As we continue our discussion from Contemplation In A World Of Action, and the final article "Is The Contemplative Life Finished?", Thomas Merton expounds on yet another essential element to the restoration of the spiritual internal life: imagination. He writes:
"The imagination is a discovering faculty, a faculty for seeing relationships, for seeing meanings that are special and even quite new. The imagination is something which enables us to discover unique present meaning in a given moment of our life. Without imagination the contemplative life can be extremely dull and fruitless."
Indeed, without the use of our potent imagination, without dovetailing its intimate connections to the internal source of our being into our service, our lives as devotees become dry and parched in the desert of the material world.
A great devotee I know says we need more artists in our society. He is saying we need more devotees, more committed, sincere spiritualists who know how to express their journey along the divine path in a way that inspires others.
We need devotees, happy in their heart and wise in their tracks, to show the many dynamic, subtle, and beautiful angles of light and vision that the diamond-like spirit soul reflects outward for all to see, all who choose to see.
Merton advises on another vital aspect of spiritualizing our imagination, which is to liberate it from the clogged and soot-filled vibrations of the ethers that surround us. He writes:
"There is a kind of contagion that affects the imagination unconsciously much more than we realize. It emanates from things like advertisements and from all the spurious fantasies that are thrown at us by commercial society...They are directed right at our instincts and appetites, and there is no question but that they exercise a real transforming power on our whole psychic structure. The contemplative life should liberate us from that kind of pressure, which is really a form of tyranny."
Free your mind...the ascending efforts of the great spiritualist-artists, from the brush strokes of Michelangelo to the celestial scales of Bach to the mountain-top rhetoric of MLK pushes the rivers of history forwards towards something more.
It's what sticks in people's hearts. Some of our best outreach yet to come should flow through the potency of our imagination drenched in the nectar of the attributes and pastimes of Govinda.
A healthy use of our imagination can also help us stay grounded on the path, connected in a more natural way to ourselves, to our friends, and to our environment. Merton writes:
"I think we should be able to take these natural pleasures and realize they're not opposed to the supernatural at all. They are a means of entering into contact with the real spiritual values which are given to us. We should not be afraid to make use of them. Then we might better face this situation of frustrating alienation in the religious life, this feeling that we're constantly exposed to an immense truth which is not coming through and is not getting to us."
In other words, get your head out of your computer! (Speaking at myself of course), or in more realized words, from St. Francis of Assisi:
- Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
- Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
- Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.
- Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
- Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
- Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Prabhupada, the most sincere "environmentalist" before it was even hip to say so, understood this need for a lively, natural spirit to keep us from floating away into the jet stream of our own speculations and so-called "devotional" fantasies.
I can speak from my own personal experience that little else keeps you happy and humble in front of the deities and devotees than some dirty fingernails from a day well done in planting, tending, and harvesting your own offerings.
Merton speaks of the contemplative thus:
"We who have this particular call recognize that when we are agitated by all kinds of external concerns which do not touch us deeply at all we are less authentic, less real, less ourselves, less what we are supposed to be. We feel less faithful to the will of God than when we remain simply in an attitude of freedom and attentiveness to the world, His love and His will."
"Together with this is another implied assumption: that this preference goes against the ideas of the majority of our fellow human beings at any given moment and especially today in the twentieth century. Our act of preference for 'quiet' is at the same time an implicit protest and defiance, a protest against and a defiance of the counter-opinion of those who are absolutely convinced that our life is useless and who reproach us for it."
The interior life of a devotee, of a sincere spiritualist, reflected in their outward acts of compassion and activism, is real revolution. We don't want anything to do with the modes of nature, no matter how much everyone else wants to swim in their various temporary flavors, delights, and distresses.
It is the wisdom, the vision of the acaryas, that gives us a real weapon against the arsenal of the material energy and her handlers. It is the cleansing of the heart which makes us impervious to arrows of Cupid which bind us to flesh and blood.
The call of "free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last" finds its ultimate fulfillment on the platform of the spirit soul, in the mission from the merciful hands and lotus feet of Srila Prabhupada.
Underlying it all lies the bonds of community to keep us packed up together. Merton writes:
"This brings us to the important point that the essential of our life...produces a community in which the Spirit can speak to us all in different ways. The longing for a real evangelical community life is certainly as strong today, above all in the young people who are coming to religious life."
Speaking forty years ago as Merton was, the climate today is different in the interest and urgency of young people to seek this kind of life. Still, as we persevere to represent and express here in the Bhaktivedanta Ashram here in NYC a this kind of life,a kind of community, that fulfills the eternal needs of the heart with a depth not to be found in temporary aesthetic concerns.
The need for this depth never changes: it is the yearning of the soul, but the conditioning of society obscure the awareness of this need in differing ways and differing times. But a sincere, strong, dynamic example of the spiritualist can always break through this malaise.
By serving the mission of Prabhupada, by imbibing his actions and his boldness of mood in giving out Krsna Consciousness to the tired, hungry, huddled masses, we can break through with the timeless message of divine love.
Merton concludes, in the spirit of his great heart, with essential messages of hope for the interior spiritual life.
"What is called the contemplative life is really a life arranged in such a way that a person can more easily and more simply and more naturally live in an awareness of direct dependence on God...with the sense of realizing consciously, at every moment, how much we depend on Him; and recieve from Him directly everything that comes to us as a pure gift; and experience, taste in our hearts, the love of God in this gift."
"But the root of it all of us is prayer in faith. We must pray to the Lord at every moment to increase our faith because the root of renewal is faith. In proportion as we grow in faith, we keep closer and closer to Him who has called us. By our faith we will come...to a deeper dependence on Him so that He will be able to guide us through the difficulties, the obstacles, the confusions and the errors that we are likely to meet in this way of renewal."
The blessings of Thomas Merton's sincere, honest (sometimes brutally so), and very heart-felt wisdom, realized from deep, personal, hands-on practice, is such a boon to any spiritualist, any devotee interested in personal or communal renewal.
We pray, from the words of this great book and from his other writings, to be able to live out the purports of his call to us: to be real, to be natural, to be brave and searching, to not compromise, to love and to be loved, to know God and to let Him know us, and most importantly, to give our realizations to the spiritually less fortunate.
It is here where Merton and Prabhupada meet in the best of ways, in the call to arms to share the sublime in these times of great impiety. We charge ahead knowing the grace of the Lord is behind us and with us always in the teachings of those who know the path and how to traverse it best.