James Finley left home at the age of 18 for the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, where Thomas Merton lived as a contemplative. Finley stayed at the monastery for six years, living the traditional Trappist life of prayer, silence, and solitude. Here Finley describes life with Thomas Merton, and how he pointed the way to an enlightened state of awareness open to us all.
Sounds True:Here we are almost 40 years after Thomas Merton's death, and his spiritual legacy—and his legend, really—continues to grow. How do we begin to understand who Thomas Merton really was?
James Finley: Thomas Merton, as a young man, was spiritually awakened to the presence of God in life itself, to the mystery that there is nothing missing anywhere. His desire to go ever deeper into this realization of divinity of life led him to the monastery at Gethsemani.
He saw his life as a monk as a way of surrendering his entire being to that awakening. And he was gifted with a voice that continues to guide and encourage our own desire for awakening, and be faithful to that experience.
Sounds True: We hear about “spontaneous experiences of awakening,” but for some of us this concept doesn't seem real. How common are these “awakenings,” and what does it mean to be “faithful” to them?
James Finley: There are moments in life when there's a visceral certitude that the “awakening” experience is real, and precious. By their very nature these moments are self-authenticating: that whatever the greater meaning of life is about, that I am now glimpsing something of that essence. There is an intuition that in this instant you are glimpsing the true nature of the one unending moment in which our lives unfold.
Merton wrote and talked often about the fact that these awakening moments arise spontaneously out of the substance of everyday life itself. That is, they come in a moment of holding a newborn infant, or lying awake at night when it starts to rain, or walking along the beach in the midst of a deep sorrow. Our heart is quickened and we know that this moment is true. And they're often extremely subtle. They are so subtle that if we aren't careful we will miss it. But the point is, we didn't miss it.
If we really slow down and attentively sit with these moments, we see that they disclose to us a depth that fulfills our hearts. That is, there's the intimation of tasting directly for ourselves that part of life which never ends. And once we've tasted of that fulfillment, we begin to see the essentially claustrophobic nature of egocentric pursuits. We begin to ask ourselves: “Why do I spend so much of my life trapped like this, on the outer circumference of the inner richness of my own life? Why do I spend so much time unaware of that which alone can fulfill my heart?” This aching or longing is our teacher. It helps us to realize that we are called to something infinitely beyond what any egocentric pursuit can offer us. And then in obedience to that teacher we set out on this path.
Sounds True: Sometimes we think that there's something wrong with that aching or longing.
James Finley: That's right. Paradoxically, the way to our deliverance lies in the willingness to open our hearts to this ache. That is what transforms us. But the contracted state of egocentricity invests itself in the avoidance of that ache, which of course does nothing but perpetuate the discontent.
What is so great about monastic life and meditation practice itself is that one willfully enters a state of no escape. That is, one freely chooses to sit in a deep attentive listening to this ache. And in surrendering to it, we then begin to taste within it the promise of fulfillment.
Sounds True: In the context of this aching or longing, how can we understand this idea of “the Palace of Nowhere” as our ultimate destination?
James Finley: The phrase comes from the Taoist sage and poet Chaung Tzu, who wrote: “Come with me to the palace of nowhere, where all the many things are one.” We therefore use the phrase “palace of nowhere” as a metaphor for contemplative fulfillment. That is, the palace of nowhere is a state of awareness in which we realize directly that ultimately nothing is real but love. Or that ultimately nothing is real but God. Or that ultimately the concrete immediacy of life itself is the concrete manifestation of the divine. The reference to “nowhere” means that as soon as we try to back up, to stand and claim what we seem to have found, that it will all slip through our fingers again.
And so I deliberately use the phrase “palace of nowhere” to allude to this great paradox. The nowhere is the infinite ground of everywhere.
Sounds True: If you were to imagine for a moment that Thomas Merton was still alive today, how do you feel he would be responding to the current world situation?
James Finley: I was in the monastery with Merton in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War. The Berrigan brothers would come there to visit him, and he corresponded with people like Boris Pasternak and Bob Dylan. He was one of the Catholic intellectuals who helped fuel the peace movement. My sense is that what Merton would say today would be consistent with what he was saying then. That is, we face the individual dilemma of estrangement from contemplative experience and the preciousness of our own lives, as well as society's estrangement from this awareness. And that estrangement perpetuates violence. Therefore the task of the contemplative today is to be a prophetic witness—a nonviolent witness to the preciousness of all life, at a level that precedes and transcends all ideological positions.