JF: His continuous encouragement to be aware of the ways I was not being honest and genuine about myself and to interface this personal honesty with a radical commitment to the mystic path.
GWM: Jim, at the time you were a novice under Merton, did he always seem bigger than life, or were you aware of his humanness—for lack of a better word?
JF: Both. In one sense, when I was in his presence, I sensed I was in the presence of something very big, very real. I guess it would be analogous to what it would have been like to a person sitting in the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He was one of those people.
On the other side of that same question, he was very open about his own shortcomings. I got permission to stay in his hermitage for a couple of nights after he died. While there, I asked myself, “Why is this place holy ground for me?” And I realized it wasn’t because the man who lived in this place had the answers; he never claimed to have the answers. It wasn’t because he did it right; he never claimed to do it right. He never said, “Do it like this.” But rather, I think he gave witness to the ultimate irrelevancy of our failures and shortcomings when we live in this radical confidence in God’s love for us, which implies the moral imperative of doing your honest best to work on those things.
GWM: He never tied to convince you that he was perfect or that his transformation was approaching completion?
JF: Merton said somewhere that he learned to laugh at the very idea of perfection. This is one of the deepest points in his writings. We tend to think of there being some kind of arrival point beyond our foolishness, where we will no longer be susceptible to being just one more foolish human trying to get through another day. But Merton invites us to discover there is a profound level of our human weakness that we never get beyond. He once said, “The most real thing in your life is something you do not know and do not need to, because God loves you. It is in letting the acceptance of our weakness be our teacher that we discover the depths of God’s tender mercies.”
I say in the Merton talks I give that your issue could be having a temper, and your last act on this earth could be throwing a bedpan before you die. So from the standpoint of the ego’s quest for perfection, it’s a discouraging thought. But that’s the whole point: the mystery of our union with God is not reducible to ethical, moral, or behavioral terms. It’s not reducible to any terms at all. It’s the ultimate irrelevancy of all things less or other than the absolute love of God for us as precious in our brokenness. Some of the Christian mystics speak of the gift of tears. By this they mean the tears that flow sometimes literally, sometimes as an interior sense of quiet joy and amazement in realizing that one is infinitely loved—without foundations for that love within one’s having earned it—and then walking in that divine love, living by it day by day.
GWM: I’ll need to give that some time to soak in. But I need to transition now to your book. In reading Christian Meditation, I was very surprised to learn that during your years of living as a monk, you were not taught how to meditate. In fact, there was no emphasis given to practicing any specific method of meditation during your time at Gethsemane. Did that surprise you at the time, and what was the purpose behind this absence of instruction?
JF: My sense of it is this: If we think of meditation in its broadest terms, we can think of meditation as a way of calming our minds and our hearts to offer the least resistance to the graced event of realizing oneness with God is our very life, our very reality.
Because this realization is a grace, we can’t reach it by our own efforts. But what we can do, in a sincere way, is become as vulnerable as possible to the graced event of this awakening. So meditation can be understood as the process of assuming that interior stance of receptivity and openness to God the Spirit’s awakening us to God’s life-presence in our lives. If we understand meditation in that sense, then we can say that when St. Benedict wrote his rule, every aspect of the monastic life—the silence, chanting the Psalms, manual labor, the reading of Scripture, and prayer—was intended to be an aspect of perpetual meditative awareness of God’s presence.
GWM: So meditation was presented more as an approach to all of living than the development and practice of a specific technique.
JF: Yes, meditation was presented as the life itself. If you do not resist it, the life itself fosters the awareness of God’s presence. Of course, what you discover is that you do resist, or at least avoid, living in this openness to God. It is this awareness that brings self-knowledge and need to depend on God for guidance.
GWM: How does this make a difference in your life now as you drive to work?
JF: Well, let’s say I am driving to work here in southern California during rush hour. I realize I can stop and remind myself, “In this moment, God is all about me and within me. In this moment, sitting here in the car on the way to work, I am being loved by God into this present moment. There is nothing missing here.” Simply slowing down, taking a few breaths, and reinstating myself in meditative awareness of God’s presence help to keep me from being caught up in this busyness of things.
Contemplative Prayer as a Progression
GWH: Jim, in the introduction to this interview, I referred to the analogy you used to describe contemplative prayer in terms of three movements or phases for reading a love letter—spiritual reading, meditation, and contemplation. In that analogy, you refer to the third movement as contemplation and state that it involves becoming lost in the real presence of the one you love.
What is it like for you when you become lost in the real presence of God?
JF: It’s hard to express that in words. The analogy would be like asking someone who is married to describe his deepest feelings of love for his spouse.
But to make an attempt at it, I experience it in terms of presence. When I first sit in meditation, I renew my faith-awareness that in some manner I can’t grasp or understand, God is already perfectly present, all about me and within me. I remind myself that God is not dualistically present, as if God were invisibly here alongside me. Rather, God is here as the reality of my very reality; God is loving me into the present moment; my very being is flowing from God as a gift of God. My very life is flowing from God as a gift from God; the present moment is flowing from God as a gift from God. It’s flowing from God as the concreteness of this very moment that I am sitting here. It’s not a theoretical abstraction; it’s the ultimate nature of the very concreteness of this moment of me sitting here.
Therefore, I seek in meditation to sit quietly, to become as attentive as I can be to the immediacy of God in me and beyond me in the present moment. So if I am sitting with my eyes lowered toward the ground, I see my hands in my lap and the floor. If a car goes by outside, I hear that. I try neither to cling to nor reject whatever occurs, so that I might realize God’s presence in all that occurs. I try to stay with the immediacy of all that is occurring moment by moment, and so, too, with all feelings that come up within me. I try not to cling to or reject unpleasant feelings, nor do I cling to pleasant ones, but try to be open to God’s presence in the mystery, the gift, of all my feelings.
As soon as I realize I am starting to drift away into daydreaming or thinking my thoughts, I simply return to this sustained awareness of being immediate and open to God in the present moment. I find that sitting like that is a way of coming to a profound sense of God as the living source of myself, others, and all things.
To use some examples where this more interior awareness awakens in the deepest moments of our lives, when a husband and wife are making love, there is a point at which they are aware of themselves and the act of making love. But as they mutually surrender themselves to their loving union, they become what making love is. In doing so, they experience together something of love’s endless nature.
Another example is a mother nursing her infant. Up to a certain point, she is aware of herself nursing her infant. But in its deepest, most intimate moments, she somehow becomes non-distinguished from the mystery of what nursing her infant is. And in becoming what nursing her infant is, she intuitively senses the endless nature of this moment. At some point, we can begin to realize that every moment of our lives is, deep down, just like that. Every moment, deep down, is God loving us into the present moment, making the immediacy of each moment, each beat of our hearts, to be a divine gift. Meditation for me is way of opening myself to the direct experience of this God-given godly nature of our lives.