Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was an American Trappist, scholar of comparative religion, priest, poet, mystic and author of more than seventy books, including The Seven Story Mountain, that aroused an enormous new interest in contemplative prayer .
Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. And yet in a certain sense, we must truly begin to hear God when we have ceased to listen. What is the explanation of this paradox? Perhaps only that there is a higher kind of listening, which is not an attentiveness to some special wave length, a receptivity to a certain kind of message, but a general emptiness that waits to realize the fullness of the message of God within its own apparent void. In other words, the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is “answered,” it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God.
Betty’s sister, Missie, began to send her books by many of the Catholic contemplative writers such as Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. Missie had never read the books herself but sent them thinking that Betty might be interested. Betty had no idea what a contemplative even was because of the very structured religious tradition she had grown up in, but she took one of the books, Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton, up the mountain with her for one full summer. Though she didn’t understand a lot of it, she kept trying. She would write down any confusing or unfamiliar words, and when she came back down to the mountain house, she would look them up in the dictionary and try to discern the depths of their meaning. Many of the other books Missie sent sat on her bookshelf because she thought she wasn’t ready for them.
At that point in my spiritual journey, I had a very deep sense that prayer was absolutely imperative if I wanted to be able to hear every detail of what God wanted me to do. I had begun a little regimen of getting up every morning about 6:00 to pray and watch the sun rise. Often, the Spirit of God would wash over me in these sweet times, and the tears would flow. The Presence was profound, and I could hardly wait to get up to be with Him again.
Betty continued to immerse herself in books by the great spiritual writers and found great comfort in the realization that so many of them were drawn to solitude as she was. Thomas Merton spoke of the “solitaries,” and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing distinguished between the “active and the contemplative.” A contemplative is simply a person who is deeply attentive to the Spirit’s mysterious movement and who is drawn to cultivating this Presence in solitude and silence. Solitaries are seldom accepted in our culture, and certainly Betty had felt this rejection. These books helped her realize that she too had been created a contemplative, and it was okay. She was, at last, being affirmed in and living out of who she was created to be. Her contemplative journey had finally brought her to the precious discovery of her true self and the profound gift of the experiential knowledge of God—Divine Union.