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Filtering by Tag: contemplation

Power of Meditation

Joy and Matthew Steem

9 merton Is it possible that William Fisk, the arch-villain in Marvel’s Daredevil TV series, admired Thomas Merton? That was the thought that came to my mind after hearing him look down at the nearly dead hero, Matthew Murdoch, and calmly state, “I find it difficult to meditate. My mind won't quiet. It’s a character flaw, I suppose.”

Touché Mr. Fisk, touché.

I also took much pleasure from the fact that it was the bad guy who was saying that. Now I know for certain that the writers didn't put that line there for no good reason. They, like so many of the TV shows of the day, are also trying to educate their audience in some way. But while in many cases it’s a bit cheap— take for example the continual mawkish jabs which the TV series Elementary takes at tobacco and car idling—I was quite moved at such a nicely delivered snub to a more rooted problem in our culture: the near aversion to silence and its sibling solitude.

So you probably can see how Merton (contemplative extraordinaire) might have come to mind. And indeed, Merton would have probably had even harsher words about the near whole of our society being little able to quiet our minds than simply calling it a “character flaw.” Perhaps because while a character flaw is something that is individual, the near entirety of our society is antagonistic to a quieted mind. Yet at the same time, I believe Merton would have softly suggested that this perpetuation to an un-quieted mind is something that is remediable too, both in an individual and a society—though it might require more time and patient effort on the latter front.

So, first for the individual. It’s important to note that Merton believed that when it came to both solitude and silence, and the important role they play in our contemplative lives, people shouldn’t assume that it’s a topic only for monks or hermits. Rather, Merton made the strong case that a developed contemplative life is needed for all of us to live meaningfully and joyously.

Important to keep in mind is that solitude is assuredly not individualistic or rooted in desires for individualism. Merton says, “the true solitary is not one who simply withdraws from society. Mere withdrawal, regression, leads to a sick solitude.” That is to say, the person who simply seeks solitude to avoid the company of others will find a solitude that lacks both meaning and fruit. Indeed, for Merton, “false solitude separates a man from his brothers in such a way that he can no longer effectively give them anything or receive anything from them in his own spirit. It establishes him in a state of indigence, misery, blindness, torment, and despair.” The desire for true solitude will be best represented by “those who live for God, live with other people and live in the activities of their community.” Thus, “the true solitary does not renounce anything that is basic and human about his relationship to other men. He is deeply united to them.” In fact, in a later writing, Merton cautioned that “in prolonged separation from other men[,] there is a real danger of delusion and mental derangement.”

And just where best are we to find this solitude? Again, it doesn't lie in individualism. Merton clarifies that one certainly doesn't have to go out into the desert either: for “the desert does not necessarily have to be physical – it can be found even in the midst of men.” In fact, our contemplative guide assures us that “as soon as a man is fully disposed to be alone with God, he is alone with God no matter where he may be—in the country, the monastery, the woods or the city.” And so, back to Mr. Fisk, perhaps he is an apt reminder that without cultivating our capacity for the true solitude of inner stillness, we indeed risk endangering ourselves from experiencing the fullness of our humanity.

On Balance

Rebecca Spears

603082_10152450285815298_401397016_n copy 2 Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds' wings.


I teach literature and writing to students at a modern Orthodox Jewish high school. In a school where students take as many Judaic Studies classes as General Studies classes, they are regularly pulled from class for assemblies that have to do with holidays I am only beginning to learn about, even in my third year of teaching at the school—Sukkot, Purim, the Fast of Esther, Shavuot.

Parents enroll their students in our academy because the school mission proposes a balance between religious studies and academics. In fact, Modern Orthodox Judaism itself invites a balance between the life of the Jewish community and the life of the secular world; between religious observance and modernity (which includes academic studies); and between strictures and leniencies.

In terms of definition, “balance” is the result of two equal weights offsetting one another. Any extra weight added to one side disturbs the equilibrium. So the task to find harmony between religion and academics is necessarily delicate. Often General Studies teachers, myself included, proclaim frustration at the lack of time to teach a college preparatory curriculum to our busy students. Yet I know that my students will matriculate into colleges and universities based on their academic strengths; their Judaic classes “out there” in the secular world will be evaluated as “electives.” And so we have this argument always in play at the school—especially when students are pulled from class for assemblies—as to whether or not Judaic Studies are being privileged over General Studies and vice versa. All teachers, whether academic or Judaic, are constantly working to persuade the other “side” as to the value of our classes.

And yet I have to admire my students and colleagues who seek to weigh religious life with secular life. If pressed, I would say that I am a modern, progressive Christian. Lately, I have been seeking equilibrium in life similar to the Modern Orthodox Jews. Being a teacher at this academy has made me aware that while “balance” may look static, it is an active state. In contrast to Modern Orthodox Jews, I am coming at the problem from a decidedly different perspective because my life frequently feels defined by heavy engagement in the secular world, with a little spiritual activity on the side.

Not long ago, several friends introduced me to the work of the Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr. He advocates finding balance by setting aside time for contemplative practice daily, either early in the morning “before your brain has a chance to begin its list-making and judgments,” or in the evening, when you might examine the “God-encounters during your day.” This is the sacrament of Sabbath, which, he tells us, is “offered by the Jewish people as a gift for all humanity.” The sacrament of the Sabbath means surrendering one-seventh of your life to resting in awareness of a sacred presence. This practice makes sense to me, a way to give symmetry to my spiritual and secular lives. While I am usually averse to New Year’s resolutions, I am going to try to incorporate more contemplation into my life this year, an offset to my daily concerns.