Concerning Merton, Spiritual Direction, and Lighting Candles


Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (Image via Wikipedia)


I’m continuing the conversation with noted author and Anglican solitary Maggie Ross. If you’re just joining the party now, read Maggie Ross on Scholarship and the Contemplative Life and Maggie Ross’s Response to get the story thus far. What follows below is my response to her comments, as posted on my blog yesterday.


Dear Maggie,

Once again I must say thank you — this time for leaving such a detailed and thoughtful response to my questions. I know you say you are opposed to spiritual direction, and yet I think your comments are, in written form, an example of just how wonderful authentic spiritual direction can be.

And while it is fairly obvious that in many ways you and I see the world and the issues concerning spirituality differently, I think we agree far more than we disagree. I share your concerns about the dangers inherent in spiritual consumerism (or “spiritual materialism” to use Chögyam Trungpa’s phrase), about the potential abuse of spiritual direction, about the idolatry of experience, and about the ongoing problems of the rational/empirical/positivist cosmology (what Ken Wilber calls “flatland”).

I think our key difference is that you seem to be far less willing to tolerate what you perceive as distortions or errors than I am. Consequently, you respond to such matters as fall outside your sphere of approval with much stronger criticism than I typically do. As you yourself recently said, “there is a limit to toleration in these matters.” And while I agree with you that shoddy scholarship and wishful thinking benefits no one (except those who are at the center of personality cults), I am not, for example, prepared to attack Thomas Merton as comprehensively as you seem to do, even though I agree with you that his modernist assumptions represent a problem. I would much rather try to be as balanced as possible when I critique a work (or a body of work), rather than pronouncing it utterly useless. Clearly you feel differently, as is seen in your willingness to say that reading a bad translation of The Cloud is worse than no translation at all. Please understand that I’m not saying this makes me better than you; on the contrary, I may be the worse for my being “soft on sin,” as the hardline Calvinists like to say. But I do think this is the essential difference: you appear to be more comfortable in establishing hard boundaries separating what is useful from what is deleterious, whereas I’m rather more inclined to see everything as a messy confluence of light and dark.

So yes, Merton was a flawed product of his age. So was Richard of St. Victor and The Cloud of Unknowing and Meister Eckhart. And so is Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault and Martin Laird. We are blessed to be able to assess these writers in terms of their relative merits and flaws. But it seems to me that if we retreat into a position of saying “Merton is just plain dangerous and no one should read him,” all we are succeeding in doing is alienating the Merton community from us, which shuts down opportunities for future conversation.

Likewise with attacking spiritual direction. Maggie, I agree with you that much of what passes for spiritual direction is little more than self-indulgent “let’s have a cosy chat about God.” I have this vision in my mind of a group of bored rich liberal Protestants at a cocktail party, comparing notes on the credentials of their various spiritual directors. We can make fun of this, or fulminate against it, all we want, but to what end? It’s out there, and many people are signed on to it. As the Quakers say, it’s far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Perhaps advocating for a more useful or faithful (to the tradition) model of spiritual accompaniment would be the most effective way to challenge the many distortions that bedevil the current spiritual direction movement.

I agree with you that the best way for non-scholars to discern which translation(s) of the mystics are worth reading is by diligently cultivating our own authentic practice, and learning to recognize the blind spots of our age (such as the lust for experience). But the wisdom necessary to engage in this kind of discernment won’t emerge out of a vacuum. Unless effective models of spiritual accompaniment are promoted within the church — and useful texts advocating the contemplative life are published and made available to all who seek them — I’m afraid that the kinds of misunderstandings that characterize so many good-hearted but naïve seekers will simply continue. Denouncing narcissistic forms of  spiritual direction and dismissing flawed writing might be necessary on one level, but it is still only half the job. I had a boss who used to say “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you have at least one idea for its solution.” I think those of us who dare to write and teach the spiritual life might keep this principle in mind. Or, quoting the Quakers again, we need to be in the business of lighting candles.

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Is Mysticism Genetic?
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Shodhin

    I believe your comment on the necessity of texts is on the money as long as the model is “The Solitary Seeker in the Library” rather than “The Spiritual Disciple in Conversation with a Director.” A small amount of dedicated time with a spiritual director will do more for one’s contemplative life than hours alone with books, because the spiritual director pushes back on the disciple, whereas the book does not.

