Merton’s Palace of Nowhere by James Finley

Merton's Palace of Nowhere

When James Finley finished high school, he did what so many other 18-year-olds do: he made his way to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he knew that Thomas Merton was a monk. Finley spent over five years at the monastery, part of that time with Merton as his spiritual director, before leaving at his superiors’ suggestion to continue his formal education. Finley eventually earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Although he never made final vows as a monk, Finley’s practice as a psychologist and retreat leader up to the present day has integrated contemplative practice and insight.

Merton’s Palace of Nowhere is Finley’s most well-known and celebrated book, but he has written others (including The Contemplative Heartwhich I reviewed here). The most immediate difference between Merton’s Palace of Nowhere and The Contemplative Heart is that the earlier book is much more Christian, at least overtly. I don’t know if the difference is merely due to different intended audiences or to an author whose views have evolved into a more universal view of contemplative spirituality over time (much as Merton’s did).

Reviewed most simply, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere is an excellent book which well deserves its status as a contemporary spiritual classic. Anyone who has benefited from the works of Thomas Merton, and even anyone who has not yet read a word of Merton could gain much for their spiritual life and growth from these pages. In fact, it can be effectively read as an entryway into Merton’s life work.

And that crazy title? Surely a reference to Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle (and I’d love if anyone’s made the in-depth comparison) in a quote original to Merton, the Palace of Nowhere is the contemplative life, a spacious and beautiful place but which is no-where because there is no-arriving at its no-final-destination, which has no-door which can only be opened by no-one. Or as someone else once said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Finally, because I love sharing excerpts:

An unborn baby that could think and have its way might choose not to be born. The violent wrenching from its dark, warm world into a horizon beyond its fingertips might seem like a transformation too great to bear. Yet, mercifully, it has no choice. The child finds itself, screaming in protest, flung by the heels into an unfamiliar world.

 

The spiritual life is a kind of birth. In fact, Jesus proclaimed that unless we are born again we will never enter into that life that knows no death. But every birth is a kind of dying. Every new stage of growth calls for a letting go of what went before it. And this letting go hurts. The cross is the source of life yet it pierces us and drains us of the the only life we know.

 

The Father, Jesus said, prunes every fruit tree clean to increase its yield. Prayer unveils our heart, allowing it to be cut by God’s delicate touch. There is no growth in prayer without some degree of exposure to this purification process out of which the true self emerges in its unexpected splendor.

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Contemplation and Walking by the Spirit

And so asking how to realize the true self is much like facing a large field covered with snow that has not yet been walked on and asking, “Where is the path?” The answer is to walk across it and there will be a path. One cannot find out how to realize the true self and then set out to reach the clearly visualized goal. Rather, one must walk on in faith and as one goes on, the goal appears–not before, nor within, nor beyond us, but it does appear.

James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere

When I was young, I was taught that the center of the Christian life was to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), a verse which was interpreted to mean that the Christian life is to learn the voice of the Spirit and then to obey. The problem: in the most-of-the-time when God isn’t speaking, then what do you do? One answer: do nothing.

Since then I have learned that the Christian tradition has developed precise language for this. The dynamic of waiting and only waiting I experienced then and which I tend toward now is what the Christian tradition has named Quietism, and the pole opposite Quietism is Activism. Both poles are problematic, Quietism being disembodied and solitary (and therefore anti-) Christianity and Activism being Peter cutting off Malchus’ ear at the arrest of Jesus.

The contemplative life springs from the conviction that there is a way to be grounded in God and to navigate between those two poles. Yes, we do work out our own salvation, but we never forget that we do so with fear and trembling.

The Contemplative Heart by James Finley

James Finley is best known for having been a student at the Abbey of Gethsemani under Thomas Merton, and his best known book is Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, which deals with Merton’s concept of the true and false selves. Finley himself eventually left Gethsemani, married, trained and still practices as a psychotherapist, but he never left the contemplative life behind.

Finley claims early on in The Contemplative Heart that he is writing an introduction to the contemplative life. This is true: you can be introduced to contemplation in these pages in the same sense that you can be introduced to swimming in Lake Michigan. Folks looking for an introduction should probably look elsewhere, however, because this book can be overwhelming both in its content and in its writing style.

Conservative Christians may come to the book and be turned off immediately. Finley tends not to want to make much distinction between God and human beings (or anything else), he’s not interested in using precise theological language (at least in the academic sense) to describe the human experience of God, and he is quite open to non-specifically-Christian spiritual paths.

The names of the book’s parts make clear its depths and particularity: (1) A Contemplative Vision of Life; (2) Find Your Contemplative Practice and Practice It; (3) Find Your Contemplative Community and Enter It; (4) Find Your Contemplative Teaching and Enter It. This is about contemplation as a discipline, not as a life strategy or a technique for managing stress or anything else but as a life in and of God. (Not to say that Finley would have any problem with people starting wherever they start.)

This is an excellent book, with excellent insights, which are drawn from decades of reading, practice, and leading others in practice. Finley draws from deep wells: his own Catholic faith, his time as a monk, his training in psychotherapy, his relationship with his wife, as well as his knowledge of Eastern traditions (Buddhism in particular). I would love a chance to do a retreat with him.

To gain the most from this book, do not get a copy and decide to read it like a novel. Parcel it out to yourself, day by day. I spent about two months with it, and that was the right pace; it’s rich food that takes time to experience, savor, chew, and digest.

Here’s a tidbit, complete with Finley’s writing style asking to be taken in in small pieces, intentionally drawing the reader into a contemplative posture even while reading:

Our egocentric self sets out with an egocentric understanding of what it means to be free of the tyranny of egocentricity. This egocentric understanding is that of having to jump over a bar that is set so high that only the most finely tuned spiritual athlete could ever hope to clear it. Our struggles with distractions, sleepiness and indifference brings us to a point of near despair, convincing us that our doubts were true concerning our inability to master such a seemingly unreachable challenge. Then, just as we are spent in the futility of investing ourselves in our own illusions concerning the nature of the fulfillment that alludes us, the saving event happens. Love steps out and places the bar flat on the ground! Approaching the bar, disoriented by the unthinkable simplicity of the task, we trip over it, falling headlong into God, wholly poured out in and as who we simply are—all precious in our fragility, strangely whole and one with God in the midst of our fragmentation.

And, yes, Finley does spell it alludes, not eludes. I believe it may have been intentional.