We must approach our meditation realizing that “grace,” “mercy,” and “faith” are not permanent inalienable possessions which we gain by our efforts and retain as though by right, provided that we behave ourselves. They are constantly renewed gifts. The life of grace in our hearts is renewed from moment to moment, directly and personally by God in his love for us.
– Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer
I remember reading the slender Anchor/Doubleday paperback Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton when I was 22 and searching for that tacit touchstone that might move me forward in the spiritual life. I remember reading Merton’s substantive sentences, each one a log with which to keep warm on a winter’s night, each one yielding heat in their cogency and direction. What I do not remember but just rediscovered is Merton’s idea of constantly renewed gifts in conjunction with prayer, since it is through prayer that we are sustained and it is by the renewal of prayer’s gifts that we may live our lives more in harmony than in disharmony.
Before I came upon Merton and his enormous legacy as a writer and a poet, I was introduced to The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, initially published in Russia in 1884. The book introduced to me what is known as the “Jesus Prayer,” which is recited as, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Beginning in my commitment of reciting the prayer silently at the age of 20, I have been devoted to the Jesus Prayer for nearly a half century. What I admired about the prayer was its intrinsic mantra-like nature—one that intersected with my Roman Catholic origins and my studies in Buddhism, as an active practioner of zazen with a small meditation group in the basement of Yale Divinity Chapel. The little prayer held resonance for a walker such as me, who not unlike the Pilgrim walked blocks and blocks around campus finally having discovered a signficant key toward spiritual practice. I even used the prayer during my zen meditation practice in concentrating on my in-breath and out-breath, as in Lord Jesus Christ / have mercy on me, a sinner.
However, in later years, I dropped the last clause and used the prayer in a more familiar fashion, leaving out spiritual judgment to God alone, and recited the prayer as Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. I did this as I walked, hiked a mountain trail, stood in line at the grocery store, or even held my partner’s hand. I often pray for those I love by inserting their name at the end of the prayer, instead of the second person pronoun. I also do this for friends who might be ill or in need. Just the idea of cloistered nuns, who pray for others all day every day, has always been an inspiration for me; and although I am not a nun and will never become one, I do take delight in practicing inner prayer for others as much of every day and all day as I can. This practice centers my sense of presence and is a meditation that lends balance to my waking hours. It makes me think of a favorite poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, “Balance,” which I translated recently:
Night is quiet—always.
It is day that goes and comes.
Dead of night soaring.
Day with its wing.
Night hovering above mirrors,
And day stirring beneath the wind.
♦ ♦ ♦
Throughout each moment of the decades I have been practicing it, inner prayer has offered me a non-egoic point of practice through which I am constantly renewed. Especially in times of stress and even those stretches of chaos, through lean times and during periods of dread, I and those around me have benefitted by my practice of inner prayer. It is daily rigor, and by such rigor I have been broadened and deepened. But what does this mean? Especially today, during a pandemic and an economic crisis, a presidency of ineptitude and a country divided through malevolent means, will inner prayer make any difference? Why bother to practice such a remote or even arcane exercise? Who will it benefit?
One answer is that inner prayer does, indeed, offer us, as Merton posits, constantly renewed gifts. It is through such daily renewal that we redirect ourselves for our own sake and for the sake of others. We rechart our course through inner prayer. Through rigor we attain a disciplined spiritual practice, and through this practice we begin to shed the egotistical, possessive, and entitled elements of our nature.
Another book I think of often, which I read when I was 20 and then again when I was 60, is Saint Teresa of Avilla’s The Way of Perfection. In it she writes of what I attempt to convey here: “Therefore, sisters, have no fear that you will die of thirst on this road; you will never lack so much of the water of comfort that your thirst will be intolerable; so take my advice and do not tarry on the way, but strive like strong men until you die in the attempt, for you are here for nothing else than to strive.”
It’s that “striving like strong men” that has always sung to me. As Saint Teresa writes lyrically, we “are here for nothing else than to strive.” This is what true rigor and the rigor of practice is all about: an aim for consistency, an intent toward goodness. Yes, that last characteristic is, indeed, qualitatively subjective. However, what it is, at least partially, is constantly renewing oneself through the practice and delight of inner prayer—which can be practiced anywhere, anytime, and any place.
Saint Teresa compared the life of the spirit to a kind of sensuality. There is an accompanying sweetness in practicing inner prayer; there is a dulcet nature about it. It is sublime and not fully ostensible, but it is present and it also makes us more present to our true nature.
♦ ♦ ♦
One of Joseph Campbell’s great ideas regarding world mythology and religion is how he interprets the fourth chakra, or “the heart chakra.” Once, when asked about romantic love, Campbell relayed that Christ going out into “the marketplace of the world” was, indeed, what active loving was. We too enter the “marketplace of the world” when we take our practice of inner prayer with us as we venture out day after day. In a cogent way, we “mask up” so that we not only protect ourselves against Covid-19, but, more importantly, that we also protect those around us. So too the work of inner prayer allows us to “mask up” with the active love of a quiet and simple spiritual life by which we may positively impact the lives of others. With its constantly renewed gifts, inner prayer leads us toward an active humility, and it is through such an active humility that we can be receptive of grace itself.
Wally Swist’s recent books include The Map of Eternity (Shanti Arts, 2018), Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir (The Operating System, 2018), and On Beauty: Essays, Reviews, Fiction, and Plays (Adelaide Books, 2018). His book A Bird Who Seems to Know Me: Poems Regarding Birds & Nature was the winner of the 2018 Ex Ophidia Press Poetry Prize and published in 2019. His other books include The Bees of the Invisible (2019) and Evanescence: Selected and New Poems (2020), also from Shanti Arts of Brunswick, Maine.