Selfishness can hide itself under many guises.
I need the discernment to uncover its presence
and its different forms. For until I am fully
conscious that it is there I can do nothing to
free myself from it.
What would it be like to be totally free?
In a moving passage Thomas Merton offers a
portrait of a person of perfect freedom in words
intended, one hopes, not to discourage the
reader but to show how deep is the reality
of freedom and how rare its perfect achievement.
I wonder if there are twenty men alive in
the world now who can see things as they really
are. That would mean that there are twenty men
that are free, who were not dominated or even
influenced by any attachment to any created
thing or to their own selves or to any gift of
God, even the highest, the most supernaturally
pure of His graces. I don't believe that there
are twenty such men alive in the world. But
there must be one or two. They are the ones
who are holding everything together and keeping
the universe from falling apart.
The path to perfect freedom is a difficult
one. For Merton it must always lead into the
desert; that is, into the place of silence and
solitude. Only in solitude can we achieve that
detachment that frees us to seek God in our lives.
That is why Merton always saw the monastic setting
as the ideal locus for contemplation....."Physical
solitude, exterior silence and real recollection
are all morally necessary for anyone who wants to
lead a contemplative life."
Can one find sufficient solitude to become
a contemplative in the urban setting in which most
people are destined to live out their lives?
Merton's answer would be: only with great, if not
insurmountable, difficulty. In a celebrated
passage, which impresses more by its earnestness
than its practicability, Merton suggests how one
may try to find solitude in the city.
Do everything you can to avoid the amusement
and the noise and the business of men. Keep as far
away as you can from the places where they gather
to cheat and insult one another, to exploit one
another, to laugh at one another, or to mock one
another with their false gestures of friendship.
Do not read their newspapers, if you can help it.
Be glad if you can keep beyond the reach of their
radios. Do not bother with their unearthly songs
or their intolerable concerns for the way their
bodies look and feel.
Do not smoke their cigarettes or drink the
things they drink or share their preoccupation
with different kinds of food. Do not complicate
your life by looking at the pictures in their
magazines. Keep your eyes clean and your ears
quiet and your mind serene. Breath God's air.
Work, if you can, under his sky.
But if you have to live in a city and work
among machines and ride in the subways and eat
in a place where the radio makes you deaf with
spurious news and where the food destroys your
life and the sentiments of those around you
poison your heart with boredom, do not be upset,
but accept it as the love of God and as a seed
of solitude planted in your soul, and be glad
of this suffering; for it will keep you alive
to the next opportunity to escape from them and
be alone in the healing silence of recollection
and in the untroubled presence of God.
Actualizing my capacities for contemplation
requires an existential freedom which liberates
me from the illusion of my false self that would
keep me living in a world of unreality. It
requires moral freedom that detaches me from
the selfish desires, cares, and ambitions - even
spiritual ones - that interfere with my search
There is yet another type of freedom needed
for the contemplative experience, and that is
what Merton calls intellectual freedom, or the
freedom from concepts and images of created things.
For the goal of contemplation is to meet at my
center God as He is in Himself. And yet "we cannot
know Him as He really is unless we pass beyond
everything that can be imagined and enter into
an obscurity without images and without the
likeness of any created thing."
(From 'Thomas Merton's Dark Path' by William H. Shannon, pgs. 46-48)