Inspired by my readings of "Contemplative Prayer" and "Contemplation In A World Of Action" by Thomas Merton
In the final piece of Contemplation In A World Of Action, Thomas Merton, never one to shy away from the provocative, from the push, asks "Is The Contemplative Life Finished?"
We can easily infer, having absorbed Merton's own strongly positive views, and from his own personal example, that a life of spiritual absorption is indeed more important than ever. But what are the essentials to take in, to meditate upon, and to put into practice, in our own personal and communal lives, to insure a continuous renewal of devotional absorption and action?
Merton, from the core of his heart and realization, begins with the root and foundation of freedom. The very same freedom millions strive, suffer, and die for, which has stained the pages of history with the blood of the sincere and righteous, and which also binds those pages into a narrative of the eternal nature of the soul seeping through into the hills and valleys of human aspiration.
Merton is clear enough that those of us in the monastic order have a duty to reach deep into ourselves to find this freedom in its purest form, to cultivate it and to share it. He writes:
"We monks should be able to reassure modern man that God is the source and the guarantee of our freedom and not simply a force standing over us to limit our freedom. Our encounter with God should be, at the same time, the discovery of our own deepest freedom. If we never encounter Him, our freedom never fully develops...Every man at some point in his life encounters God, and many who are not Christians have responded to God better than Christians. Our encounter with Him, our response to His Word, is the drawing forth and calling out of our deepest freedom, our true identity."
It has been said in these pages before, and it will be said again, that the best thing we can offer to the progressive countercultures striving to better serve the human situation on this Mama Earth is knowledge of the very source and fountain of the most invincible freedom, the sweet loving shakti of Govinda.
Of course, for Merton and for us, the key to this freedom is our own fervent, constant prayer. He writes:
"Prayer is the flowering of our inmost freedom, in response to the Word of God. Prayer is not only dialogue with God: it is the communion of our freedom with his ultimate freedom, his infinite spirit. It is the elevation of our limited freedom into the infinite freedom of the divine spirit, and of the divine love. Prayer is the encounter of our freedom with the all-embracing charity which knows no limit and knows no obstacle."
As spiritual aspirants and potential guides for others, it is absolutely essential to live a life of prayer. I cannot stress this enough, and I am trying to re-focus my own sadhana around strong, serious, feeling, daily prayer, and even in the earliest of stages, I can sense some positive changes and effects.
All personal and communal renewal revolves this hob of the wheel: real prayer. Not the prayer of favor-asker. Not the prayer of the order-giver. Prayer of the heart, humble as a blade of grass, asking to serve and to know how to really serve. Merton writes:
"We have to try to say to modern man something about the fact that authentic prayer enables us to emerge from our servility into freedom in God because it no longer strives to manipulate Him by superstitious deals."
Our prayer, leading to the fountain of freedom that is Krsna's spiritual energy, should lift us out of our mundane need for security, our "comfort zone" as we like to say here in the Bhaktivedanta Ashram.
To go beyond our comforts which keep us bound to the vines and weeds of our lower self, we need to avoid criticizing others for their own mostly unavoidable shortcomings and begin with our own. Again, this has been said before again and again, but it can't be said enough. Merton writes of himself:
"My work for renewal takes place strictly in my own situation here, not as a struggle with the institution but in an effort to renew my life of prayer in a whole new context, with a whole new understanding of what the contemplative life means and demands."
As I wrote recently, Prabhupada can be considered the "supreme activist." We understand how much he stepped out of his own possible zones of comfort and security to do something so radical and revolutionary: bring Krsna Consciousness to the streets of the West.
In the multitude of ways that we can serve Prabhupada's mission, we must always keep at the core this mood of his, which is to respect the necessary boundaries to go well beyond the unnecessary ones. To create the Golden Age by actually getting out of our sleeping bags and connecting with the dynamic progressive peoples of this planet. Merton writes:
"What each one of us has to do, what I have to do, is to buckle down and really start investigating new possibilities in our own life; and if the new possibilities mean radical changes, all right. Maybe we need radical changes for which we may have to struggle and sweat some blood. Above all we must be more attentive to God's way and God's time, and give everything when it is really demanded."
Here in the Bhaktivedanta Ashram, we are now trying to serve and understand the words of HH Radhanath Maharaja, as he said that the result of last weekend's sweet success with the Radha-Muralidhara Reunion Festival was the "blooming of the lotus flower of the spiritual renaissance of New York City."
In this moment of great transition and possibility, the reality of renewal is our everyday meditation, and our chance to bring forth fully the best of our contemplative and active natures. Merton relates in this regard:
"Our new life will emerge from authenticity now. This is not merely an empty moment of transition...Transition is also fullness. We can have a certain personal fullness even when the changing institution is provisional, and we have to learn to be able to be contemplatives in the midst of the dynamic, in the midst of movement."
To move and shake, but to still do so with depth of heart, is one of the great opportunities we have here in New York City. But as Maharaja carefully warns, with success will come greater attempts by maya, who knows how to turn off the gas when something is cooking nicely, to thwart any attempt at renewal.
To combat this, we need as well as sense of toughness, so that we can refine ourselves to be and do our best. Merton says:
"I think we should aim for...the most and the best in ourselves. Here I think we need a great deal of subtlety and flexibility in recognizing the real vital possibilities of each individual in the contemplative life.
Contemplative discipline is both hard and flexible...There has to be a real challenge. It's got to be a rough life...But the contemplative life has to be tough in such a way that it's also flexible. The toughness of the contemplative life should not be that restricting toughness which arbitrarily rules out good possibilities. It should be a toughness that tones us up to meet new possibilities, the unexpected, that for which we have not been previously capable, for which we have not been previously ready."
All these essentials, and more we'll discuss next week, give us all hope that the renewal we need as spiritual and as a human community is close at hand, if we want it.