James Finley, Author at Center for Action and Contemplation

By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies and our Privacy Policy.

Lost in the Secret of God’s Face

Living in God’s Great Story

Lost in the Secret of God’s Face
Wednesday, September 1, 2021

In an episode of his podcast Turning to the Mystics, James Finley shares how he first encountered the work of Thomas Merton (1915–1968) and how it changed the course of his life. He says:

When I was at home growing up in Akron, Ohio with a violent, alcoholic father—like ongoing violent abuse—I was in the ninth grade at an all-boys Catholic school. . . . One of the instructors in the religion class mentioned monasteries. I’d never heard of monasteries before. Because of the role prayer played in my life to help me survive what was happening to me at home, I was already starting to get opened up that way. I was very taken by this idea of monasteries, that there were places you could go to, to seek God, and so on. And he talked about Thomas Merton. So, I went to the school library that day and they had one book by Merton, The Sign of Jonas, which is a journal he wrote in the monastery.

On the first page of that journal, he writes, “As for me, I have but one desire, the desire for solitude, to be lost in the secret of God’s face.” At fourteen years old, I didn’t know what it meant, but something in me did. . . . I got my own copy, and I read it over and over and over again. I thought it was so beautiful. I just sensed how true it was. Therefore, in the four years of high school, [while] the violence was still going on, I started writing to the monastery. . . . When I graduated from high school, I entered, and went in there, and then [Thomas] Merton was novice master. That’s how he got to be my spiritual director. I was eighteen years old.

Jim continues to explore how working with Merton allowed him to come to terms with his own story, while staying connected to God’s reality:

The reality of Thomas Merton made God’s unreality impossible to me. That is, [Merton’s] very reality was to me, the presence of God as a transformed person. I saw it in this ancient lineage of the mystics that he was that. I sat at his feet in the classical sense. . . .

I’d knock on his door, and he was always writing a book and he would sit and listen and talk, and it leveled the playing field for me, really, just absolutely in terms of compassion. And then [opened up by] that compassion, I told him about my desire for God. . . . Then he told me, he said, “Once in a while, you’ll find somebody to talk to about this, but they’re hard to find. They’re really hard to find.” And he said, “The purpose of this place is, it is a place meant to protect, to preserve, and cultivate this radical desire, as a charism in the world.” And then he offered me guidance in my own prayer.

James Finley with Kirsten Oates, “Turning to Thomas Merton,” February 24, 2020, in Turning to the Mystics, season 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.

Story from Our Community:
I am thankful for Brother Richard’s Daily Meditations. As a Franciscan in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, these reflections are so relevant for all—no matter our faith. The word of God continues to be relevant to all we walk with on our journey. I look forward to the reflections, which have become part of my daily rhythm of prayer and meditation. I give thanks to our Divine Love. —Br. Donald D.

Image credit: Raul Diaz, White Sands New Mexico (detail), 2006, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The natural grandeur of this photo reveals the creative and mysterious aspects of the Divine. But it doesn’t capture the dryness of the air, the heat of the sand, the sounds, the smells, and the tastes. That requires us to be there, present inside the landscape and story.

Present, Open, Awake

Doorways to Christian Contemplation

Present, Open, Awake
Monday, July 12, 2021

My friend and CAC teacher James Finley is a true contemplative! I watch the crowds—from conferences to Living School students—settle in his presence almost immediately. He is so centered in himself and in God that he is at peace and “transmits” the message with peace everywhere he goes. Here he offers gentle, loving instructions for what many consider traditional meditation:

There is no single way to meditate. There are, however, certain acts and attitudes inherently endowed with the capacity to awaken sustained states of meditative awareness. . . .

With respect to the body: Sit still. Sit straight. Place your hands in a comfortable or meaningful position in your lap. Close your eyes or lower them toward the ground. Breathe slowly and naturally. With respect to your mind, be present, open, and awake, neither clinging to nor rejecting anything. And with respect to attitude, maintain nonjudgmental compassion toward yourself as you discover yourself clinging to and rejecting everything, and nonjudgmental compassion toward others. . . .

