Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Soul of Merton 3-17-09

Inspired by my readings of "Contemplative Prayer" and "Contemplation In A World Of Action" by Thomas Merton

It is an unnecessary but prevalent debate for those devoted to the spiritual path: The tug between the contemplative life and the active life. Does focus on one preclude the other?

In Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton looks closely at this issue within the context of his own tradition with lessons and thoughts to be gathered for all of us on the path.

Merton's mature reception to this debate is even and sure-handed from his own realization. He understands that the contemplative mood fuels the active mood, and vice versa, and mature devotees following in Prabhupada's footprints should also understand this very deeply

Merton uses the example of St. Gregory as someone who could not quite find this balance in his own personal practice. St. Gregory spent much of his time and energy in works of charity for, in his own words, "the servants of the servants of God", and his own understanding of the contemplative mood has depth, as Merton quotes:

"The contemplative life is to retain with all one's mind the love of God and neighbor but to rest from exterior motion and cleave only to the desire of the Maker, that the mind may now take no pleasure in doing anything, but having spurned all cares may be aglow to see the face of its Creator: so that it already knows how to bear with sorrow the burden of the corruptible flesh, and with all desires to seek to join the hymn-singing choirs of angels, to mingle with the heavenly citizens and to rejoice at its everlasting incorruption in the sight of God."
However, St. Gregory encouraged a mood of deep regret and anguish in breaking from this contemplation to move into the active sphere. As Merton writes of this mood:

"The vocation of the monk was to stay in his monastery and pray, and when he was called forth from the cloister, as he often was, to engage in church affairs, he was expected to go forth with weeping and lamentation, which he quite often sincerely did."

Of course, Prabhupada would not, in any shape or form, have stood for this mood. Our active efforts in his mission must be filled with enthusiasm, confidence, and patience. We should never be sorry to reach out to people to give them Krsna Consciousness, for it is our most sacred duty and the most sublime order we receive from Guru.

Merton show his understanding of the balance between the contemplative and the active when he writes:

"The active life which is germane to the present existence of man in the world always demands the attention even of those called to contemplation...Both are, in fact, demanded by charity, since man is commanded to love both God and his neighbor. Both necessarily must be combined in any earthly vocation, whether it be the life of the pastor of souls or of the contemplative monk."

In our weekly Gita study here at the Bhaktivedanta Ashram, HG Rasanath Prabhu mentioned that for the extroverted person, one must find time to focus inwards, getting comfortable spending time alone with one's thoughts, and for the introverted person, it is necessary to become more engaged in action and in relationships.

The idea is to find the healthy balance, and to thus become a complete, whole, loving servant of the servants. To follow Prabhupada's example, we try to preach until the very end, and these active efforts are deeply absorbed in the mood of prayer to make up for our own shortcomings against our false ego and against the vagaries of the Kali-Yuga.

And we have numerous examples of those devotees who live a very rich life of introspection and contemplation, and we must also strive to develop this part of our sadhana, going deep into our attachment to the Holy Name and to the pastimes of Krsna and His devotees.

A few more quotes from Merton on this balance. He writes:

"Without virtue there can be no real and lasting contemplation. Without the labor of discipline there can be no rest in love"

And Merton quotes from Peter:

"These things are not done in shadow or in night, but in the day, in the light, in the sun of justice; for he snores in the night of vice cannot know the light of contemplation."

This of course reminds me of verse 69 from Chapter 2 of the Gita: What is night for all beings is the time of awakening for the self-controlled; and the time of awakening for all beings is night for the introspective sage.

We should never get caught up in this debate between the contemplative and active moods. In maturing in our own devotional life, it is our duty to find the balance in between, and to make sure each aspect complements the other to the fullest extent of our ability. Then, we become more receptive to being the instrument of the acaryas in spreading Krsna Consciousness to every town and village.

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