Illuminating Our Path Of Seeing
by Vanessa Hurst, Director of the Merton Center for Contemplative Living.
The “spark” which is my true self
is the flash of the Absolute recognizing itself in me.[i]
For Thomas Merton, “the spark was not so much a stable entity which one finds but an event, an explosion which happens as all opposites clash within oneself.”[ii] The spark is the internal light whose explosion illuminates all that we see. As our eyes search outward, the myriad of sights explode in a tangle of perceptions. By seeing with our eyes, our hearts, our minds, and our spirits, what we perceive is illuminated in the essence of that spark. Through the light beaming from this shining spark, we form our unique perception. Our perception is based upon the reality of our essence and nothing else. This view of reality is more accurate and less ego driven. When we see by resting in the light of the spark, we are consumed by the grace of God and recognize the Divine’s presence in us.
Merton compares this spark resting at our center to a point of pure truth. He paints a picture of the spark that “is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”[iii] When we see with the eyes of our spark, we see with compassion. He further shares, “I have no program for seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”[iv] We can choose to see the gate of heaven in everything and everyone or we can choose to see the darkness and cruelty of life. Our eyes are open to the world around us, but we choose how we define what we are seeing. When we see the unfolding world as created by God, we are seeing with our point of pure truth.
When striking stone to flint, sparks fly. If sufficient dry kindling is present, the spark ignites the kindling and small flames lick at the kindling. The flame can only exist when it has consumed enough of kindling. Faith is the kindling for our spark. Without faith we cannot kindle the spark and may find ourselves adrift in a black emptiness of hopelessness and lack of faith. “We do not see the Blinding One in black emptiness. He speaks to us gently in ten thousand things, in which His light is one fullness and one Wisdom.”[v] If we do not see God in the many manifestations of each moment, we lack the ability to reframe what we are seeing as a gift from the divine. We lack the ability to see the Divine presence in all people, things, and events.
Only when we open our eyes through faith, Merton reminds, do we see God’s presence in our life. “Faith alone can give us the light to see that God’s will is to be found in our everyday life. Without this light, we cannot see to make the right decisions.”[vi] For Merton, through faith we shift our perception and see God in everything and everyone who journeys with us. Faith shifts our awareness into a place of openness and objectivity. By renewing our faith, we not only view the unfolding moments with a non-judgmental heart, but also realize that “to keep ourselves spiritually alive we must constantly renew our faith.”[vii]
We renew our faith through our awareness of God. Seeing for Merton occurred when his whole soul was “in harmony with itself, with the realities around it, and with God.” Only then, was he “able to see things as they are, and it enables me to be aware of God. This makes me ‘present’ to myself.”[viii] By being truly aware of the presence of God in our lives, our seeing shifts and we become present to ourselves. Through our seeing we are opened to a world filled with limitless possibilities.
For Merton, this awareness of God helped him be detached from the world. Practicing detachment led to a deepening of his contemplative being. Merton believed that “contemplation is the greater and more precious gift, for it enables me to see and understand the work that he wants done.”[ix] Seeing, for Merton, becomes an exercise in deepening awareness. He encourages us to look past the exterior, and look for the nuances of our sight that will lead us deeper into the heart of our world.
The journey to the seeing with clarity cannot be undertaken without detachment. Detachment is practiced when we view our life without judgments and expectations. When we practice detachment, we shift our way of seeing. By being detached we “see and use all things in and for God. This is an entirely new perspective which many sincerely moral and ascetic minds fail utterly to see.”[x] Merton understood that detaching ourselves from the world was a difficult and continuous task. He saw the advantage of feeding the flame but recognized the trap of being so attached to the flame that we fail to see the many ways that God manifests in our lives. Faith and detachment are inseparable partners in our seeing journey.
Being detached from the world is not the same as being withdrawn from the world. We can interact with those around us, yet not be hooked by events, things, or people. Merton believed that “one of the most important — and most neglected — elements in the beginnings of the interior life is the ability to respond to reality, to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things, to come alive to the splendor that is all around us in the creatures of God. We do not see these things because we have withdrawn from them.”[xi] When we are detached, are witnesses to our unfolding life, our seeing become sharper and our perceptions shift.
Merton goes on to say that we need a protective barrier so that we are not so overwhelmed by the varied and multitudinous external stimuli. That protective barrier is formed by being a witness to life unfolding. For Merton being a witness is necessary to deepen our spiritual lives and truly see the world around us. As a witness, we must “learn not to see and taste and hear and feel things. On the contrary, what we must do is begin by unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling, and so forth and acquire a few of the right ones.”[xii] Living in constant, intentional awareness provides the fertile environment for us to begin to see with our whole being and release our false perceptions.