Keep in mind that these guidelines are but suggestions for you to explore as part of your ongoing process of finding the ways to meditate that are most natural and effective for you. What matters is not which method of meditation you use, but the self-transforming process by which meditation leads you into more . . . openness to God. . . .

Go to your place of meditation. . . . You might say a brief and simple prayer expressing your gratitude to God for having been led to the path of meditation and asking for the wisdom, courage, and strength to be faithful to it. . . .

[Then] let go of all that is preoccupying you at the moment. Choose to be present in the immediacy of the present moment by simply relaxing into being right where you are, just as you are. Settle into the intimate, felt sense of your bodily stillness. Settle into being aware of your breathing and whatever degree of fatigue or wakefulness you may be feeling in your body at the moment. Be aware of whatever sadness, inner peace, or other emotion may be present. Be aware of the light and the temperature in the room where you are sitting. In short, simply be present, just as you are, in the moment, just as it is. Cling to nothing. Reject nothing. Rest in this moment. . . . Relax. Give yourself a break. Simply sit in a “Here I am, Lord” stance. . . . Know and trust that God is already perfectly present in your simply being alive and real in the present moment just as it is. . . .

Be humbled and grateful in knowing that you are learning to awaken to your true nature in learning to be like God. . . . Jesus said, “Judge not and you shall not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Sitting in meditation, we put this teaching of Christ into practice in remaining present, open, and awake to ourselves just as we are, without judging, without evaluating, without clinging to or rejecting the way we simply are.

James Finley, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God (HarperSanFrancisco: 2004), 203, 204–205, 207–208.

Story from Our Community:
Father Richard brings the true meaning of scripture with such clarity to my life! These teachings of contemplation have changed my whole perspective on God’s place in my life. I now know with certainty the depth of God’s love and guidance for me and all who seek. These words are in my life every day calling me to live a “kingdom” life through prayer, meditation, and service to the world. —Margaret W.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.

The Mystics as Directors

Spiritual Direction

The Mystics as Directors
Thursday, June 24, 2021

In addition to his work as a therapist, my friend James Finley has served as a spiritual director for decades. While spiritual direction most often involves one-on-one conversations between two living persons, Jim shows us how reading the words of the mystics can be a form of contemplative spiritual direction. They serve as a mirror, revealing to us their own humanity and the Presence of the Holy Spirit that is ever present to us, just as it was to them: 

Mystic teachers . . . offer trustworthy guidance to people who feel interiorly drawn toward this deeper unitive experience of God’s presence in their life. . . .

[The mystics] are assuming several things, that first of all, there’s the dignity, and the reality, and the complexities of the human experience. . . . They’re always assuming that these are real life people living a real life. So, in that sense, it’s a deep respect for the dignity and gift of the human experience.

Secondly, they assume that it’s the human experience illumined by faith, and specifically as revealed in Christ and all of the Scriptures, that we’re living our life in a relationship with God, and that God’s in a relationship with us, and God’s in this related state of oneness with us. And God’s oneness with us is the reality of us. That is, God’s perpetually creating us breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat. . . .

They bear witness to the godly nature of the intimate immediacy of ourselves, everybody, all things. The mystic teachers are then men and women who, in having traveled this path and then awakened to it, they want to offer guidance to people who are just beginning to get a taste of this. [1] . . .

The first season of Jim’s podcast focused on the work of Thomas Merton (1915–1968), who served as Jim Finley’s first spiritual director when he was a young man at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Here is a passage from one of Merton’s journals that highlights the humanity of this very holy man who in many ways sounds a lot like us!

Now at last let me begin to live by faith. Quaerite primum regnum Dei. Seek first the kingdom of God. Why do I mistrust Your goodness, mistrust everyone but myself, meet every new event on the defensive, squared off against everybody?

Dear Lord, I am not living like a monk, like a contemplative. The first essential is missing. I only say I trust You. My actions prove that the one I trust is myself—and that I am still afraid of You.