  • jane brunette

    I find this exchange fascinating. I was raised Catholic and am very influenced by the writings of the Christian mystics, but my path has taken me to Tibetan Buddhism. I find the same conundrums present in that tradition–and have found myself alternately advocating for both positions. Thank you for out-picturing this part of my psyche and bringing these questions into relief.

    This semi-conscious argument been going on inside me for a long time. I find myself yielding with hat in hand again and again to the criticisms of my inner Maggie (whose depth of practice and study are evident and inspiring and exceedingly useful to others), and this has kept me from fully taking on a teacher role, even after being authorized in my tradition to do so, as I am not a scholar and I am not particularly loyal to the form the sadhanas (spiritual practices/meditations) take. Some of them feel downright cumbersome, and I take liberties with them (rather secretly, though I am getting more bold about it) so that they can do their job on me. I can’t help but think of Saint Therese of Liseaux who confessed to being a bad nun because she fell asleep during the liturgies and didn’t understand the prayers. I thank God again and again for her confession and example. And I think of Saint Therese of Avila, and scores of other women mystics, who weren’t even allowed to read the texts and yet found their way into the Cloud of Unknowing.

    How often in Tibetan Buddhism have I seen the scholars get hung up on fine points and miss the essential, which is to open the heart and surrender the ego—to move from something deeper than the intellect? One of those scholars, a dear friend who is a brilliant translator of ancient texts and sometimes himself falls into this trap, once kindly gave me this reminder when I confessed the sense of disloyalty I felt when I wasn’t as rigorous and exacting as the scholars I knew: he said, “the point isn’t to become a good Buddhist, the point is to become a Buddha.” And I would translate that as: the point isn’t for everyone to understand all the fine points of the writings of the saints, the point is to become a saint. Sometimes the way there is through the texts–for scholars, that is certainly the case, to the benefit of the rest of us. And sometimes the texts are the obstacles, for us ordinary folks and for the scholars as well. In my tradition, Naropa, one of the greatest Buddhist scholars of all time, finally got enlightened when he dropped all his learning to follow Tilopa (a vagrant yogi), who hit him in the head with a dirty sandal. There are many ways to God.

    I’ve just started my own blog ( that grapples with related themes to this one. I hope to be in regular conversation. Thanks, Carl, for your example in this blog–it inspired me to start my own. And thanks to Maggie, for her example as well. Already you both have added depth and clarity to my contemplations and have helped me begin to clarify my place in this conversation, both inner and outer.

  • Ryan Pendell

    I think that it’s particularly the Cloud text for which a bad translation is worse than none, in that the author is attempting to describe non-thought, non-experience. Any translation that fails to capture this would be misleading and point readers to some different end than emptiness. I think many great spiritual people have difficulty explaining this and any image, any idea, any concept is necessarily a false arrival, a false end point.

    I assume it’s from that apophatic attitude that Maggie is coming from. I remember one of the Desert Fathers saying something like, “Be angry with anything that keeps you from God.” I don’t think he meant people but I do think there’s a proper intolerance for the physical/mental/conceptual knick-knacks that can distract us for years. Dissatisfaction with less than God seems to be a mark of loving God. (cf. Augustine, Julian) If books are in the way, burn the books!

    My experience has been that contemplative spirituality naturally attracts people who are happy to find religion that doesn’t require other people. Thank God, I can do this on my own! “My spiritual journey” becomes my impenetrable little microcosm that no one else can control or critique. When Maggie mentioned “We have to stop watching our spiritual lives as if they were movies” I immediately thought of “Eat, Pray, Love”–that is perhaps the sort of thing that is driving her up a wall. :) Taking a year off for yourself and travelling the world is perhaps the furthest one can get from “Go to your cell and it will teach you everything!”

  • Simon Whitney


    You say: “But I do think this is the essential difference: you appear to be more comfortable in establishing hard boundaries separating what is useful from what is deleterious, whereas I’m rather more inclined to see everything as a messy confluence of light and dark.”

    I agree that this is the crux. But the point is that there is light and there are those who have had a glimpse of this light. They are the true masters (male and female) of the spiritual life both past and present. As Paul says: “I knew a man who was caught up into the third heaven….I will boast about a man like that” Those are the people we need to pay attention to if we are going to learn ourselves. And they do make very radical distinctions between what is true and what is false. The Cloud says that “the devil has his contemplatives too”. (Or, at least, that is how it is put in my translation!) You can’t get a starker distinction than that.

