What with teaching half the summer and prepping for this semester the other half, I find myself tired and out of sorts, not ready for the new semester that begins on Wednesday. What I really want is to become Emily Dickinson, talking to people through the door, if at all, and dropping little notes out my window to encourage the neighbors.
Looking back over the opening chapters of Thomas Merton's The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation reminded me tonight of some excellent truths to carry into the new school year, in light of this mood and tiredness. In Chapter 3, "Society and the Inner Self," Merton writes about the relation between contemplation and love; contemplation is the work of love, and love needs an object -- not only God but the neighbor as well. This love is "above flesh and blood": "not something pale and without passion, but a love in which passion has been elevated and purified by selflessness, so that it no longer follows the inspiration of mere natural instinct. This love is guided by the Spirit of Christ and seeks the good of the other rather than our own momentary interest or pleasure. More, [. . .] it rests in love for love's own sake, and attains, in Christ, to the truth not insofar as it is desirable but above all insofar as it is true and good in itself. This is at the same time our own highest good and the good of the others, and in such love, 'all are One.'"
Merton continues, discussing the solitude necessary for contemplation: "Solitude is necessary for spiritual freedom. But once that freedom is acquired, it demands to be put to work in the service of a love in which there is no longer subjection or slavery. Mere withdrawal [from the world for contemplation], without the return to freedom in [. . .] action, would lead to a static and deathlike inertia of the spirit in which the inner self would not waken at all." Solitude should lead to "the freedom and spontaneity of an inner self that is entirely unpreoccupied with itself and goes forth to meet the other lightly and trustfully, without afterthought of self-concern [. . .] ." Writing a little later of the Desert Fathers, he says they went into the desert "not to study speculative truth but to wrestle with practical evil; not to perfect their analytical intelligence but to purify their hearts. They went into solitude not to get something but in order to give themselves, for 'He that would save his life must lose it, and he that will lose his life for the sake of Christ, shall save it.'"
This is a reminder I need. In my sometimes desperate need for quiet, for solitude, for space to reflect, I find myself desiring these for their own sake, not for the sake of service. I must remember both to set aside time to be quiet -- for contemplation is a necessary part of the life well-lived -- but to be mindful that such time leads to renewed desire to serve others, to put myself aside, to die in Christ so that I can live for Him.
And there is a related idea Merton reminds me of as well: the need in my work of service for "detached activity -- work done without concern for results but with the pure intention of fulfilling the will of God." It is not I who will "save" my students, in or out of the classroom, for the Lord or for effective writing. I can only give myself to Him, do as He directs, and be unconcerned about myself and about that which is beyond my control.
My prayer for all my colleagues, here and across the country: May we remember and learn to live in these truths more faithfully every day.