Take my life into Your hands at last. Do whatever You want with it. I give myself to Your love—rejecting neither the hard things nor the pleasant things You have arranged for me. . . . Everything You have planned is good. It is all love. [2]

[1] James Finley with Kirsten Oates, “Turning to Thomas Merton,” February 24, 2020, in Turning to the Mystics, season 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.

[2] Thomas Merton, Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings, ed. Jonathan Montaldo (HarperSanFrancisco: 2001), 51.

Explore further resources and watch Father Richard Rohr explain why more people are asking for—and benefiting from—spiritual direction.

Story from Our Community:
In 2007, I started a two-year course of study to become a spiritual director. . . It was truly a life-changing time for me. A book from the reading list included Fr. Richard’s “From Wild Man to Wise Man,” and, seeing myself as a highly educated and sophisticated individual, feelings of resentment followed the inference that I was a “wild man.” But once I got into the book and saw the parallels with my own life, I was astounded. A local Roman Catholic Priest agreed to be my spiritual director and I found his guidance to be as transforming as Fr. Richard’s writings and my training. What a different person I am now. Ego has been “reorganized,” and that little piece of God whose image my soul reflects is now discovered. —Jimmy B.

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, caught II (detail), 2020, photograph, Bellingham.
Image inspiration: This pattern of leaves exists for a brief moment in time—a calm just before wind buffets the surface and the leaves shift. Like these leaves, our many facets of human experience are in constant motion. Spiritual direction invites us to gently reveal this dance, moment by moment.

Transformed in the Beloved

Mystical Marriage

Transformed in the Beloved
Friday, May 14, 2021

The infinite love that is the architect of our hearts has made our hearts in such a way that nothing less than an infinite union with infinite love will do. It’s the setup in the beginning. . . . That infinite love creates you as a capacity for love, for love’s sake alone. That love is our destiny, love is the fabric of the true nature of everything that’s happening. This is the love nature of life. —James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush

Few people understand the love poetry and mysticism of John of the Cross (1542–1591) better than my friend James Finley. I never tire of hearing him teach on John, whether it’s at our Living School or on his recent podcast. I offer a few stanzas of John’s poetry with nothing more to guide you than Jim Finley’s conviction that God’s “infinite love” is in all in us. This first passage is from the “The Ascent of Mount Carmel”:

On a dark night,
Inflamed by love-longing—
O exquisite risk!—
Undetected I slipped away.
My house, at last, grown still.

Secure in the darkness,
I climbed the secret ladder in disguise—
O exquisite risk!—
Concealed by the darkness.
My house, at last, grown still.

That sweet night: a secret.
Nobody saw me;
I did not see a thing.
No other light, no other guide
Than the one burning in my heart.

This light led the way
more clearly than the risen sun
To where he was waiting for me
—The one I knew so intimately—
In a place where no one could find us.

O night, that guided me!
O night, sweeter than sunrise!
O night, that joined lover with Beloved!
Lover transformed in Beloved!

Upon my blossoming breast,
Which I cultivated just for him,
He drifted into sleep,
And while I caressed him,
A cedar breeze touched the air. . . .

I lost myself. Forgot myself.
I lay my face against the Beloved’s face.
Everything fell away and I left myself behind,
Abandoning my cares
among the lilies, forgotten. [1]


This second passage is from “The Spiritual Canticle”:

O soul,
most beautiful among all creatures,
you who so long to know the place
where your Beloved is,
so as to seek him
and become one with him,
now it has been stated:
you yourself are the home in which he dwells.
Here is a reason to be happy;
here is a cause for joy:
the realization that every blessing
and all you hope for
is so close to you
as to be within you.
Be glad,
find joy there,
gathered together
and present to him
who dwells within,
since he is so close to you;
desire him there,
adore him there,
and do not go off
looking for him elsewhere . . .
There is just one thing:
even though he is within you,
he is hidden.  [2]

[1] John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” stanzas 1–6, 8, in Dark Night of the Soul, trans. Mirabai Starr (Riverhead Books: 2002), 23–24, 25.

[2] John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle,” commentary on stanza 1, parts 7–8, in Saint John of the Cross: Devotions, Prayers & Living Wisdom, ed. Mirabai Starr (Sounds True: 2008), 39–40.

