“Thus, every man, in the course of his life, must not only show himself obedient and docile. By his fidelity he must build — starting with the most natural territory of his own self — a work, an opus, into which something enters from all the elements of the earth. He makes his own soul throughout his earthly days; and at the same time he collaborates in another work, in another opus, which infinitely transcends, while at the same time it narrowly determines, the perspectives of his individual achievement: the completing of the world.”
Teilhard de Chardin (cited in Sarton, 1992, p. 67)
To properly ponder one’s life opus, to consider what will be our lasting mark, our tracks in the sand; the soul that we build in our part of “completing the world,” seems a serious, weighty undertaking. This would also appear especially so in our ambitious, multitasking, success-oriented culture. We have books and classes on time management. We have T.V.s on treadmills. We have drive-thru food for the driven and harried. We have valet parking for drop-offs at the hospital when our Type-A personalities fracture from incessantly pressing the “Up” button.
Because I too live this beleaguered lifestyle, I wish to create my opus layered in a secret, downy, and wild realm. Turning our culture’s norm on its head, I want my opus to be useless to a world that can only see neon. I want it to be a careless waste and unproductive usage of my valuable time. I want it to sing when no one is listening. I want it to be prayer and poetry existing in sacred time in a soul container that resists purpose, definition, and publication. I want to be a fool at word-play; dancing with the music of dreams, nature, and psyche.
In light of building an imprudent opus of the soul, this essay will explore contemplative prayer and poetry as a writing vocation. In particular, I will examine the life and work of Thomas Merton as a fellow traveler and exemplar on this vocational road. I will also query the related idea of sacred time and finally how to approach a spiritual practice of prayer and poetry.
Besides residing within the territory of the many contemplative mystical traditions that have grown up alongside mainstream religions, this essay is theoretically grounded in the tradition of depth psychology and the idea of an autonomous unconscious psyche. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung’s (1965) idea of our opus or task held that our destiny was to create more consciousness and that the
“sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. It may even be assumed that just as the unconscious affects us, so the increase in our consciousness affects the unconscious” (p. 326).
Also, according to Rohr (2007) in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, Jung believed that the essential human question is, “‘Are we related to something infinite or not?’ . . . . Are we part of an enchanted universe? Or are we just trapped each in our own little desperate search for private meaning” (pp. 14–15)? Regardless of the answers to these larger questions, I would posit that we are all subject to the desire to explore, in our myriad ways, where the questions lead. This is where the practice of prayer and poetry best becomes a useful means.
By considering how Thomas Merton approached writing as a vocation, we have one model of this exploration; this dance with a radical quest. According to Deignan (2007), Merton was also assailed by modernity and questions of the infinite. However, Merton intentionally lived:
Deeply into ‘a different wisdom’ of the healing, illuminating, and transformative Christian mysteries. His passion was to share this wisdom with those of us beyond the monastic enclosure. Not that he had found answers, but he had discerned a way to plumb the more radical questions that have engaged spiritual seekers from the beginning of time. He understood his vocation to be a servant of the human quest for meaning, transcendence, and communion — an explorer in realms of the human heart few of us dare to probe. (pp. 16–17)
For Merton, writing was a vocation that would not let him go. He had determined to give it up for monastic life if required, but he discovered that his writing gift was just as much of a calling and was one that touched many outside the walls of his monastic cell and forest. But it was the silence and peace that afforded Merton a contemplative practice. This silence and sacred time for quiet reflection is the key for hearing the voice of psyche that calls us to the quest.
On Being Useless
Romanyshyn (2002) also captured the idea of aspiring to the foolishness of psyche’s opus in his book, Ways of the Heart: Essays Toward an Imaginal Psychology:
We do need witnesses for these small matters, for these useless occasions, witnesses who take the risk of being fools. We need to be useless in order to be attentive to these epiphanies. So, I am content to waste my days to wonder if the rose overreached itself in some excess of desire for its invisible ‘Angel.’ (p. 163)
These sentiments of small matters and useless occasions are echoed in a poem of Merton’s (2007) in No Man Is an Island:
There must be a time of day when the man who
makes plans forgets his plans,
and acts as if he had no plans at all.
There must be a time of day when the man who has
to speak falls very silent.
And his mind forms no more propositions,
and he asks himself:
Did they have a meaning?
There must be a time
when the man of prayer goes to pray
as if it were the first time in his life
he had ever prayed,
when the man of resolutions puts his
as if they had all been broken,
and he learns a different wisdom:
distinguishing the sun from the moon,
the stars from the darkness,
the sea from the dry land,
and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill.