    If you see things as “a messy confluence of dark and light” then you need to move on. If you are open to advice, then I suggest you drop Centering Prayer, drop Ken Wilber and drop Merton.

    And I agree with Maggie about Merton. The truth is that when someone is a true contemplative then the inner and the outer life come into congruity. If someone’s outer life is messy then it is a sign that the inner life is messy as well. If Merton did those things that have been mentioned it may not be too bad in our eyes (mainly because we want our own sins to be downgraded) but it shows that he broke various promises he had made to his order and his Church let alone breaking the moral teaching of Christ. This was a man with double standards. And these double standards come from within.

    The whole point about the saying of the Quakers is that there is a light to be had, to be seen even in the midst of darkness, to be sought after and to be loved.

  • Kay

    This is a quote that I read recently that, when I read it, made me think of this conversation over the past few days. I replaced the name at the beginning of the original quote with the name of “Merton.” (And the point it we could insert in this spot the name of any human who loves God and who seeks to follow His leading.)

    “(Merton’s) failings were, for the most part, failings of the flesh, not of faith. In that he has good company in the Bible – David and his lusty heart, Noah and falling-down drunkenness after docking the ark. David and Noah were people doing their best to follow God’s direction. And they were chosen to do God’s work. God is funny that way – choosing the goofiest and weakest of us to accomplish divine purposes. Because of the role they played in God’s work, David and Noah stand as exemplars of our potential God-directedness. They encourage us to see that way opens for us to follow God in the midst of life’s messiness – including our self-made messiness.” – Brent Bill

  • Ryan Pendell


    Scripture and the mystics are rife with warnings against so easily dividing good/evil, right/wrong, light/dark — (tares and wheat come to mind). I’m not sure we can so easily divide things–and I’m not sure our job is to eliminate all the bad stuff in the world.

    I’m curious why you would recommend dropping Centering Prayer?

    I think Maggie’s main beef wasn’t with Merton’s character but his attempt to use modern psychology to explain medieval spiritual writing–which seems like a fair point. It’s too bad that his superiors continued to make him write even when he didn’t want to. If Merton isn’t an ‘expert contemplative,’ as Maggie suggests, I don’t think it’s for lack of desire or intention. We can still be shrewd as serpents without attacking Merton as if he intended to deceive us.

  • brazenbird


    You suggest: “If you see things as “a messy confluence of dark and light” then you need to move on.”

    Move on to what? What are you suggesting as the spiritually healthier alternative? Are there multiple options?

  • Simon Whitney


    I don’t think that the scriptures or the Christian mystics are rife with such warnings – perhaps you have some other examples.

    The one you do mention refers to the admixture of good and bad people in the world. The only one who can truly make a judgement is God because he knows all the reasons (or lack of them) behind someone acting in a bad manner. There may well be psychological problems that we know nothing about. So we are not to judge people. We are, however, called to exercise our judgement if someone puts forward a teaching. We are called to exercise discernment.

    There are plenty of warnings about false teachers. I think that every letter of Paul makes reference to false teachers and false teachings and warns us about them.

    Don’t get me started on Centering Prayer! Carl knows my views and I am not going to go over that ground again.

    I accept your point about Merton. Although I think that Maggie was simply saying that his use of false self/true self in reference to the spiritual life was a false dichotomy and one that has caused great harm. I remember reading a little of Merton many years ago and finding that it was not to my taste. I felt that there was something wrong somewhere but could not put my finger on it. And I was not surprised to learn later that he was not personally (morally, psychologically) all that he was cracked up to be. I don’t condemn him but I would say that there are much better exponents of the spiritual life than him and I would endorse Maggie’s assessment.

  • Simon Whitney


    Move on towards the light. As I said. Go further up the mountain – to use the metaphor of John of the Cross. Go into the next room in the castle/mansion to use the metaphor of Teresa of Avila.

    And I know how you love metaphors!

  • brazenbird

    Simon, but how to go further up that mountain, get to the next room? I’m truly not trying to be obtuse, nor am I attempting to challenge you, I just want to understand what techniques or practices you would suggest replace Centering Prayer?

  • Ryan


    It appears we agree re: discernment/judging others and re: Merton (true self/false self = modern psychology). I only found your comment about CP curious because I was trying to imagine avoiding it–unless I had to keep talking and never pause while praying! The more I do CP the more I see how prayerful intention rests beneath any kind of prayer, any activity. I’m not sure what else there is for us but surrendering our hearts to God in every moment. (Forget Keating’s ‘divine therapy’ if it distracts you–though it’s helpful to realize that the negative junk in prayer is normal.)