Being a witness to our own lives gives us the opportunity for new growth. Through the fertile environment of the witness, we bear fruit by using our imaginations. Imagination is not a way of coloring the world to justify your own perceptions. It is a way of laying bare the world and seeing things as they truly are. Merton sees imagination as “a discovering faculty, a faculty for seeing relationships, for seeing meanings that are special and even quite new. The imagination is something which enables us to discover unique present meaning in a given moment of our life.”[xiii] Through our imagination, we are invited to see with an artist’s eye as we look at the possibilities that life is presenting us. As a witness, we discern this opportunities without judgment or misconceptions. Through imagination, our clarity of vision is fine turned and our perceptions are based upon reality and not upon our illusions.
It is through the seeds planted by our imagination that we undergo a paradigm shift in how we view others and the world. For Merton, seeing with imagination stripped the cataracts from his eyes. He believed, “the world cannot be a problem to anyone who sees that ultimately Christ, the world, his brother and his own inmost ground are made one and the same in grace and redemptive love.” Without this seeing as a witness, we become alienated from ourselves, God, others, and nature. Through this alienation “we break reality into pieces and then wonder why, after we have manipulated the pieces until they fall apart, we find ourselves out of touch with life, with reality, with the world and most of all with ourselves.”[xiv] When we remove our eye’s cataracts, we see that we are connected with each other, God, ourselves, and all of the world. This seeing invites us into a truer, less egoistic reality.
“The seeds that are planted in my liberty at every moment, by God’s will, are the seeds of my own identity, my own reality, my own happiness, my own sanctity.”[xv] With these words, Merton utters both the answer and the question. How can we see these seeds if we are operating in an attached, willful way? How can we truly see our own reality and our own essence if we do not embrace an awareness of the seeds that are being sown in each moment of our lives? As the Rule of St. Benedict reminds us to listen with the ear of our heart, Merton encourages us to see with the eyes of our being. Only if we see with our body/mind/heart/spirit do we truly experience who we are…who we have been born to be.
The interplay of light and shadows enables us to see on a physical level. We are more than beings with a body. Our body is a host to our mind, heart, and spirit. When we experience seeing with our entire being, the world becomes the translucent glory of God. Merton reminds us “out of silence Light is spoken. We do not hear it or see it until it is spoken.”[xvi] With these words, we recognize that we do not see with just our eyes, but we use all of our senses, our very being, when seeing the world. By faith, we can be a witness to the glory of God manifesting in the world.
“Life is, or should be, nothing but a struggle to seek truth: yet what we seek is really the truth that we already possess.”[xvii] Merton reminds us of our selective blindness. As we grope for the truth, sometimes our perception is skewed or we are in denial of what we see. In each moment we live in awareness constantly vigilant of what we are being shown, seeing becomes a means of gaining clarity in and about our lives. One of Merton’s most poignant statements is: “One cannot simply open his eyes and see.”[xviii] In order to truly see, we must be mindful of our response to any given situation — how does our body respond? What are our thoughts? What emotions are triggered? How is our spirit calling us to be? Seeing becomes a holistic means of paying attention to our responses so that we may interact with the world and respond in loving, gentle ways to those around us.
How do we see in order to we respond in loving, gentle ways? For Merton it is living out of a wise heart. Although this wise heart is not of us, “it is the key of our life, but as long as we are alive we must see that we do not have this key: it is not at our disposal. Christ has it, in us, for us.”[xix] The only way that we can open our eyes and truly see is to invite the divine to shine through our eyes and allow the Divine light to dance upon our world. As this Divine interplay of light and shadows dance in our vision, we are invited to shift our perspective. Only through this perceptions shift will our open eyes, and we will truly see.
Merton invites us to release the parts of ourselves that are false and embrace that point of pure truth when we engage in seeing. He reminds us that seeing occurs “when we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts, or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash — at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.”[xx] When we are able to see things as they truly are without any filters, then we are truly seeing.
[i] Thomas Merton, Love and Living (New York: Harcourt, 1965) 10
[ii] Thomas Merton, Love and Living (New York: Harcourt, 1965) 10
[iii] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 1966) 158
[iv] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 1966) 158
[v] Thomas Merton, A Thomas Merton Reader (New York: Image, 1974) 508
[vi] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1956) 38
[vii] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1956) 38
[viii] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, (New York: Harvest Book, 1955) 221
[ix] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1961) 33
[x] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1961) 21
[xi] Thomas Merton, A Thomas Merton Reader (New York: Image, 1974) 386
[xii] Thomas Merton, A Thomas Merton Reader (New York: Image, 1974) 386
[xiii] Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1973) 228
[xiv] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1998) 153
[xv] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1961) 33
[xvi] Thomas Merton, A Thomas Merton Reader (New York: Image, 1974) 509
[xvii] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 196) 184
[xviii] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 196) 184
[xix] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 196) 212
[xx] Thomas Merton, A Thomas Merton Reader (New York: Image, 1974) 504