Season Three of James Finley’s podcast, “Turning to the Mystics,” focuses on St. John of the Cross.

Story from Our Community:
The cumulative effect of reading Fr. Richard’s meditations is that I have developed a deeper appreciation for the tradition in which I was raised, Roman Catholic. I have been given permission to let go of what doesn’t fit and embrace its mystical, contemplative tradition. This has created a deep longing to shed the separate self and has opened me up to the bounty of the Divine Healer within. The freedom that comes from this journey is indescribably rich and endless. —Theresa G.

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, swan (detail), 2017, photograph, Wikiart.
Image inspiration: The lines, curves and graceful beauty of the swan on water guide us into awe. Wouldn’t that be how one would respond to the presence of a beloved? God, the beloved. We, the beloved.

Our All-Vulnerable God

Trauma and Healing

Our All-Vulnerable God
Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Very few of us can actually imagine God suffering. I bet almost half the prayers of the Catholic Church begin with “Almighty God” and when you’re “all mighty,” you don’t suffer! And yet if we believe that Jesus reveals the hidden heart of God, we know that God suffers, too. Jesus is continually drawn to the suffering ones and suffers with them. Our English word “pity” doesn’t do justice to the Hebrew concept of the bowel-shaking empathy Jesus felt for the wounded people who came to him. Clinical psychologist and Episcopal priest Rev. Dr. Sally Howard writes about how God meets us in our trauma:

It is a time to discover new stories about our God, who could not bear to stand apart from our suffering and joined us to live as we might live. . . .

Our God, who poured Herself into the creation of all that exists, is subject to risk, to being fractured and torn, just as we are. . . . The knowledge and experience of God’s solidarity and union with us is profoundly healing and can alter the sequela of trauma so as not to become repetitive and recurrent. God desires closeness to all our experience, naked and raw, in its particularity and commonality. . . .

By providing the safe dwelling place, God defeats the horror in our lives. God catches up our trauma and weaves any horror-filled participation into an unending relationship of beatific intimacy. When we recognize God in our own narrative, there is no wound so deep that God cannot heal. [1]

Also in the latest edition of Oneing, CAC faculty member and dear friend James Finley recounts an experience from his doctoral training, during which he served as an intern on an inpatient alcohol treatment unit for veterans. Upon witnessing a new arrival at the unit accept the challenging truth of his addicted situation, Jim saw in the vulnerable alcoholic an insight about God’s presence, protection, and peace.

In the moment he stood there with tears in his eyes, he was vulnerable and, in his vulnerability, true invincibility was being manifested in the world. Thomas Merton (1915–1968) taught there is that in us that is not subject to the brutalities of our own will. No matter how badly we may have trashed ourselves in patterns of self-destructive behavior, this innermost hidden center of ourselves remains invincibly whole and undiminished because it is that in us that belongs entirely to God.

No matter what anyone has done to us in the past, or is doing to us now, or might do to us in the future, this innermost, hidden center of ourselves remains invincibly established in God as a mysterious Presence, as a life that is at once God’s and our own. It is in being awakened to this innermost center of ourselves with God that we find the courage to continue on in the challenging process of healing, grounded in a peace that is not dependent on the outcome of our efforts because it is the peace of God, which depends on nothing and on which everything depends. [2]

[1] Sally A. Howard, “Secure Dwelling and Positive Meaning in the Face of Trauma,” “Trauma,” Oneing, vol. 9, no. 1 (CAC Publishing: 2021), 25–26, 27.

[2] James Finley, “The Spiritual Dimensions of Healing during Traumatizing Times,” “Trauma,” Oneing, vol. 9, no. 1 (CAC Publishing: 2021), 94.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “God Is All Vulnerable More Than All Mighty,” homily, June 5, 2016.

Story from Our Community:
The books of Richard Rohr and James Finley have been instrumental in my spiritual journey. Through their works, I am able to survive and thrive after trauma and discover the healing blessings of peace and divine love, leading me to a contemplative way of being. I am forever grateful for their contribution to creating sparks and fires of divinity in our hearts. —Adela N.