    Sorry, I’m not trying to start a conversation you don’t want to have.

  • Al Jordan

    Thank you, Jane, for your honest transparency and courage to move forward in your spiritual journey trusting the deeper well springs of intuitive guidance. When I have read too much or become loss in the miasma of intellectual speculation and hair splitting, I feel like I need a spiritual laxative. For me, that is always a return to surrender, letting go, emptying acceptance and trust. It is only then that I truly feel that I am open to Source.

  • Simon Whitney


    No – I do understand that you are not being obtuse. I have always known your sincerity – even in the middle of our disagreements. I actually found your question very hard to find a good answer to. Because there is no technique or practice that is especially relevant in getting from one room to the other. And that is because there is no such thing as “The Third Mansion” (or whatever Teresa calls it). She just uses these images or metaphors to try and illustrate a progression, a deepening of our love, a transformation from one degree of glory to another. As Maggie has said this transformation takes place outside of our experiental life – or rather so deep within us that it does not seem to impinge on that level of our consciousness in which we live our lives. It goes on below the radar – to use a modern image. And that is the level at which the Eucharist operates as well.

    So, the real answer is to keep doing those standard things. For me those “standard things” are morning and evening prayer, mental prayer, scripture reading, eucharist, regular confession to a priest, keeping a note of some things that occur to me so that I can think them through at more leisure, being aware of my own “occassions for sin”, study, spiritual direction. And I do all this as a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites which gives me a structure and support.

    If there is any sort of litmus test as to “progress” then it is waking up in the morning and finding that I love the people I meet more now than I did 10 years ago. And hopefully in 10 years I will have even more love for them. But I can’t describe how that has happened or ascribe it to any particular activity or event.

    Sorry to have taken up so long saying that there is nothing to say! However, yours is the most important question that has been asked so far because we should all of us, as contemplatives, be progressing in the spiritual journey or deepening our love of God and our neighbour. Otherwise we are simply contemplating our navels rather that gazing on God.

  • Simon Whitney


    The problem is that it is a conversation I would love to have with anyone who practises Centering Prayer! I would end up going on and on about it. And that would be against the spirit of this blog. I have understood CP better since coming to this blog and I am not going to jeopardise my welcome here.

    All I would say in direct response is that it is difficult to separate Keating’s “divine therapy” from the rest of his teachings. If he has got one part so wrong (and a very important part) then what is to say that he has not got the rest of it so wrong as well? In my view he has.

  • jane brunette

    Thank you, Al, for recognizing intuition as a reliable guide. Yes, without a regular practice of surrender and emptying, I have found that however profound and subtle a text, the words lose their power and turn to wood. I have made it a practice to set aside reading when that happens and use the time instead to sit in silence.

  • AM

    Thank you Simon for such a distinct and clear explanation about “techniques” and metaphors. In the marketplace of spirituality, this has to be heard, even if too often ignored because techniques and methods become more convenient, calculable, controllable as ends rather than means, not to mention that they also sell because they go hand in hand with marketing strategies. I also like your imperative for all of us to become contemplatives. In one way or another, it goes against the elitist tone in mysticism circles, including the ambivalent message of this blog, that mysticism and becoming a mystic goes with book writing for example. I’m sure there are a lot of contemplatives on the fringes who do not write. They simply endured in praying and loving.

  • Carl McColman

    …the ambivalent message of this blog, that mysticism and becoming a mystic goes with book writing for example…

    I just want to go on the record as saying this is something I struggle with all the time. I don’t know how to unravel this knot, and I don’t think ceasing to write is the answer. Maybe I need to find a stronger voice with which to speak about all the ways in which contemplative living does not entail writing — or reading.

  • brazenbird

    @Al Jordan – yes, yes, yes. Thank you for writing your most recent post if for no other reason than articulating what I haven’t been able to for a long while now. It’s always so nice to feel understood or not along along the journey and lucky me, it’s happened twice in two days now.

    @Simon – thank you for your thoughtful reply. I’m glad you understood my tone which is so difficult to properly convey in this medium. I really can’t wait to be in conversation with live people, face-to-face, next weekend to talk about such things. The Internet has provided me a community from which to learn and with which to discuss, but there’s nothing like face-to-face heart sharing.

