Review by The Revd. Lucy Price

Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk known as Fr. Louis who lived between 1915 and 1968; Merton was an incredible writer and many revere him as a great spiritual master.[1]

 “And now my whole being breathes the wind which blows through the belfry, and my hand is on the door through which I see the heavens. The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and prayer. Will it come like this, the moment of my death? Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet upon a ladder under the moon, and take me out among the stars?”[2]

Reading the Epilogue to the Sign of Jonas: Fire Watch, July 4th, 1952 it struck me that Thomas Merton that leads the reader by the hand through his eyes as he walks the corridors of the quiet monastery. His writing oscillates between description of what he sees, hears, smells, and touches, and an inner dialogue that is prayerful in its wording. Each way of writing is distinct, yet together can be read as an ongoing prayer as Merton makes his rounds. In these pages Merton seems completely aware of everything around and within him, and a sense of the mystical presence of his being with God is conveyed. Is this prayer without ceasing?

Prayer can be defined as “…the act of petitioning, praising, giving thanks, or confessing to God…Prayer can be individual or corporate, audible or silent.”[3]

In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 St. Paul instructs to “…pray without ceasing,…” Jesus urged his disciples to “…pray always and not to lose heart…” (Luke 18:1).

Is constant prayer practical in our lives today? In the busyness of our individualist culture, where consumerism is never satisfied,[4] it is easy to cut ourselves off from God by getting caught up in the daily whirlwind of life, leaving our relationship with God wanting, struggling to make space for it.[5]

Jesus’ ministry was a busy one full of action, teaching, and travel! However, He took time away from the masses to be with God and away from the demands of those around Him.[6] Are our modern lives really so different?

Maybe it’s easy to constantly be in prayer if you’re a monk Like Merton was. How do we live in a prayerful way, when prayer has become (for some), just another thing on the to-do list?[7] Merton lived a life of contemplation and silence. We live lives that are full of noise, delivered by multiple forms of communication, through technology.

“Silence is a rare commodity… Silence has always had a significant place in the Christian life of prayer, as a space in which to listen and wait upon God.” [8]

People “hunger for silence,”[9] but what happens when we find it? When our technology is taken away and we are left with nothing else, what is there? The answer: ourselves and God.[10]

Should we all become silent hermits cut off from lite, taking Paul’s words on unceasing prayer literally? I don’t think so! Perhaps we might “understand ceaseless prayer to be not just verbal utterances, but … a continual remembrance of dependence on God for life.”[11]

This makes prayer a way of being, an act of intention in the work that we do.[12] “…a healthy life of prayer is based on good works where every single act is performed for the greater glory of God. Everything that we do then becomes prayer, including our work.”[13]

I think this is what Merton communicates in the Fire Watch, a way of being that is prayer without ceasing.

Instead of structuring our prayer around the many tasks and responsibilities of our lives, we can structure our day around prayer. If able to do this, gradually we may be able to cultivate an awareness moment by moment of the Spirit of God at work in us, and make everything we do for the glory of God.[14]

I do not think that this is a practice that can ever be perfected because of the human tendency (certainly in my own experience) to be taken up in the whirlwind of our busy lives. However the Merton shows us in the Fire Watch that what Paul instructs is at least possible, and something to strive for.

 

[1] Patrick Hart, “Editors Note,” The Merton Seasonal 40, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 2-3.

[2] Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, harvest/HBJ ed., A Harvest/HBJ Book (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1953), p.360. 3 ibid., pp.349-362.

[3] Mark Allan Powell, ed., The Harpercollins Bible Dictionary: Revised and Updated (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), p. 824.

[4] Sallie McFague, Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), p.30.

[5] Bill Hybels and LaVonne Neff, Too Busy Not to Pray: Slowing Down to Be with God, rev. and expanded. ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), pp. 125-126.

[6] Ellen Clark-King, Path to Your Door: Approaches to Christian Spirituality (London, England: Continuum International Publishing

[7] Paul J. Griffiths, “Pray Without Ceasing,” The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University (2009): 11-17, accessed August 20, 2015, http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/92494.pdf.

[8] Kevin Hunt, “The Thurible, St. James Anglican: Notes from the Clergy,” The Thurible (Sunday, August 23, 2015): under “Email,”accessed August 27, 2015, http://www.stjames.bc.ca/?utm_source=The+Thurible+-+Sunday%2C+August+23%2C+2015&utm_campaign=Thurible+Jan+11%2C+2015&utm_medium=email&doing_wp_cron=1440731152.7276120185852050781250.

[9] Ellen Clark-King, Path to Your Door: Approaches to Christian Spirituality (London, England: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), pp.6-7, Amazon Kindle edition.

[10] Ellen Clark-King, Path to Your Door: Approaches to Christian Spirituality (London, England: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), pp.6-7, Amazon Kindle edition.

[11] Clay Smith, “’Aδιαλείπτως Προσεύχεσθε: Is Paul Serious?,” PRESBYTERION: COVENANT SEMINARY REVIEW 22, no. 2 (September 1, 1996): 113-20. p.114.

[12] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, Harvest/HBJ ed., A Harvest/HBJ Book (New York: Harcourt-Brace Jovanovich, 1978), pp.385.

[13] Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, “Final Integration in Thomas Merton,” The Merton Seasonal 40, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 59-60. p. 59.

[14] Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, “Final Integration in Thomas Merton,” The Merton Seasonal 40, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 59-60. p.59.

Picture Credit (Accessed 16th May 2018): https://www.ndbooks.com/book/the-collected-poems-of-thomas-merton/

 

 

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