Inspired by my readings of "Contemplative Prayer" and "Contemplation In A World Of Action" by Thomas Merton
In the final piece from Contemplative Prayer, Merton wraps up his fervent, sincere, and realized meditations on the power and reality of prayer by reminding us once again of the personal and collective vigilance that is needed to go deep into our hearts, where the Supreme Lord awaits on us all.
"Prayer does no blind us to the world, but it transforms our vision of the world and makes us see it, all men, and all the history of mankind, in the light of God. To pray in spirit and in truth enables us to enter into contact with that infinite love, that inscrutable freedom which is at work behind the complexities and the intricacies of human existence. This does not mean fabricating for ourselves pious rationalizations to explain everything that happens. It involves no surreptitious manipulations of the hard truths of life."
The mood of Merton, a mood we share to our very core here at the Bhaktivedanta Ashram in NYC, is one of engagement, of plugging into the plugged-in world, protected by the strength of our sadhana and our community, but fully conscious, and fully striving to enter like a needle and come out like a plow in the aim of dynamic and revolutionary outreach.
Our weapons are humility and real knowledge-beyond quarrel and hypocrisy, which allow us to shape reality in such a way that hits people where they live-it hits them in their hearts, and with the development of trust and friendship, they can see we are not trying to kid or exploit. In fact, what we do, as spiritualists in this mood, can even be considered a political act. Merton writes:
"One thing is certain: the humility of faith, if it is followed by the proper consequences-by the acceptance of the work and sacrifice demanded by our providential task-will do far more to launch us into the full current of historical reality than the pompous rationalizations of politicians who think they are somehow the directors and manipulators of history.
Politicians may indeed make history, but the meaning of what they are making turns out, inexorably, to have been something in a language they will never understand, which contradicts their own programs and turns all their achievements into an absurd parody of their promises and ideals."
Got that Obama?
Personally, this mood is what I love so much about Merton. His clarity of insight extends to the fabrics of life that we walk on and lie in. From the walls of our monasteries, to the skyscrapers that make up the canopy of the concrete jungle, to the very intimacies of our own living rooms, as spiritual beings, as devotees, to fight against the effects of the age of Kali means to fight against hypocrisy. This fight must begin in our own life of contemplative prayer. Merton writes:
"Prayer must penetrate and enliven every department of our life, including that which is most temporal and transient. Prayer does not despise even the seemingly lowliest aspects of man's temporal existence. It spiritualizes all of them and gives them a divine orientation. But prayer is defiled when it is turned away from God and from the spirit, and manipulated in the interests of group fanaticism.
Such religion is insincere. It is merely a front for greed, injustice, sensuality, selfishness, violence. The cure for this corruption is to restore the purity of faith and the genuineness of Christian love: and this means a restoration of the contemplative orientation of prayer."
In our uncertain times, when we stare the effects of modernity in the face (nuclear weapons, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse, the devaluing of morality and honest expression), we will see that such misinterpretation of real spiritual values has been a big part in our collective failure.
We may be more tempted than ever to say that religion is merely an opiate. This is a cheap way out, and as we push forward in carrying Prabhupada's mission into this century and beyond, we must never forget the courage we need just to be sincere and dedicated in our own personal and collective practices.
We are swimming against so many tides, but we have the full blessings of Guru and Gauranga, and of such great personalities as Merton, in the incredible task ahead of us that is also present to us today.
To insure our own sincerity, and to insure our own practice never falls into the sea of quarrel and hypocrisy that currently is drowning this humble universe, we must go deep into our contemplative prayer, deep into the Holy Name, pouring our hearts out with all of our might.
"Without this contemplative basis to our preaching, our apostolate is no apostolate at all, but mere proselytizing to insure universal conformity with our own national way of life.
Without contemplation and interior prayer the Church cannot fulfill her mission to transform and save mankind. Without contemplation, she will be reduced to being the servant of cynical and worldly powers, no matter how hard her faithful may protest they are fighting for the Kingdom of God.
Without true, deep contemplative aspirations, without a total love for God and an uncompromising thirst for his truth, religion tends in the end to become an opiate."