    Moving on to your response: I completely agree with your litmus test. 1 Cor 13 comes to mind and Galatians’ detailing the Fruit of the Spirit. Whereas in other spiritualities that I have explored (and I have not explored many, nor have I explored them exhaustively), I continually return to Christianity if for no other reason (and I have other, personal reasons) than because it provides me a definitive, grounding, Christ/Heart centering, “cut-through-the-crap” litmus test that is not me-centered (and I do not presume that other paths do not have the same litmus test, I’m only saying that I haven’t found one outside of xianity that speaks to me in the same way.) So it is at once centering and yet pointing away from me. (I love the constant state of yin yang that exists in so many paths.) But Love, Love, Love, yes, the greatest of these is love. There was a song we used to sing in youth group with a line that read: “More Love, More Power, More of You in My Life,” and I often wished we would re-write to read: “More Love, More Power, More of You pouring out of my life.” (And I also wished we had talked about the use of the word power but that’s another discussion entirely.)

    Regarding techniques: would it be correct to say that there might be inherent problems in trying to find a technique to become more loving, to become connected to God when the reality is that we are not a seat of power to do so in the first place? That by suggesting it can be done through a technique, we are stripping away the Grace from God that allows for the increase of Love and the union with God? That technique suggests that practice makes perfect and therefore, it comes from me and not God?

    I appreciated so much what @AM touched on (and then Carl) regarding marketing strategies. It makes my skin crawl to even think about it. Can any technique even be a “means”?

    @Carl: for what it’s worth, I’ve never gotten an ambivalent message from this blog that becoming a mystic goes with book writing. I don’t mean to disparage AM’s feelings, but only to let you know that there’s at least one person who reads your blog that doesn’t assume that’s a position you’d take. I tried (ask Simon how well that went – haha) to write a blog about my path and about mysticism and after feeble attempt after feeble attempt, I had to realize that this is a gift I do not have in my bag yet, or ever will. But you do have the gift to provide a place for us wanderers and seekers to consider and discuss and pray over topics and ideas that we otherwise wouldn’t. But that’s just one reader’s perception.

  • Carl Gregg

    Many thanks for the public discussion between you and Maggie Ross, although the impression that has emerged for me is that her position is more “John the Baptizer” than “Jesus of Nazareth.”

  • Simon Whitney


    You write: Regarding techniques: would it be correct to say that there might be inherent problems in trying to find a technique to become more loving, to become connected to God when the reality is that we are not a seat of power to do so in the first place? That by suggesting it can be done through a technique, we are stripping away the Grace from God that allows for the increase of Love and the union with God? That technique suggests that practice makes perfect and therefore, it comes from me and not God?

    Again, questions that are not easy to deal with. Because to what extent can it be said that reciting Morning Prayer is a technique? To what extent is one person’s “technique” another person’s “spiritual discipline”? And we simply assign a perjorative tone to the word “technique”. The truth is we don’t need a technique to make God turn his face towards us because he always has his face turned towards us. What we do need is to keep turning our face towards him and there are things that help us do that – such as the “standard things” that I do.

    And I do want to say that “practice makes perfect” because I do believe that is a strong element in the spiritual life. The picture that comes to me whenever discussing this is the one where the Israelites are fighting the Amalekites in Ex 17. So long as Moses held up his arms the Israelites were winning, whenever he drooped the Amalekites got the advantage. Again, Peter says that we should “make every effort to add to your faith….” Teresa of Avila says that we should show a “determined determination”. I don’t have any truck with the “let God be God” brigade. We have our work to do in weeding the garden and God sends the rain in abundance.

  • brazenbird

    Thank you Simon.

  • jane brunette

    Beautifully said, Simon. Practices/techniques that are worth anything are simply a means to keep us open to grace. As one of my teachers put it, “The Buddhas (read God/Jesus) are always reaching out their hands to help us, but that isn’t enough. We have to reach back.”

