Merton: Spiritual Direction

“The only trouble is that in the spiritual life there are no tricks and no shortcuts. Those who imagine that they can discover spiritual gimmicks and put them to work for themselves usually ignore God’s will and his grace.” —Thomas Merton in Contemplative Prayers.

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Thomas Merton’s concise book, Spiritual Direction and Meditation, is another excellent source for someone who wants to know what spiritual direction is all about. It is often recommended to spiritual friends before meeting about direction for the first time. It should also be a frequent reread for those giving spiritual direction. Merton reminds us that spiritual direction is not psychotherapy, and that directors should not become amateur therapists. He recommends that directors not concern themselves with unconscious drives and emotional problems. They should refer.

Merton’s sections on meditations are classic, straight forward, and practical. He uses the story of the Prodigal Son to serve as a model for meditation, as the son “entered into himself” and meditated on his condition, starving in a distant land, far from his father. Merton also suggests the Incarnation, the birth of God into human form, as focus for another meditation relating to birth events within our own spiritual life.

Merton emphasizes the importance of holy leisure, believing that meditation should not be work, remembering that it will take time. He reminds us of promising artists who have been ruined by a premature success, which drove them to overwork in order to renew again and again the image of themselves created in the public mind. An artist who is wise spends more time contemplating his work beforehand than he does putting paint to canvas; and a poet who respects her art burns more pages than she publishes.

In the interior life we must allow intervals of silent transitions in our prayer life. Merton reminds us of the words of St. Teresa: “God has no need of our works. God has need of our love.” The aim of our prayer life is to awaken the Holy Spirit within us, so that the Spirit will speak and pray through us. Merton believes that in contemplative prayer we learn about God more by love than by knowledge. Our awakening is brought on not by our actions, but by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Merton also cautions us about what he calls informal or colloquial “comic book spirituality,” which flourishes in popular religious literature: for example, when Mary becomes Mom and Joseph is Dad, and we “just tell them all about ourselves all day long.” This may be a helpful path to God for some, but it was not Merton’s path.