Image credit: Belinda Rain, Water Drops On Grass (detail), 1972, photograph, California, National Archives.
Image inspiration: Even in and around our sharpest edges the water of life gathers. Soothing, nourishing, healing.

A Mutual Vulnerability

Wounded Healers

A Mutual Vulnerability
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Earlier this year, my colleague and dear friend Jim Finley gave an unpublished talk to Illuman, an organization that supports men in authentic spiritual development. Jim shared some stories from his own life, including how he began to heal from his own childhood abuse and trauma with the help of Thomas Merton, who was his novice master and spiritual director at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

When I went in to see Merton for direction, I was eighteen years old, I was just out of high school. Because of my trauma history I had this issue with authority figures. So when I went in to try to talk to him, I hyperventilated; I had a hard time breathing. And he said to me, “What’s going on?” I told him, my voice was shaking, and I said, “I’m scared because you’re Thomas Merton.”

I can remember being so ashamed, because I wanted him to think well of me. . . . He said to me something that really was a turning point in my life. . . . I worked at the pig barn at the time. . . . He said, “Under obedience, every day after afternoon work, before vespers, I want you to come here every day and sit down and tell me one thing that happened at the pig barn each day.”. . .

I remember thinking to myself, “I can do that.” And it leveled the playing field. . . . Just two men sitting in a room, talking about daily work. And he became a father figure for me.

I learned a big lesson, which later really was to affect me in my own therapy and as a therapist, that when you risk sharing what hurts the most in the presence of someone who will not invade you or abandon you, you can learn not to invade or abandon yourself. Even deeper down, when you risk sharing what hurts the most in the presence of someone who will not invade you or abandon you, you can discover within yourself what Jesus called the pearl of great price [Matthew 13:46], your invincible preciousness in the midst of your fragility.

So through humility and through vulnerability, the true strength of being empowered, my manhood came forth, sitting in this room. Out of all the studies I’ve done with Merton, and my talks on Merton, I think nothing went deeper than talking with him about the pigs. Because that’s compassion. . . .

So this is my sense of manhood, I guess: a radicality, a spirituality, that gives me the courage to face the most broken and lost places within myself, discovering through that acceptance the oceanic tender mercy of God that sustains us in that brokenness, so that by learning to be this way ourselves we can pass it on to others. We can be someone in whose presence it’s safe to be vulnerable and to be open, and truly courageous and strong and powerful, as Jesus was strong and powerful, in the truest, deepest sense of the word.

Adapted from James Finley, “An Illuman Watering Hole Zoom Event,” (June 18, 2020), unpublished presentation. To learn more about this organization and its work, see www.illuman.org/about/.

Image credit: Resurrection of Lazarus (detail), circa 12th‒13th century, Athens.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Being wounded, suffering, and dying are the quickest and most sure paths to truly living. —Richard Rohr

The Illusion of the Separate Self

True Self/Separate Self

The Illusion of the Separate Self
Tuesday, September 1, 2020

CAC faculty member James Finley studied under Thomas Merton as a young monk in formation. While many have been influenced by Merton’s writings, few have had the opportunity to learn from the mystic himself. Today, Jim reflects on the insights on the True Self and false self that he gleaned from Thomas Merton.

In the following text Merton makes clear that the self-proclaimed autonomy of the false self is but an illusion. . . .

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.

This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. [1] . . .

The false self, sensing its fundamental unreality, begins to clothe itself in myths and symbols of power. Since it intuits that it is but a shadow, that it is nothing, it begins to convince itself that it is what it does. Hence, the more it does, achieves and experiences, the more real it becomes. Merton writes,

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. [2]

Richard again: Our false self is how we define ourselves outside of love, relationship, or divine union. After we have spent many years laboriously building this separate self, with all its labels and preoccupations, we are very attached to it. And why wouldn’t we be? It’s what we know and all we know. To move beyond it will always feel like losing or dying.

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions Paperbook: 2007, ©1961), 34.

[2] Ibid., 34-35.

James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Ave Maria Press: 1978), 33, 35, 36.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 36.