  • AM

    For one reason or another, i am quite engrossed by these exchange of insights, some more to the point than the others. In fairness to you Carl, your blog has become an intersection of these attempts for clarity or even honesty in our spiritual life. I have been a long follower of your blog as you well know and to be honest but with due deference to your more personal posts, i find most of your posts on the contemplative life too congested with many labels and categories – mystics and non-mystics, oppositional thinking and non-oppositional thinking, Christian mysticism and ordinary Christian spirituality, Protestant mystics and Catholic mystics, mysticism and contemplation, etc. This appears to me not only an intellectual congestion but also a spiritual noise, a portrayal of a lack of inner silence. Somehow, i visit your blog regularly not only because you are a writer and a seeker who can articulate spiritual stuff, but also to be nourished by a certain quality i call “singlemindedness”. This is something i sensed to be absent in your blog. At times, your blog even turns out into a marketplace of many desires.
    As regards to your dilemma in writing about the contemplative life, this is not putting myself on the pedestal but somehow, the book Immemorial Silence by Karmen MacKendrick will certainly be of help. Because your dilemma is not so much whether to keep writing or not. It is more i believe of the need for a more grounded understanding of the dynamic relationship between language and silence which the book addresses so adeptly even without being reverential of this truth. I’ll give a quote from the book:
    “In some sense we might argue that in temporal speaking, silence is overcome; it awaits the end in which speaking will itself be lost. That is, there cannot be silence just when I am speaking. In the speech from eternity, however, silence is already gathered. Eternal speaking must gather silence because such speaking is full of meaning, and it is only in silence that meaning is found. That is, as Augustine himself will note, we only understand at the end of speaking. Language can re-sound in the silence of sound’s absence, and indeed, as soon as we realize, only in silence, where alone it has meaning.” p.77

    “Meaning comes only after words, not in them.”

    “…our language is derivative from a divine silence, an effort not to respeak the word of God but to write for ourselves its silence, the “infinite silence” which our words always lag.”

    • Carl McColman

      AM, I think your observations/criticisms are well worth considering. It’s interesting — suddenly Maggie Ross is the new hero of at least two of the monks at the monastery where I work, which in itself is rather humbling. For me, the various exchanges/dialog/comments of these past few days (all of which began with you quoting me in a comment on Maggie’s blog!) all seem to be an invitation for me to take both my practice and my writing to a new level. This is taking many forms, from reading Julian and the Cloud in ME, to reflecting on the ways in which I’ve turned Merton into a sacred cow, to pondering how I can more authentically live into my own stated belief that contemplation means letting go of the idolatry of experience (yes, I was saying this two years ago, but I feel like suddenly Maggie and her vicars like Simon are challenging me to make it real in my own practice and work). I think your call to me to let go of all the “labels and categories” and nurture my singlemindedness is simply a variation on this theme. I tend to think of simplification in material ways: I want less “stuff” in my life. But you (and Simon, in an earlier comment) are reminding me that inner simplicity/lack of congestion is at least as important as its outer corollary. Sigh. I keep praying for the grace to grow. In God’s joyful humor, this blog is turning out to be a means for that sought after growth. Alleluia.

  • anthony

    From reading the exchange between Carl and Maggie, I think one important part was she gently gave Carl a challenge to clarify exactly what he wants to do with his blog. Reading the blog the past few months, I would say it is very much a “new age blog”, meaning it is very sincere, but also very generic (not to offend or exclude anyone) and can be too vague where one can get lost in the MISTicism of ideas, names and books. I do not mean this as a criticism, but just think her challenge is worth considering.

    I think Maggies responses brought up many topics that would be great to share and to hear other peoples opinions and insights. Such as the role/dangers of techniques;
    the current crisis in Cistercian/Benedictine life and how that connects with the current interest in Benedictine prayer and oblates in the past 20 years; a call to a more prophetic aspect of the contemplative life in these times. In his journals, Alexander Schemann gives advice on how to be a “monk” in our times, basically he says stay far away from all monasteries and then he gives advice on how to live a life dedicated to the “one thing needful” in the world. One may not agree with all his points but it is challenging to think and discuss them. So if anyone knows of such a blog…please post some information?

    Finally one idea I would like to share is how simple vocal prayer is overlooked in all this search for higher mysticism. It is easy to think that vocal prayer/words, the personal aspect of religion, thoughts etc must be overcome for the higher aspect (so called).

    The famous zen scholar D T Suzuki also practiced Shin Buddhism (Pure Land) and wrote some beautiful essays on it. Anyone who wants to blow their mind should read a good introduction to Shin Buddhism. It is a lay form and offers a real contrast to the zen or Tibetan models which are more monastic based.

    William Johnston SJ was a student of zen and had translated a popular edition of the Cloud. In one of his books he talks about the Marian aspect of mysticism and says that he is convinced that those who follow the way of True Devotion of St Luis de Montfort will arrive at the same transformation that others seek in Zen.

