Most people associate the creative with the lush, the prolific, the fertile, the rich. Contemplation or meditation as the Trappist Monk Brother Paul Quenon describes it in “Alone and Together” sounds like the opposite: It “is too poor, too empty, and obscure. It is mostly an entrance to and abiding in the emptiness of Christ. And that largely without being aware that it is Christ’s emptiness. Gradually one ceases to think of it as one’s own as well. “
It sounds bleak. Trappist monk, who received his novitiate training under Thomas Merton, makes his calling and his mentor Merton’s calling sound like an exile in the desert—going beyond comfort and hope, in which “the self and its sense of well-being, or lack thereof, is incidental.” The strange thing is that Brother Paul is a prolific writer and by many accounts a wonderful, happy, engaged human being—and so was his famous mentor.
Brother Paul, who wake up at 2:40 in the morning to start his meditation in Vigils at 3:00 a.m. , asks what he is doing. This is a good question–especially because this good kind human being senses that what he needs is something “too pure and brief for me to dwell on.” What he really needs—what we all really need—is a connection with life that is intimate and true. We need to know that we are accepted by God and by life as we are. As Brother Paul puts in a journal entry included in his essay: “the truth of my name is already spoken in the silence….”
Or as I have thought of it far more folksy, slangy terms: “sometimes God likes to get us alone.” I have been in a few deserts in the course of my life, most of us have—stretches of life not going according to plan, times of not knowing what would come. These stretches can lead to a very intimate contact with your life–this naked contact is essential to a truly creative life.
Did you ever wonder why a soul like Merton–overflowing with creativity and a wish to serve—would enter a Trappist monastery? Into the desert Brother Paul goes—and finds that the detachment and freedom that opens the flood gates of creativity. He quotes a spare little poem by his mentor Merton called “Song for Nobody” –“A yellow flower/(light and spirit)/sings by itself/For nobody.”
Merton might have been describing a scraggly flower on the gravel path to his hermitage, according to Brother Paul, yet its song contains “the grandeur and the poverty of interior prayer.” Brother Paul makes the point that true creativity begins when we stop caring in an ordinary way—when we stop caring about being a success in the eyes of the world. Brother Paul offers the example of Emily Dickinson, who lived like a nun and didn’t care at all about success or publication. For Dickinson, poetry was a way of meditating or contemplating: “Thought belongs to Him who gave it.”
The word contemplation comes from the Latin word contemplatio. Its root is also that of the Latin word templum, a piece of ground consecrated for the taking of auspices, or a building for worship, derived either from Proto-Indo-European base *tem- “to cut”, and so a “place reserved or cut out” or from the Proto-Indo-European base *temp- “to stretch”, and thus referring to a cleared space in front of an altar. The Latin word contemplatio was used to translate the Greek word θεωρία (theoria).
To contemplate or meditate is enter an empty space (the root of the word sacred means to set apart). As Merton famously said real prayer is learned in the hour when easy wordy prayers are impossible). I have been writing in this space about the importance of letting go and letting be. Now I am adding the importance of daring to enter the desert, of daring to be poor and obscure and maybe even a little crazy in the eyes of the world. Dare to be useless and incoherent. As Thomas Merton said: “If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”
Life can be like this: Just when we’ve given up hope of finding a way out of the desert we may come upon a spring. Just when you have accepted that scorn of the world or your parents or mentors—just when you are too parched and tired to care about anybody’s judgments, you may find a deep well. It happens at the point when you go beyond all the noise—let them call you a lunatic, a bum, an extra and thoroughly unwanted human who doesn’t pull her weight, someone too impractical, artistic, mystical, unrealistic (you may add your favorite salt to the wound of being you). It happens when you stop needing assurances and praise. You will sink into a stillness below the words, and remember the simple vibrant, naked sense of being alive. And then you may find the source, the wellspring. No one knew to tell you it was there—no one knew. No one but God, and now you.