An excerpt from an interview with Dr. James Finley, who left home at the age of 18 for the Abbey of Gethsemane (photo right) 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:
Question: 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 Finely: 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.