    Robert Llewelyn did much to renew interest in Julian and was the chaplain at the Julian shrine for many years. And it was his discovery of the rosary late in life that became his way of contemplative prayer. He wrote a beautiful and simple book on the rosary THE DOOR WAY TO SILENCE.

    So what is my point? It is that simple vocal /invocatory prayer is not a point of departure but of ARRIVAL. It is not an obstacle to deeper prayer. All these created things are no longer screens for all our projections but portals into deeper life.
    They are not obstacles to overcome but vessels of grace, and means to encounter the Other in a simple dialogue of love. This is a path for those who are really beaten up and checkmated in life…….for those who really accept being humble and simple the invocation of the holy Name or the praying of the beads can take you all the way. IMHO

  • Ryan Pendell

    There seems to be a general assumption that we could really mess up spirituality without knowing it (or perhaps Maggie’s point was something like Merton misleading a century of would-be contemplatives into some dark corner).

    I am quite young but even I can notice the perennial fashion of some new thinker/author coming out and saying, “Everyone’s got everything wrong! We’ve got to overhaul everything!” Then we get excited for a time until that viewpoint calcifies. The fastest way to become fashionable is to attack the current fashion.

    Of course people can be misguided but I would think that regardless of any method or tradition it’s the intention of the heart that has always been the point. Attacking all techniques may feel good but doesn’t it ultimately lead to either intellectual daydreaming, cynicism, or quietism? How could any of those directions be the point of the Gospel? “When you pray, pray this way…”

  • Simon Whitney


    I am not sure I have understood your point. Are you saying that Maggie is proclaiming that everyone has got it wrong because she is downplaying Merton?

    I think that there is another way that people can be led down the wrong path and that is to say “Hey guys, I’ve just discovered the method of all methods! And it is what the ancients really meant!” This, it seems to me, is the cry of Centering Prayer. The proponents of CP seem to have forgotten (or may be unaware) that Keating and co amalgamated various eastern techniques into CP. And said as much as well in the preface to a book in 1978. The tune was very different in 1993 when Keating specifically denied that he had done this.

    I am a little steamed up about CP this morning having just received this through the email:

    “In this lesson X explores two primary methods of prayer in the Christian tradition – the discursive and the contemplative, with special focus on the importance of Centering Prayer for our generation and the future of humankind.”

    Lord, have mercy.

  • brazenbird

    @Simon, I know you don’t want to restate your objections to CP because you’ve already done so in previous posts, but is it safe to say that you object to CP, at least in part, as a technique because “Keating and co amalgamated various eastern techniques into CP”? (Maybe instead of replying directly to this here, so as to not do what you don’t want to do, you could point me in the direction of where your objections have been previously posted?)

  • Simon Whitney


    I have many objections to CP. I have spelt out some here at

    As I said, I am not trying to avoid discussing it but that would monopolise this blog and Carl has been kind enough to let me air my views to a certain extent. There was also an article on here where I referred to CP as MacContemplation but I can’t find it now. It is a subject on which there is a lot of heated debate much of which is not useful.

  • brazenbird

    Simon – thank you for that reference. I completely understand you not wanting to go there again.

  • Ryan Pendell


    I don’t think Maggie was ‘downplaying’ Merton–she wants to make the more serious scholarly charge that Merton misinterpreted the original medieval writers and, in doing so, has led many people for decades in the wrong direction, thinking they should experience something, etc.. That seems quite sensible. I was commenting on the general tone of the discussion, that we are talking about methods and techniques as if you could really mess things up. We live with an embarrassment of riches–so much talk comes down to taste.

    Not to carry things on and on, but CP seems like the slightest wisp of nothing. I fully appreciate disagreeing with Thomas Keating or any other teacher. CP itself, though, is simply the slightest possible touch to refocus one’s intention of surrendering to God.

  • rodney neill

    I see from these exchanges that the Christian contemplative world has its self appointed fundamentalist guardians of orthodoxy just like the evangelical world with which I am much more familiar – I really appreciate Carls blog as it is but I am probably one of the great unwashed herd who had been led astray by by the twin evils of Merton and CP!!

  • AM

    “…twin evils of Merton and CP!” Darn! This is way beside the point! Makes me appreciate more one monk who had to carry a pebble in his mouth for years to guard his tongue…

  • Simon Whitney


    I suppose “self appointed fundamentalist guardians of orthodoxy” are the ones who say things you don’t like?