For a deeper exploration of Thomas Merton’s teachings, tune into James Finley’s podcast, “Turning to the Mystics,” produced by the CAC.

Image credit: Room in New York (detail), Edward Hopper, 1932.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. —Thomas Merton

Sustained in God’s Love

Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Sustained in God’s Love
Monday, July 6, 2020

In the light of eternity, we’re here for a very short time, really. We’re here for one thing, ultimately: to learn how to love, because God is love. Love is our origin, love is our ground, and love is our destiny. —James Finley

CAC faculty member James Finley offers a contemplative practice to help us experience the love of God even in the midst of chaos. Living out of that love transforms both ourselves and the world.

What is the practice that matters now? A practice is any act habitually entered into with our whole heart that takes us to the deeper place. Some of these practices, we might not think of as prayer and meditation: tending the roses, a long, slow walk to no place in particular, a quiet moment at day’s end, being vulnerable in the presence of that person in whose presence we’re taken to the deeper place, the pause between two lines of a poem. There are these acts that reground us in the depth dimensions of our life that matter most; so if we’re faithful to our practice, our practice will be faithful to us. . . .

In this contemplative practice, sit and renew your awareness that you’re sitting in the presence of God all about you and within you. As you inhale, inhale God’s silent “I love you,” in which God is being poured out and utterly given away to you as the miracle of your very life. Then when you exhale, exhale yourself in love: “I love you.” And so, we are breathing [along with God], “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.” From the reciprocity of love, destiny is fulfilled, and the foundations of suffering are healed.

As we sit this way, suffering arises. The suffering then might be our anxiety and concerns today, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the world. As we sit in the midst of the arising of the anxiety, when we inhale, we inhale this love of God loving us through and through, anxiety and all, finding no hindrance in our anxiety, loving us so unexplainably forever. Then when we exhale, we exhale ourselves in love, anxiety and all, to the love that loves us. This requires gentle perseverance, because anxiety arises again. It doesn’t automatically go away. We sit with it, we lean into it again, and we hold fast to this love that sustains us in the midst of things. It is in this way, little by little, that we come to understand the unsubstantiality of everything but love. Love and love alone has the authority to name who we are.

This practice, then, experientially grounds us in this love wisdom. This love wisdom—grounded in practice—empowers us to go out and share this with other people in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

From James Finley, “Practice That Grounds Us in the Sustaining Love of God,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (April 26, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-A16N4hKou0.

Epigraph: “Renewing That in Us Which Sees the Light,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (April 20, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4I3RVlPCEtE.

Image credit: Cueva de las Manos (detail), Cañadón del Río, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph copyright 2012 Pablo Gimenez.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: As a spiritual practice we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. —Barbara Holmes

Freedom: An Infinite Possibility of Growth

Inner and Outer Freedom

Freedom: An Infinite Possibility of Growth
Monday, June 15, 2020

The spirituality of CAC faculty member James Finley has been deeply influenced by the writings of Thomas Merton (1915–1968). In this passage, Jim explores the paradoxical wisdom that true freedom does not come from following our own will but in knowing and surrendering to God’s will for us.

Merton quotes Meister Eckhart [1260–1328] as saying, “For God to be is to give being, and for [humanity] to be is to receive being.” [1] Our true self is a received self. At each moment, we exist to the extent we receive existence from God who is existence. . . .

Our deepest freedom rests not in our freedom to do what we want to do but rather in our freedom to become who God wills us to be. This person, this ultimate self God wills us to be, is not a predetermined, static mold to which we must conform. Rather, it is an infinite possibility of growth. It is our true self; that is, a secret self hidden in and one with the divine freedom. In obeying God, in turning to do [God’s] will, we find God willing us to be free. God created us for freedom; that is to say, God created us for [God’s] self.

Phrased differently, we can say that God cannot hear the prayer of someone who does not exist. The [false] self constructed of ideologies and social principles, the self that defines itself and proclaims its own worthiness is most unworthy of the claim to reality before God. Our freedom from the prison of our own illusions comes in realizing that in the end everything is a gift. Above all, we ourselves are gifts that we must first accept before we can become who we are by returning who we are to the Father. This is accomplished in a daily death to self, in a compassionate reaching out to those in need, and in a detached desire for the silent, ineffable surrender of contemplative prayer. It is accomplished in making Jesus’ prayer our own: “Father . . . not my will but yours be done” [Luke 22:42]. . . .

