Thomas Merton.

Thomas Merton                                                                                                                                                       

Thomas Merton - from Seven Storey Mountain
Thomas Merton – from Seven Storey Mountain

“Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. And yet in a certain sense, we must truly begin to hear God when we have ceased to listen.  What is the explanation of this paradox? Perhaps only that there is a higher kind of listening, which is not an attentiveness to some special wave length, a receptivity to a certain type of message, but a general emptiness that waits to realize the fullness of the message of God within its own apparent void. In other words the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but remains empty because he knows he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light.  He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation.  He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is “answered”, it is not so much by a word which bursts into his silence.  It is by his silence in itself suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, the full voice of God.”


The great pre-requisite: Silence.

In my desire to learn about contemplative prayer I read and I pray and I wait.  There is no particular technique for contemplation  which “does the trick” although I’ve tried several and followed advice which I have always found useful until I begin to get used to one or other of the practices and then, like driving or walking, I develop my own style, not deliberately but more like wearing clothes till they fit, perhaps untidily but comfortably.  There is one condition for contemplation on which all agree, I think, and that is silence.

Thomas Merton, in the passage above from his classic book, “Contemplative Prayer” expands on the emptiness of true silence in a way which echoes his attraction to Zen Buddhism.  For me, as a novice in prayer, I am just learning about what silence actually feels like.  I have been greatly helped by finding myself attracted to walking long distances.  The routine and simplicity of walking and keeping walking on and on for hundreds of miles is one way of entering silence. Having a lot of time, some form of routine and the most basic simplicity are good conditions for incubating silence and stilling competing voices and urges within us.

When I have walked many days I become more silent within.  This means that I have few worries or fears or resentments or urges: in general I am not in reactive mode but rather responsive mode.  The more silent I become the more aware I am of what remains as noise within me because there is less and less of it.  The rhythm of footstep after footstep shakes down and out the junk accumulated in a world of competition, deceit and false promises with battles for power and money and influence which create conflicting desires and confuse my sense of inner direction.  My compass becomes fixed on the Way and with regular, continuous prayer I begin to know where I am heading.  Yes, I have to keep alert , to notice when I am off my track, but the conditions of not being rushed, repeating the same routine and having little baggage are liberating and free me to note the disturbances which interrupt my silence.  Silence grows.

As silence grows it is possible to start listening…………….