The Climate of Monastic Prayer

Thomas Merton “The Climate of Monastic Prayer” (also published with the title “Contemplative Prayer”) [Cistercian Publications, 2005 and other editions]
The Climate of Monastic Prayer
“Merton’s interest in the Christian East arose partly from his desire to recapture the spirituality of the early Desert Fathers, from which his own Cistercian-Benedictine tradition descended. St. Benedict had drawn from Greek and Egyptian traditions, through the writings of St. Basil and St. John Cassian, in establishing the Benedictine Rule.
For Merton, the “strict observance” of that Rule was not enough: one also had to return to the wellspring of Patristic teaching and practice, which meant looking to Eastern monasticism.
In doing so, Merton hoped to remind Roman Catholics of a heritage which belonged to them just as much as to the Eastern churches. He understood the universal value of certain Eastern Christian practices – above all, what is called the “Prayer of the Heart,” or the “Jesus Prayer.”
Contrary to some presentations, this practice is not a “technique,” physical or otherwise. There is also no single, mandatory set of words that one must use. The words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” are widely used; but other formulas – longer, shorter, or completely different – are legitimate.
As the 19th century Russian bishop St. Theophan taught: “The words pronounced are merely a help, and are not essential. The principal thing is to stand before the Lord with the mind in the heart. This, and not the words, is inner spiritual prayer.”
Thomas Merton was an avid reader of St. Theophan, and of earlier monastic fathers like St. John Climacus and St. Diadochus of Photike. Through his study of these Eastern sources, Merton understood the Prayer of the Heart as something simple and universal.
In “The Climate of Monastic Prayer”, he summarizes the Prayer of the Heart, as a practice consisting in “interior recollection, the abandonment of distracting thoughts and the humble invocation of the Lord Jesus with words from the Bible in a spirit of intense faith.”
“This simple practice,” Merton writes, “is considered to be of crucial importance in the monastic prayer of the Eastern Church, since the sacramental power of the Name of Jesus is believed to bring the Holy Spirit into the heart of the praying monk.”
Though different prayer formulas may be used, we are warned against changing the words often. In calm persistence, we repeat one simple prayer, calling upon the Lord in a spirit of inner poverty. No discursive thought, imaginative meditation, or emotional exertion is involved. This is the Prayer of the Heart.
orthodox monk prayer
This prayer, as Merton notes, is not merely one feature among many in monastic life. Ideally, it is the core of all spirituality and asceticism:
“The practice of keeping the name of Jesus ever present in the ground of one’s being was, for the ancient monks, the secret of the ‘control of thoughts’ and of victory over temptation. It accompanied all the other activities of the monastic life imbuing them with prayer.”
We concur with Merton, that the Prayer of the Heart is not a just an Eastern practice. It is, as he says, “the essence of monastic meditation, a special form of that practice of the presence of God which St. Benedict in turn made the cornerstone of monastic life.” The Prayer of the Heart is for all Christians, in every walk of life.
Merton also saw Eastern monasticism as preserving the connection between personal and liturgical prayer. Elsewhere in “The Climate of Monastic Prayer”, he notes that “liturgy by its very nature tends to prolong itself in individual contemplative prayer, and mental prayer in its turn disposes us for and seeks fulfillment in liturgical worship.”
Byzantine monasticism preserves this connection, through its strong emphasis on both liturgical prayer and the Prayer of the Heart…
Merton’s research drew on writings from the Christian East, and parallel aspects of Western monasticism. But his exposure to our tradition was hampered by a sad fact: in Merton’s day, there were practically no Eastern Catholic monasteries observing the authentic Byzantine tradition in the western world. For much of the 20th century, in fact, there were relatively few traditional Eastern Catholic monasteries anywhere.
This situation is slowly changing…By encountering Byzantine monasticism, and discovering the Prayer of the Heart, all Christians can grow in their appreciation of the Gospel’s mystical dimension.”
“Born in France, Thomas Merton was the son of an American artist and poet and her New Zealander husband, a painter. Merton lost both parents before he had finished high school, and his younger brother was killed in World War II. Something of the ephemeral character of human endeavor marked all his works, deepening the pathos of his writings and drawing him close to Eastern, especially Buddhist, forms of monasticism. After an initial education in the United States, France, and England, he completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. His parents, nominally friends, had given him little religious guidance, and in 1938, he converted to Roman Catholicism. The following year he received an M.A. from Columbia University and in 1941, he entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where he remained until a short time before his death. His working life was spent as a Trappist monk.
seven story mountain
At Gethsemani, he wrote his famous autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain” (1948); there he labored and prayed through the days and years of a constant regimen that began with daily prayer at 2:00 a.m. As his contemplative life developed, he still maintained contact with the outside world, his many books and articles increasing steadily as the years went by. Reading them, it is hard to think of him as only a “guilty bystander,” to use the title of one of his many collections of essays. He was vehement in his opposition to the Vietnam War, to the nuclear arms race, to racial oppression. Having received permission to leave his monastery, he went on a journey to confer with mystics of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. He was accidentally electrocuted in a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968.”
Climate of monastic prayer 2
“There is no contemplative way, as such, Merton said at last, for Christ alone is the way. This is the truly centered Merton, the Christocentric Merton, who could write as luminous and clarifying a paragraph as the following:
‘Religion always tends to lose its inner consistency and its supernatural truth when it lacks the fervor of contemplation. It is the contemplative, silent, “empty” and apparently useless element in the life of prayer which makes it truly a life. Without contemplation, liturgy tends to be a mere pious show and paraliturgical prayer is plain babbling. Without contemplation, mental prayer is nothing but a sterile exercise of the mind. And yet not everyone can be a “contemplative.” That is not the point. What matters is the contemplative orientation of the whole life of prayer.’
merton 2
The outstanding accomplishment of Thomas Merton, during his relatively brief tenure in this world, was that he—more than anyone else of his time—introduced to ordinary men and women the possibilities of a contemplative orientation in their heretofore mundane lives and stressfully competitive careers. In the perhaps noisiest of nations, he loved silence; and whether in teeming cities or on far mountaintops, he always sought true solitude. He was a man who, though restless and searching, had already found that lasting home which would soon receive him again, though with much sorrow, as it had once welcomed him in joy, some twenty-seven years before, at the gates of Gethsemani.”


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