Franciscan contemplation is about learning to see how God is always already right before us, reflected in all aspects of creation. We need to see the world anew, not because God is hidden and waiting for us to take our turn in a “spiritual hide-and-seek,” but because God is always “it” and at play around us. In other words, God is not hiding; God’s footprints are everywhere. We are usually the ones with our heads in the sand or hands over our eyes.
There is nothing else worth living for: only this infinitely peaceful love Who is beyond words, beyond emotion, beyond intelligence. Cradle me, Holy Spirit, in your dark silver cloud and protect me against the heat of my own speech, my own judgments, my own vision. Ward off the sickness of consolation and desire, of fear and grief that spring from desire. I will give You my will for You to cleanse and rinse of all this clay.
Merton most succinctly identifies what he means by vocation in his book No Man Is an Island, in which we read, Each one of us has some kind of vocation. We are all called by God to share in His life and in His kingdom. Each one of us is called to a special place in the Kingdom. If we find that place we will be happy. If we do not find it, we can never be completely happy. For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God’s will, to be what God wants us to be.
One of the hardest things to swallow is that God even teaches us goodness and truth by confronting us with evil and falsity. But the way He teaches us is not by the evil or the lie, but by the grace He gives us at the same time to react against it and to turn to His hidden Truth: Noli vinci a malo sed vince in bono malum. [Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good (Romans 12:21).]
And that is one thing I need to get good and straight. If I am too concerned with my progress in sanctity, in contemplation, then I am very definitely dividing my love and my energies between God and something that is less than Him.
I feel in my bones that I will never have any peace until I kiss everything goodbye, even my highest ideals and aspirations. God only tolerates one desire where He is—that of perfectly doing His will and of being annihilated for His glory.
There is only one thing to live for: love. There is only one unhappiness: not to love God. That is what pains me on these days of recollection, to see my own soul so full of movement and shadows and vanities, cross-currents of dry wind, stirring up the dust and rubbish of desire.
Contemplation in the Franciscan tradition can be a lot like the experience of conversion that takes place when we enter into a new relationship. When we enter into a new relationship, make a new friend, date a new partner, give birth to a new child, or form some other significant bond with another person, rarely are our lives changed in discrete, particular, and compartmentalized ways. Instead, something about us shifts. Something about the way we see the world is now informed by that relationship, and we can no longer go back to seeing things exactly the same way again. Maybe we are drawn to a new hobby or interest. Perhaps we look at art with a new eye or hear music with a new ear. Such is also the case with God. The more deeply we enter into relationship with the Creator, the more our outlook on the world changes.
Contemplation is understood in varied ways, but every perspective views contemplation as an ongoing process. To experience contemplation, Merton tells us that continual divesting of our ego, self-centeredness, and sinfulness is necessary to recognize that in our true poverty we are free to more perfectly follow Christ. This experience of humility beckons an awareness of the poverty and need of those around us. In turn, such a process of ongoing conversion, or contemplation, leads one upward to God and outward toward the rest of humanity.
Do you imagine that the individual created things in the world are imperfect attempts at reproducing an ideal type which the Creator never quite succeeded in actualizing on earth?
~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation