Spiritual Direction and Meditation by Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton - Spiritual Direction and MeditationSummary: Two pamphlet length articles joined together for a short book.

Spiritual Direction has been an interest of mine for the past several years. With the rise of renewed interest in liturgical and sacramental expressions of faith, the historic practice of spiritual direction has also come back into awareness.

As a number of friends and internet-only acquaintances are becoming Anglican/Episcopal or Catholic I keep hearing of more and more that have been going to spiritual directors. (And a number that have not been converting are also going to spiritual directors.)

Many of those spiritual directors are Catholic (or at least were trained by Catholic spiritual directors.) I have been going to a Spiritual Director for nearly two years now. My own spiritual director is protestant, but goes to a Catholic spiritual director himself and was formally trained in spiritual direction with mostly Catholic instructors.

Spiritual direction has a long and varied history. But it was originally the practice of monks and nuns. Thomas Merton, one of the most recognizable monks of the 20th century was writing primarily to the monastics here but intending to be overheard by those that were not living a monastic life.

Spiritual direction is not about finding the wise guru and learning from them. Nor is it about counseling. According to Merton:

The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a man’s life, to get behind the façade of conventional gestures and attitudes which he presents to the world, and to bring out his inner spiritual freedom, his inmost truth, which is what we call the likeness of Christ in his soul. This is entirely a supernatural thing, for the work of rescuing the inner man from automatism belongs first of all to the Holy Spirit. The spiritual director cannot do such a work himself. His function is to verify and to encourage what is truly spiritual in the soul. He must teach others to “discern” between good and evil tendencies, to distinguish the inspirations of the spirit of evil from those of the Holy Spirit. A spiritual director is, then, one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in his life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him.

Where spiritual direction I think is most helpful is in helping us focus on the Christian life, not as climaxing at salvation, but as being a on going process of finding God’s grace and becoming more like Christ every day.

Happiness in the religious life really depends on wise direction, especially during the period of formation. Of course, a religious can be “saved” without a good director. That is not the point. The question is, can he lead a fruitful, happy, intelligent spiritual life? Without at least some direction, this is hardly possible.

Obviously from even these two short quotes, you can see that this is a book that is primarily written to Catholic monks. All others are going to have to read the advice into their own lives. But it is a generally helpful little book. It is not the first book I would recommend on spiritual direction, but it is worth reading, especially if you can find it cheap or free.

I was less interested in the second section on meditation. I have never been one of those that distrusted meditation as being somehow less than a Christian practice. Christians have practiced meditation from the beginning.

These three quick quotes will give you a sense of what this section is like:

“The contemplation of philosophers seeks nothing but the perfection of the one contemplating and it goes no further than the intellect. But the contemplation of the saints is fired by the love of the one contemplated: that is, God.”

“This is what meditation meant to St. Paul: the finding of ourselves in Christ, the penetration of the Scriptures by divinely enlightened love, the discovery of our divine adoption and the praise of His glory.”

“His prayer, his reading, his labor all alike give him recreation and rest. One balances the other. Prayer makes it easy to work, work helps him to return with a mind refreshed for prayer. These conditions are well fulfilled in the sane, quiet round of St. Benedict’s monastic day of liturgy, meditative reading and manual work in the fields.”

There was little practical advice about meditation. So again, this isn’t where I would suggest you go to if you want to learn to meditate, but rather if you want to learn about why you should meditate.

As always there is value in reading in other Christian traditions. Similar to CS Lewis’ admonition to read old books, not because they are old, but because they have different assumptions and weaknesses than new books, reading outside your own Christian tradition helps to challenge your own preconceptions and ideas go deeper into the Christian faith.

Spiritual Direction and Meditation by Thomas Merton Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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