The Art of Attentiveness, Part Two

“The only unhappiness,” Merton wrote, “is not to love God.” Loving God requires prayer. Prayer for Merton was a matter of awareness, of being alert to the possibilities of the hour, what he called “the grip of the present.” Most of us are stuck either in the past or the future, making the present moment lost time. We’re too busy to be present…present to each other, present to the poor, present to God. During his 27 years behind the monastery walls, Merton learned the art of attentiveness. The monastic stability of being rooted in one place freed Merton to delve ever more deeply through reflection and prayer into the meaning of his unfolding life in the unfolding history of his times. He steadfastly honed his writing craft which became an instrument of confession and witness in a prolific outpouring of poetry, journals, letters, and books on a wide range of interests, everything from civil rights, to war, and Zen Buddhism. From his perch in a rural forest of Kentucky, Merton explored a galaxy of ideas in an effort to become a better, more God-like, human being. In the darkness of his humanity, he discovered the light of God.

Merton learned that waiting for a “word” he could not speak to himself was the essence of prayer. In our age of instant communication and instant gratification, waiting has become intolerable. Stillness, poverty of spirit, keeping vigil, guarding thoughts, and fasting from one’s own selfishness were essential attributes of Merton’s practice of monastic humanism. He wrote that contemplation was “essentially a listening in silence.” According to Merton this listening in silence should have an air of “expectancy” to it, but not an expectancy that “even anticipates a special kind of transformation.” Merton learned how to sit in the darkness…and wait—even if answers never came. Merton knew far too well that answers rarely do come.

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1 Response to “The Art of Attentiveness, Part Two”


  1. 1 krebsjoan September 10, 2015 at 10:05 pm

    This segment recalls my favorite piece of advice of Simone Weil. Her metaphor didn’t arise from darkness, silence but from contemplative activism and noisy impulsiveness. They began on opposite sides of the street it appears, but they both eventually arrived at the same place and in the same way. Merton with “essentially listening in the silence…” and Weil with “waiting in patience….” Silence, darkness doesn’t call me; patience, abusive noise does. In the end though it is the same road we travel but from different perspectives.


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