Monday, December 10, 2018


On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton (who saved my faith in more ways than one), and prompted by twitter CEO's thoughtless (his description not mine) meditation exploits in Myanmar, here is Merton on true and false emptiness in his last book, Contemplative Prayer (1969):
A person [cannot] become a contemplative merely by "blacking out" sensible realities and remaining alone with himself in darkness. First of all, one who does this of set purpose, as a conclusion to practical reasoning on the subject and without an interior vocation simply enters into an artificial darkness of his own making.  He is not alone with God, but alone with himself. He is not in the presence of the Transcendent One, but of an idol: his own complacent identity. He becomes immersed and lost in himself, in a state of inert, primitive and infantile narcissism. His life is "nothing," not in the dynamic, mysterious sense in which the "nothing," nada, of the mystic is paradoxically also the all, todo, of God. It is purely the nothingness of a finite being left to himself and absorbed in his own triviality....
An emptiness that is deliberately cultivated, for the sake of fulfilling a personal spiritual ambition, is not empty at all: it is full of itself. It is so full that the light of God cannot get into it anywhere; there is not a crack or a corner left where anything else can wedge itself into this hard core of self-aspiration which is our option to live centered in our own self. Such "emptiness" is in fact the emptiness of hell. And consequently anyone who aspires to become a contemplative should think twice before he sets out on the road. Perhaps the best to become a contemplative would be to desire with all one's heart to be anything but a contemplative; who knows?
Actually, there is no such entity as pure emptiness, and the merely negative emptiness of the false contemplative is a "thing," not a "nothing." The "thing" that it is is simply the darkness of self, from which all other beings are deliberately and of set purpose excluded....
But true emptiness is that which transcends all things and yet is immanent in all. For what seems to be emptiness in this case is pure being. Or at least a philosopher might so describe it. But to the contemplative is is other than that. It is not this, not that. Whatever you say of it, it is other than what you say. The character of emptiness, at least for a Christian contemplative, is pure love, pure freedom.... It is love for love's sake. It is a sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in the infinite charity of God... This purity, freedom and indeterminateness of love is the very essence of Christianity. It is to this above all that all monastic prayer aspires.
Of course Merton reserves his most severe words for Christians. But if the above passage is too Christian for you, take it up with Merton's friend Thich Nhat Hanh who wrote the book's glowing introduction (and who might know a thing or two about Buddhism).

May the Lord have mercy on us all.