The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words. It is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear Brothers and Sisters, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are. (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton)
Such were the opening words on which the retreatants attending the latest TMS Irish Chapter gathering meditated on in silence. The beautifully located Corrymeela Knocklayd retreat house in County Antrim provided a quiet and peaceful venue for an all-day event which attracted an eclectic mix of people hailing from Counties Antrim, Donegal, Fermanagh and Dublin. Within the Christian tradition, there were Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and Anglicans in attendance; other faiths, namely Buddhist and Bahá’ís were also represented.
The main theme of the retreat was to reflect on the concept of love, as articulated by Merton, but before doing so the group watched the 1985 PBS documentary ‘Merton: A Film Biography’. The subsequent discussion was lively and touched on a plethora of issues raised by the film, including the place of obedience in discipleship, the call to sacrificial living, practising non-violence and the value and form of inter-faith dialogue and understanding.
Retreatants took full advantage of the beautiful garden within the grounds of the Knocklayd Corrymeela, and the picturesque slopes of Knocklayd Mountain, to continue their discussions together or to enjoy a period of solitude, silent reflection or prayer.
Following lunch, the group re-convened to reflect on, and discuss the following four excerpts from Merton’s writing on love:
‘The one thing necessary is a true interior and spiritual life, true growth, on my own, in depth in a new direction. Whatever new direction God opens up for me. My job is to press forward, to grow interiorly, to pray, to break away from attachments and to defy fears, to grow in faith, which has its own solitude, to seek an entirely new perspective and a new dimension in my life’. (The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals)
‘The theology of love must seek to deal realistically with the evil and injustice in the world, and not merely to compromise with them.’ (Faith & Violence)
‘He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give to others.’ (Contemplation in a World of Action)
‘I must use my freedom in order to love, with full responsibility and authenticity, not merely receiving a form imposed on me by external forces, or forming my own life according to an approved social pattern, but directing my love to the personal reality of my brother, and embracing God’s will in its naked, often impenetrable mystery.’ (Contemplative Prayer)
NOTE: You can watch the full meditation here (courtesy of youtube):
The nature of love and its different understandings and demands were explored by the retreatants. Drawing heavily on individual personal experience and scriptural mandates, it became clear that Merton’s articulation of the concept of love was a strong unifying force. His emphasis on moving beyond the theoretical to the practical application and demonstration of love was debated, particularly with reference to the outworkings of non-violence and how one conquers the innate fear that transformative radical living engenders in most of us. From a personal perspective, it seemed clear that the quandary and inner conflicts we shared with each other were a mirror of those faced by Merton himself and numerous people of faith before him; in that sense I was reminded of the words of Diadochos of Photiki, an Orthodox monk and mystic who wrote the following poem in which he foreshadows Merton by calling on individuals to practise reflective prayer from the heart:
You must descend from
your heart into your head.
At present your thoughts of God
are in your head. And God himself is,
as it were, outside you, and
so your prayer and other spiritual
remain exterior. Whilst you are still
in your head,
thoughts will not easily be subdued but
will always be whirling about, like snow
in winter or
clouds of mosquitoes in summer.
(For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics)
And it was with these words that we moved into a period of communal meditation, a practical manifestation of love, unity and a desire to seek God’s will in our lives. As we reluctantly left the beauty and stillness of Knocklayd and Corrymeela’s retreat house, we all took with us our individual thoughts and impressions, each one a blessing from God. I like to think that amongst these blessings were new or deepened friendships, a greater understanding of each other and a desire to deepen our relationship with God and to truly love our brothers and sisters in practice. Such is the legacy of Merton.