The late Dom Aelred Graham, a monk of Downside Abbey back in the middle of the twentieth century wrote that in the future people will leave the church; not because they have forsaken spirituality but for the sake of spirituality. There seems to be much evidence today on the accuracy of this prophecy. For instance the number of Roman Catholics regularly attending Mass has dropped significantly whereas the interest in books on spirituality and prayer has burgeoned. Similarly there is a great concern over issues of social justice, human dignity, the environment and authentic community. With this as a background then it is interesting that a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of James Finley’s “merton’s palace of nowhere” should have recently been published.
Just a few years ago James Finley was one of the keynote speakers at a General Meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society. Several hundred attended his talk and there was standing room only in the auditorium. Dozens of those attending, including many influential writers, theologians and spiritual teachers gave eloquent testimony to the influence that this book has had on their life. For many of them it marked their initiation into the work of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers; Thomas Merton. For others it was the catalyst that began a life of committed contemplative prayer. All maintained that this was a book that, over the years, they continued to return to for help and encouragement. For myself when asked to write this review I looked once again at my original edition and found that virtually every page had passages underlined, in fact some pages were almost totally underlined.
The book’s title is most accurate as right from the start there is a very liberal sprinkling of quotes from Thomas Merton. Indeed if I had any criticism it would be that Finley could have spoken more from his own experience rather than simply giving a constant succession of Merton quotes. At the beginning of this anniversary edition Finley points out that the book is a result of five years of reflection on his experience of spending five and a half years as a monk at Gethsemani with Thomas Merton as his spiritual director. Finley begins the book with an introduction “Upon Learning to See” No doubt you will recall that the Greek word Theoria meaning to see lies behind the English word contemplation. Contemplative prayer as taught by Merton is a practice that enables the practitioner to see clearly the true nature of things. In the introduction Finley shows how Merton clears away any grand and esoteric ideas about contemplative prayer making the point that it is firmly located in the ordinariness of everyday life. Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s secretary at the monastery makes the same vital point in his foreword to this edition pointing out that this is highlighted in the episode when during one of the spiritual direction meetings
Finley once asked Merton questions concerning the more advanced stages of mystical prayer. Father Louis,[ as Merton was known in the monastery], changed gears quickly and asked Brother Finbar [James Finley] to tell him about his work with the calves and how he found his job looking after their needs. Wise man. We reveal our true selves – as well as our
growth in the spiritual life – as we go about ordinary daily chores and above all in our relationships with our brothers and sisters,
The introduction also asserts that the underlying thesis of the book clearly rests on the fact that:
Merton’s whole spirituality, in one way or another, pivots on the question of ultimate human identity. Merton’s message is that we are one with God. What Merton repeatedly draws us to is the realization that our own deepest self is not so much our own self as it is the self one with the” Risen and Deathless Christ in Whom all are fulfilled in One.”
The book then deals with “The Foundation of the False Self” that obscures our awareness of our true identity. With this established the reader has the journey to the “Realization of the True Self” outlined. in this Finley well captures Merton’s profound and often humorous teaching.
This is no more apparent than in the incisive quote that Finley gives from Merton on the danger of a spirituality driven by the false self.
The idea that you can choose yourself, approve yourself, and then offer yourself (fully ‘chosen’ and ‘approved’) to God applies the assertion of yourself over against God. From this root of error comes all the sour leafage and fruitage of a life of self-examination, interminable problems and unending decisions always making right choices, walking on the razor edge of an impossibly subtle ethic…all this implies the frenzied conviction that one can be his own light and his own justification, and that God is there for a purpose: to issue a stamp of confirmation upon my own rightness. In such a religion the Cross becomes meaningless except as the (blasphemous) certification that because you suffer, because you are misunderstood, you are justified twice over – you are a martyr. Martyr means witness. You are then a witness. To what? To your own infallible light and your own justice, which you have chosen. This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus ever did or taught.
Through careful use of quotes from a variety of Merton’s books on spirituality Finley leads his readers to Merton’s awakening not only to his own true nature but that of everyone. Finley quotes from Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” where out of his own personal epiphany experience Merton pinpoints an awareness that becomes utterly life changing.
At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish, completely…I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
Re-reading the whole book forces me to ask the question on why it has had such an impact. I think it stems from Merton’s academic study of the early monastic and contemplative tradition in both the Christian and the Zen perspective. Merton then integrates this into his own lived experience and articulates it in a contemporary non pietistic language which is readily accessible to the ordinary people who long to live a fruitful life. In an age when much of traditional religious language has become no more than soporific sound bites like television advertisements perhaps the language of Merton will speak in a lively way to today’s spiritual seeker.
Following those who, for the last twenty-five years, have been challenged and enriched by “Merton’s palace of nowhere”: I am sure that the publication of this anniversary edition will prompt a whole new crop of readers to take its wise guidance on their life’s journey. That many will buy the book, read it, live it and follow it up with all the Merton books in the index is my fervent hope.