Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Emptiness of Love

photo courtesy of jbelluch

To the surprise of no one who has been reading this blog lately, here is another Merton quote. Every time I post something from him, I tell myself it will be the last one, but then he goes and writes something that jumps off the page and attacks me with its profundity, and then leaves me stuck pondering it over and over in my mind.

In this section of his book, Contemplative Prayer, he has been addressing the paradox of emptiness in contemplation. It is a terribly confusing section in which (as best I can understand it) he argues that being emptied of all things in prayer leaves you anything but empty in the end. In contrast, one can actually pursue emptiness in such a way as to fill them self up in a bloated egotistical quest for emptiness, and completely miss the fact that it is God who brings emptiness about so that he may fill us with himself through his Spirit.

Like I said, confusing. I am not even convinced my above interpretation is quite right.

I do however believe that the following excerpt is a much more easily grasped. He is no longer explaining what emptiness is not, but rather what it is.

But true emptiness is that which transcends all things, and yet is immanent in all. For what seems to be emptiness in this case is pure being. Or at least a philosopher might so describe it. But to the contemplative it is other than that. It is not this, not that. Whatever you say of it, it is other than what you say. The character of emptiness, at least for a Christian contemplative, is pure love, pure freedom. Love that is free of everything, not determined by any thing, or held down by any special relationship. It is love for love's sake. It is a sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in the infinite charity of God. And so when Jesus told his disciples to love, he told them to love as universally as the Father who sends his rain alike on the just and the unjust. "Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect." This purity, freedom and indeterminateness of love is the very essence of Christianity.
It is to this above all that monastic prayer aspires."

While this excerpt is directed at the concept of contemplative prayer, I think (much like most of the book) it shows how contemplative prayer is not a static thing. It is not simply something that stays in one place of our spiritual growth while the actions we make in faith stay in a different place. The line is blurred.

This presence of pure love and freedom might start in contemplation, but it spills over, and out of the thirst quenching cup of prayer, and into the active love we can only hope to manifest toward are neighbors. He calls it a sharing in the "infinite charity of God," Others might call it "inhabiting the cruciform God." Still others might call it "mere christianty" or simply "discipleship." Whatever we call it though, I believe it is the living participation in the Kingdom of God which James reminds us is essential to the Christian life in James 2:14-25.

What began in faith, in the emptiness of prayer (love), if it is in true faith, has no other option but to come to life! In our faith, we are crucified with Christ; our outer egotistical self is killed and then the inner self (the self that reflects God's image as it was intended) is raised up into active love towards the world around us.

This means that complacency, selfishness, hatred, unforgiveness, and plenty of other things no longer can have top billing in our attitudes and actions. These are not things we can simply remove on our own. And this brings us back to prayer. Prayer is our access to the living water of Christ. We no longer have need for the empty and cracked cisterns we have made for ourselves.

Finally, this active life, the deeds that James talks about are found in everything we do. These are not characterized by grandiose actions. God may indeed call us to take bold steps in following him and loving our neighbors and his creation. Focusing on these as the "ideal" will get us nowhere though, because this is the ego at work again, obscuring our true identities.

These deeds are the deeds we do in any given situation. These are the deeds we do in public, but also the ones we do in private. They are the deeds we do toward our family members, friends, roommates, acquaintances. They are also the deeds we do towards those we have never met before, those towards which we have great animosity as well as those who quite frankly just annoy the heck out of us.

Every encounter is an opportunity to become Christ to someone- the just and unjust alike. This can only ever take place if we are led by the Holy Spirit. And self-emptying, love-filled prayer is one way in which our relationship with the Holy Spirit can grow and open up those future opportunities.


Robb said...

Great connection to James and his perspective on "deeds" in your reflections on Merton here, Richie, especially given how much tension Protestants often feel about James given a legacy of a certain interpretation of Paul.

I really gotta get Wendy into your blog for this Merton stuff, she has found him so helpful and formative in understanding the meaning and practice of life in God's presence and as an agent of his Kingdom.

Another thing I find compelling about this passage and Merton (and a lot of "mystics" through church history for that matter) in general is the clear chances for connection and interaction with the explorations of faith and spirituality in other cultures/religions - I would say Buddhism is perhaps most quickly brought to mind in this way for this passage. I know there are some people who knock or are suspicious of Merton for this, but it is so beautiful and rich how grounded in the God revealed in Christ these takes on emptiness are in that is a detachment that drives us to live and connection rather than making them illusory.

I think this is a great example both for being able as a Western Christian to humbly appreciate the strivings after God of people who are different than us, and for finding bridges for sharing revelation that we believe does in fact help us to know, love, and encounter the true and living God more rightly.