turned into pivot points against which we can draw confidence. Within our hesitation is questioning, as Brother Roger of Taizé wrote in his journal, Struggle and Contemplation, adding that "our basic doubt does not prevent us from constantly setting out, from doubt towards belief." Uncertainty can become dynamism. How many of our perceived limitations are of our own doing? One such way we self-undermine is by doubting our own voice, our own experiences; that is a hindrance we alone can lift away. Many of us have known that turning-point, when we hear ourselves speak a truth that is uniquely from our own perspective, worthy of a respect we didn’t dare ask for. Those who would not have expected much esteem have known the marooned experience of disregard. We might question the very validity of the truths we bear. Further, we may even wonder at the expectation of being taken seriously. But even through those kinds of doubts, our strength of purpose, modest as it may be, mustn’t be daunted. Recent days have caused me to consider what sorts of expectations I have and how realistic they are. Idealists- as well as those who have tasted some of their aspirations- must especially use care in what can be reasonably expected. Once more, we visit a paradox- genuine hope has no limit, yet being earthbound we cannot dismiss our respective contexts. When I regroup my thoughts, it seems that for realistic expectations to be grounded in reality, there must be some evidence of reliability; there must be a basis of trust. At the same time, it is vital for me to be always mindful of my sources of strength, and not to affix too many expectations in flawed institutions, mechanisms, and even personalities. I have had to beware not to become enslaved by temporal opinions, and weigh them against that which stands the test of time. We are all permitted our struggles, and no honest person is without them in some form. A great part of proceeding forward in the spirit of trust is continuity: having all the concepts spelled out is far less important that to go forth in faith. Remember the words, "seek first...and all will be added..."
In his journal, Dostoyevsky wrote, "I am a child of doubt and unbelief," continuing by offering that his praises, his exclamations of hosanna, "passed through the crucible of doubt." When the spirit of inquiry, or speculation, moves our questioning into an active search for assurance and holiness, those doubts produce emanate worth. But as with explorations of what is past, our uncertainties serve us best as road signs rather than as terminus points. I hope for my recollections to bring a dynamism to my perspective, not to tarnish my ideals but to help provide a sense of grounding. If we find, however, that our doubts sink us into our losses, causing us to deny our significance in this world, that is a sign to reconsider our criteria. My own inward misgivings turn me toward doubting my impact in the world and the worth and relevancy of my ideals. And from there, trying to transfigure doubts into vibrancy, I rethink the meaning and value of recognition.
In this society that combines perfectionism and "dumbing-down," with bewildering grudge-keeping and short attention spans, I am compelled to find light in the darkness. The bewilderment is part of the challenge to cultivate faith and intuition that accompanies confidence to stand- and even continue walking and working- with the doubts. I begin to reflect upon many gifts taken for granted; these are essentially left unquestioned when problems monopolize my focus. While moving forward, we can still be aware of how far we’ve traveled already. Strength and conscience grow from within, and add depth to our abilities to perceive- even becoming a means of verification. In formless times of contemplation, it is possible to verify recollections that tug away at thoughts. With a practical look at the past that was, I am driven immediately away to the steps with which I now proceed. "Test the spirits," wrote John, in the late first century. To me, this means to challenge one’s convictions. Are they encouraging? Are they life-giving? With the doubts and questions, I try to verify the ground upon which I stand. It assures me, as I glance between divine consolations and the floorboards beneath my feet, that my passing thoughts are undergirded by an infinitely greater and more caring eternity.