I’ve just returned from a short pre-Advent retreat at Shepherds Dene in Northumberland. It was largely silent but the silence was “seeded” by sessions on themes found in Thomas Merton’s work. Bridget Hewitt, the retreat leader, successfully ensured that the weekend felt spacious, with plenty of personal quiet time for prayer and meditation, and yet informative. Fellow retreatants ranged from those who knew nothing of Merton’s work to those who had been reading deeply from his texts for decades. All seemed well-served by Bridget’s framework.
The weekend was topped and tailed by consideration of the theme of Advent and how some of the themes in Merton’s work may relate to this. We considered themes of his early unhappiness and rootlessness and the conversion experience that brought him “home”.
The grounds of Shepherds Dene, a lovely place at any time of year, were looking resplendent in their Autumn gold, brown and yellow. The walled garden was full of apple-laden trees. This was a perfect setting to consider Merton’s appreciation of solitude, the natural world and natural contemplation.
“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees … [the] silence and the peace that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests.” (-TM, Seven Storey Mountain)
We looked, too, at Merton’s apophatic way and how this unknowing related to his appreciation for Eastern spiritual traditions. We explored what this may mean for us in prayer and meditation.
“There is an absolute need for the solitary, bare, dark, beyond-concept, beyond-thought, beyond-feeling type of prayer. Not of course for everybody. But unless that dimension is there in the Church somewhere, the whole caboodle lacks life and light and intelligence. It is a kind of hidden, secret, unknown stabilizer, and a compass too. About this I have no hesitations and no doubts.” (-TM, Life in Letters 267)
Saturday afternoon brought consideration of the true/false self and what constitutes wisdom and reality. The true self is that which is freed from psychological individuality; and made in the image and likeness of God. Wisdom constitutes the inner knowing of reality.
“We must become detached from the unreality that is in us in order to be united to the reality that lies deeper within and is our true self – our inmost self-in-God. Insofar as our spiritual life consists of thoughts, desires, actions, devotions, and projects of our exterior self, it participates in the nonbeing and the falsity of that exterior self.” (-TM, Inner Experience)
Some time was spent assessing Thomas Merton’s interfaith correspondence. I was surprised, given my spiritual journey, to feel a bit uneasy about this. My impression was that Merton found it easy to criticize the failings of his own spiritual tradition – which, of course, he knew in depth – while cherry picking what was positive from other traditions. He seemed to fall prey to a kind of Orientalism and certainly seemed to have a romanticized view of the purity of the spiritual traditions of the modern Buddhist world, for example.
There is much to learn from other spiritual traditions, of course, and much that is in common among serious contemplatives of any authentic tradition – but there are also manifest corruptions within all religious systems, including those in the East. He certainly seemed to find the trip to Asia that would ultimately take his life to be some kind of spiritual homecoming but was he, perhaps, swayed by the aesthetic appeal and cultural unfamiliarity at this stage in his spiritual journey? I’m not sure what I think about this, yet, but there seems to be a change in his analysis from his writings in 1961 to those just before his death.
“Once we live in awareness of the cosmic dance and move in time with the Dancer, our life attains its true dimension. It is at once more serious and less serious than the life of one who does not sense this inner cosmic dynamism. To live without this illuminated consciousness is to live as a beast of burden, carrying one’s life with tragic seriousness as a huge, incomprehensible weight … To live with the true consciousness of life centred in Another is to lose one’s self-important seriousness and thus to live life as ‘play’ in union with a Cosmic Player. It is He alone that one takes seriously. But to take Him seriously is to find joy and spontaneity in everything, for everything is gift and grace … to be a lover and a giver is to be a channel through which the Supreme Giver manifests His love in the world.” (-TM, Asian Journal)
Hooked around this stimulating content was the comfort and peace of Shepherds Dene. It is a lovely retreat house, beautifully maintained and warmly managed by the soon-to-retire warden, George Hepburn. There were formal prayer session, taizé chants, group meditations and a festal eucharist for Christ the King Sunday in the simple house chapel. It was a thoroughly satisfying experience and a lovely preparation for Advent.
The journey to and from Shepherds Dene from here on the Lancashire coast allowed the indulgence of driving through some of the most beautiful country in England. The two long drives extended the quiet and solitude of the weekend and provided vistas to practice a little more of that natural contemplation upon.
(This was the second of two linked retreats; the other was in the Spring on Meister Eckhart. Shepherds Dene is running a similar pair of retreats next year focusing on Thomas Traherne and R.S. Thomas.)