(cited in Deignan, p. 15)
It is however the words of Merton (2007) in speaking of silence, that remind us that the alchemical process of writing requires a deep reservoir of prima material and a retort of dedicated time and space for inciting the reticent unconscious to emerge before a written word can bloom:
The best thing for me is a lucid silence that does not even imagine it speaks to anybody. A silence in which I see no interlocutor, frame no message for anyone, formulate no word either for man or paper. There will still be plenty to say when the time comes to write, and what is written will be simpler and more fruitful. (p. 15)
In concert with and beyond this framework of dedicated silence, comes the idea of contemplation and prayer. Deignan (2007) in the book, Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours, describes Merton’s revival of the ancient Christian contemplative practice of lectio divina for supporting the meditative container:
Thomas Merton raised up the ancient practice of lectio divina as a distinctly Christian way of reading scripture as a resource for the contemplative life by returning to the teachings of the early spiritual masters who sought the many voices stored in those revelatory texts. The deeply personal practice of lectio unfolds in four non-linear movements that oscillate between the sensuous experience of kataphatic forms conveyed in words and images and the apophatic experience of a pregnant emptiness beyond all sense and reason. In this approach lectio proper is the reading of the ‘text’ of creation, of events, of art, of personal experience, or of scripture — sacred and secular — in a slow, thoughtful and reflective way, perusing the text before us in all its imaginal richness. The second movement is meditatio, which suggests ruminating over the text — words or images — either by repetition, recitation, or memorization, which allows us to hold the text and be held by it in mindful awareness. The third movement is oratio, our prayerful expression of heartfelt gratitude, praise, remorse, or petition in response to the movement of the savored word in our consciousness. And contemplatio, is our soulful resting in the presence of Mystery, which has stirred in the poetic images of the text, and has awakened us and moved us beyond all words, images, and concepts toward a quiet abiding in wordless silence. (p. 23)
With such a rich method and practice, this prayerful state of contemplation naturally composts a fertile soil for writing and poetry that moves into a vocation and epiphanies of profound meaning for those who understand the esoteric utility of a rose. Because the four movements of lectio divina require deeper engagement, I will practice this way of contemplation by teasing each movement out and repeating their meanings for slower reflection and awareness as they apply to my topics of sacred time, writing as vocation, and the practice of poetry.
Sacred Time: lectio and meditatio
“Lectio proper is the reading of the ‘text’ of creation, of events, of art, of personal experience, or of scripture — sacred and secular — in a slow, thoughtful and reflective way, perusing the text before us in all its imaginal richness. . . Meditatio, which suggests ruminating over the text — words or images — either by repetition, recitation, or memorization, which allows us to hold the text and be held by it in mindful awareness” (Deignan, 2007, p. 23).
Not all of us can live in a monastery; most of us have to make a determined, concerted effort to set aside quiet time for thoughtful reflection and rumination. It is no coincidence that lectio and mediatatio are words and concepts outside of the modern vernacular. Heschel (2005), in his much-treasured book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man saw this in part due to our privileging space over time:
Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence. (p. 3)
As Herschel (2005) also pointed out, in Judaism, especially during the Shabbat, one meets God in sacred time. This archetypal field of the present moment is where God resides and is best met for fuller engagement. However, in modernity that prizes the constant connections of cell phones and other “always-on” devices, our engagement is already fully engaged with no space for silence or stillness. Our passage through time is one focused either on future plans or recent history. This perpetual movement thrusts us too quickly through the still center where the numinous may linger, unnoticed in small, quiet breaths and flower blooms. A bird song while walking in the woods is never heard if all of our senses are instead plugged into the human-technology communication cacophony.
In his book, Things Hidden Scripture as Spirituality, Rohr (2007) called prayer another word for the “naked presence itself” (p. 16). Additionally, he likened this to what Jesus called “vigilance,” “seeing” or “being awake.” Jesus tells the apostles twice to “stay awake” before he is taken away for crucifixion. He then “accepts their inability, and speaks so compassionately to them and to us: ‘Go ahead and sleep on now, but the hour has come’” (Mark 14:35–41) (p. 16).
However we define sacred time and our presence (or lack thereof) within it, it is we who must willfully bring ourselves to the awakened hour. Deignan (2007) sums up Merton’s view of the contemplative life and how we must approach time and each hour if we are to begin a lectio practice that may recover
one’s natural unity, a reintegration of our compartmentalized, colonized, traumatized, technologically entranced, and workaholic being. We must gather our fragmented selves from our distracted, exhausted, noise polluted, and frenzied existence, so that when we say “I” there is actually a unified human person present to support that pronoun . . . . . This true self “must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea,” by a steady work of descent to recover the immortal diamond in whose every facet is reflected the invisible face of God. (p. 25)
Writing as Vocation: oratio
“Oratio, our prayerful expression of heartfelt gratitude, praise, remorse, or petition in response to the movement of the savored word in our consciousness” (Deignan, 2007, p. 23).
If we extend the practice of oratio to include the expression of writing, Merton (2007) came to see his writing as a spiritual vocation which included praise and petition in response to his experience of contemplation. Reading the literature of mystics like Saint John of the Cross, Merton was able to correlate the mystic and artist. With this realization, Merton (2007) felt less anxious about continuing his writing vocation within the monastery and he continued to write religious devotions, journals, and poetry which explored the existential dimensions of Thomist theology and contemplation:
And yet it seems to me that writing, far from being an obstacle to spiritual perfection in my own life, has become one of the conditions on which my perfection will depend. If I am to be a saint — and there is nothing else that I can think of desiring to be — it seems that I must get there by writing books in a Trappist monastery. If I am to be a saint, I have not only to be a monk, which is what all monks must do to become saints, but I must also put down on paper what I have become. It may sound simple, but it is not an easy vocation. (p. 14)
Not only did Merton (2007) work with his monastic brothers, he sought and succeeded in bringing contemplation into modern life at large. To accomplish this, he strove to rid the traditional scholasticism and ancient biases of contemplation to make it workable beyond the inner sanctum of Christian initiates. “He retained the best that was thought and said within the monastic counter culture — preserving its traditions while broadening its appeal and bringing it into dialogue with the contemporary world” (p. x).
