This is from the Foreword to one of Thomas Merton’s last books, Contemplative Prayer:
There is a line in William Blake that says that “we are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beam of love”… In this line we are given a clue both to the greatness of the human condition: that is irradiated by love; but also the firm reminder of how much remains to be done to prepare a man to bear the “beams of love.” Here in this last firm reminder are hints both of man’s longing for exposure to these “beams of love” and yet his fear of what may be involved to come within its transforming power. For if to pray means to change, it is no wonder that men, even devoted men, hurry to fashion protective clothing, leaden aprons that resist all radiation, even beam-proof shelters within corporate religious exercises, in order to elude the “beams of love” and to stay as they are.
Thomas Merton points to these “beams of love,” and compels us to acknowledge our contrived hiding places. This may seem a negative task to seek to strip men of their cloaks of evasion and to leave them exposed before the necessary decisions, but how else is one to describe genuine prayer. Prayer if it is real is an acknowledgement of our finitude, our need, our openness to be changed, our readiness to be surprised, yes, astonished, by the “beams of love.”
In an old fashioned theater, there were often three or four fire curtains with lively scenes painted on them. At intervals before the play began, these painted curtains were lifted one after another. As a member of the audience, I was never quite sure whether it was still another painted curtain or the very play itself that was there before me. But finally the last fire curtain lifted and now there was nothing between me and the actors themselves.
Real prayer may have many curtains that must rise before we are in living touch with the play itself, and relentlessly Thomas Merton describes fire curtain after fire curtain until at last we are compelled to see it for what it is – a safety device that must go before the real play may begin!
Now, Thomas Merton’s own words:
Many serious and good [Christians], idealists, desire to make of their lives a work of art according to an approved pattern. This brings with it an instinct to study themselves, to shape their lives, to remodel themselves, to tune and re-tune all their interior dispositions – and this results in full-time meditation and contemplation of themselves. They may unfortunately find this so delightful and absorbing that they lose all interest in the invisible and unpredictable action of grace. In a word, they seek to build their own security, to avoid the risk and dread implied by submission to the unknown mystery of God’s will…[This can result]: Confusion, helplessness – a sense of incapacity again due to the abuse of subjectivism – imprisoned in ourselves we become paralyzed. The way out is faith. What can we do about all these obstacles? The New Testament does not offer us techniques and expedients: it tells us to turn to God, to depend on his grace, to realize that the Spirit is given to us, wholly, in Christ. That he prays in us when we do not know how to pray…
The activity of the Spirit within us becomes more and more important as we progress in the life of interior prayer. It is true that our own efforts remain necessary, at least as long as they are not entirely superseded by the action of God “in us and without us”. But more and more our efforts attain a new orientation: instead of being directed toward ends we have chosen ourselves, instead of being measured by the profit and pleasure we judge they will produce, they are more and more directed to an obedient and cooperative submission to grace, which implies first of all an increasingly attentive and receptive attitude toward the hidden action of the Holy Spirit.