Contemplation and Its Discontents

My entry into contemplative Christianity was junior year of high school: J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Salinger himself was apparently some kind of Buddhist (or Buddhisht), and in that book Franny prays the Jesus Prayer on repeat after reading the classic Way of a Pilgrim. I followed that trail to Peoria Public Library, where I first learned both about hesychasm and about Zen Catholicism.

A couple years later I picked up Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain for the first time. I had never heard of Merton before, but I liked what the dust jacket at Walden Books at the mall said. The book may have changed my life. Some moderately extensive reading in Merton and on Merton since have given me some sense (I think) of what connections Merton was drawing between Christian contemplation and other contemplative spiritualities of the world, Buddhism in particular.

Still a couple years after that, a counselor introduced me to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s particular use of Buddhist meditation in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (set out best in his Wherever You Go, There You Are). Perhaps a year after that I read Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus, which chronicles the meeting of several rabbis with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist religious leaders, for an historic interfaith dialogue in India. That book also introduced me to the concept of Jewish Buddhism.

Around the same time I was introduced to Transcendental Meditation (TM) in Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch, who has a thirty-year practice of the discipline going and described how it figures massively in his personal life and artistic process. The actual practice of TM is exactly the same as Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington’s Centering Prayer.

In the last couple weeks I’ve read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, and I am halfway through his Immortal Diamond. Rohr’s books have the same tendency toward blurring difference, not only with other religious traditions but with Jungian psychology and 20th/21st century physics.

Conclusions:

  1. It is a commonplace among contemporary contemplatives (dating back at least to the turn of the 19th into the 20th century) that there is a blurring of religious difference and boundaries in general on the contemplative frontiers. For the most part, writers on contemplation not only describe the blurring but express the belief that it is a positive.
  2. This commonplace needs to be interrogated. Not all difference is illusory (and sometimes lack of differentiation and union are themselves illusory). Not all difference is negative. Some differentiation is necessary to love, to respect, to human relating, to human-divine relating, to peacemaking and reconciliation, and to honest inter-faith dialogue. (The 1968 inter-religious summit at which Merton died recognized this. Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus recognized this.)
  3. The practice of contemplation is a genuine Christian vocation and charism. Like most Christian vocations and charisms, contemplation is to some extent for all, but it is more important for some. It exists in every case for the blessing of God and all of Creation.
  4. This post is the beginning of several conversations, not the end of any conversations.
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