In describing his writing experience, Merton (2007) explains it best, in his own words, why his writing serves as both his spiritual expression and vocation:
I am finding myself forced to admit that my lamentations about my writing job have been foolish. At the moment the writing is the one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude. Also I find that it helps me to pray because, when I pause at my work, I find that the mirror inside me is surprisingly clean and deep and serene and God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if He had come close to me while I was writing and I had not observed His coming. And this I think should be the cause of great joy, and to me it is. (pp. 13–4)
Poetry in Practice: contemplatio
“Contemplatio, is our soulful resting in the presence of Mystery, which has stirred in the poetic images of the text, and has awakened us and moved us beyond all words, images, and concepts toward a quiet abiding in wordless silence” (Deignan, 2007, p. 23).
Once we have the sacred time that allows for lectio and meditatio, and have the writing practice of oratio established, there is still a vital forth component needed to allow us to flow into where or what the text has awakened. Romanyshyn (2002) reminds us that the text may very well be of the natural world that sings praises:
Speaking of the lotus, Proclus says it ‘manifests its affinity and sympathy with the sun. Before the appearance of the sun’s rays, its blossom is closed; it opens slowly at sunrise, unfolds as the sun rises to the zenith, and folds again and closes as the sun descends. What difference is there between the human manner of praising the sun by moving the mouth and lips, and that of the lotus which unfolds its petals? They are its lips and this is its natural hymn. . . . For the pathetic heart there is no doubt that the lotus’ heliotrope and human poetry are forms of prayer, that heliotrope and poetry are songs of praise. (pp. 163–4)
Rohr (2007) wrote that these natural revelations of God’s are “always concrete and specific. All of this is called the ‘mystery of incarnation,’ and it reaches its fullness in the incarnation of God in one ordinary-looking man named Jesus. Walter Brueggmann calls it ‘the scandal of the particular” (p. 17). Additionally, Merton (2007) believed that these specific incarnations were a sign of God and that a true poet was like a mystic because a poet’s prophetic intuition allowed them to see the inner meaning of an object of contemplation. And this concrete reality was not only a “thing worthy of admiration in itself, but also and above all makes it a sign of God” (p. 86).
Merton (2007) was also keen to dispel the idea that only monks could lead the contemplative life of a spiritual poet. “On the contrary, what we need are ‘contemplatives’ outside the cloister and outside the rigidly fixed patterns of religious life — contemplatives in the world of art, letters, education, and even politics” (pp. 87–8). One would venture that if Merton would speak these words today, he might add “and business!”
Merton (2007) was ever concerned with the alchemical differences between the work of the mystic and that of the poet:
If the intuition of the poet naturally leads him into the inner sanctuary of his soul, it is for a special purpose in the natural order: when the poet enters into himself, it is in order to reflect upon his inspiration and to clothe it with a special and splendid form and then return to display it to those outside. And here the radical difference between the artist and the mystic begins to be seen. The artist enters into himself in order to work. For him, the “superior” soul is a forge where inspiration kindles a fire of white heat, a crucible for the transformation of natural images into new, created forms. But the mystic enters into himself, not in order to work but to pass through the center of his own soul and lose himself in the mystery and secrecy and infinite, transcendent reality of God living and working within him. (p. 21)
Here the contemplatio; the quiet abiding in the mystery can be seen in the practice of the mystic who might also, like Merton, be poet.
Likewise, Merton (2007) implied that this contemplatio also occurs when the mystery and transcendent permeates the everyday practice and life of the poet:
The true philosopher and the true poet become what they are when they ‘go beyond’ philosophy and poetry, and cease to ‘be philosophers’ or to ‘be poets.’ It is at that point that their whole lives become philosophy and poetry — in other words, there is no longer any philosophy or any poetry separable from the unity of their existence. Philosophy and poetry have disappeared. The ordinary acts of everyday life — eating, sleeping, walking, etc., become philosophical acts which grasp the ultimate principles of life in life itself and not in abstraction. From such unified existence come the aphorisms of great Asian contemplatives or Christian saints — and the poems of Zen masters. (p. 27)
For Thomas Merton, his opus, that helped complete our world and transcend it, was his writing which went hand in hand with his sainthood. For us, to create a container for psyche to play and work toward our soul’s opus, the practice of lectio divina is an excellent model to encompass sacred time, prayer and poetry. Following the vocation of mystic and poet will not appeal to most, but it may kindle a small light in the darkness so we may tread forth into the mystery with light feet and a gentle heart.
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