[Thomas Merton identifies] that freedom from the futility of . . . laying hold of God as a possession.

Only when we are able to “let go” of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste, and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life. [2]

This letting-go in the moral order is the living out of the Beatitudes. In the order of prayer it is in-depth kenosis, an emptying out of the contents of awareness so that one becomes oneself an empty vessel, a broken vessel, a void that lies open before God and finds itself filled with God’s own life. This gift of God is revealed to be the ground and root of our very existence. It is our own true self.


[1] Thomas Merton, “Obstacles to Union with God,” audiotape. See Meister Eckhart, Quasi Vas Aureum Solidum, Sermon on Sirach 50.10.

[2] Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (Image Books: 1996, ©1969), 67.

James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Ave Maria Press: 1978), 72, 73, 78. Note: Minor edits made for more inclusive language.

Image credit: Sun in an Empty Room (detail), Edward Hopper, 1963, private collection.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Only when we are able to “let go” of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life. —Thomas Merton

Made for Infinite Love

Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross

Made for Infinite Love
Thursday, April 23, 2020

Jim Finley, my friend and fellow teacher at the CAC, began studying the mystics at the Abbey of Gethsemani at age eighteen, with Thomas Merton as his novice master. He remembers when he first read this excerpt from the Prologue to the Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross:

A deeper enlightenment and wider experience than mine is necessary to explain the dark night through which a soul journeys toward that divine light of perfect union with God that is achieved, insofar as possible in this life, through love. The darknesses and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo on their way to the high state of perfection are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately. Nor does experience of them equip one to explain them. Only those who suffer them will know what this experience is like, but they won’t be able to describe it. [1]

Jim describes the effect John’s writing had on him:

Now, I could tell in the first paragraph, I was in deep water, and I could also tell as I kept reading that just a lot of it was going right over my head. But in John’s poetry, and from the very first paragraph of his prose, I sensed that his words were coming from some very deep place inside of him, or really coming from some deep place and [going] through him, and then intimately accessing that deep place in me. There was a certain resonance in realizing he was talking about something that I didn’t understand; but I knew mattered very, very much. And, as I kept reading on in that way, it got clearer and clearer to me. I am now over 76 years old, and I am still reading John of the Cross. He is one of my teachers. . . .

John’s core intuition is that the Infinite Love that is the architect of our hearts has made our hearts in such a way that nothing less than an infinite union with Infinite Love will do. It’s the setup in the beginning. For Infinite Love to create us in the image of itself is for Infinite Love to create us as a capacity to receive the forms of Infinite Love as our destiny. That love is our origin, love is our ground. That Infinite Love creates us as a capacity for love, for love’s sake alone. Love is the fabric of the true nature of everything that’s happening. This is the love nature of life.

[Richard again: Throughout these weeks, I have been praying, trying to understand how, as Jim puts it, “love is the fabric of the true nature of everything that’s happening.” How can it be that God’s love is at work and present in the tragedies around the globe right now? But knowing what harrowing circumstances John of the Cross was in when he came to experience the infinite love of God gives me hope and perseverance.]

[1] John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Prologue, 1. See The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 3rd ed. (ICS Publications: 1991), 114–115.

Adapted from Richard Rohr and James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), disc 1 (CD, MP3 download).

Image credit: A Vision of the Holy Trinity (detail), anonymous Brazilian painter, 17th century, Museu de Arte Sacra da Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, Brazil.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: I like to say that Teresa and John were part of the “final supernova” of nondual, mystical consciousness in 16th century Spain, before it all but disappeared in Europe for five hundred years in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the invention of the printing press. Both Teresa and John wrote detailed accounts of their lives and experiences with God, which makes them very accessible teachers. —Richard Rohr
Join Our Email Community

Stay up to date on the latest news and happenings from Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation.

HTML spacer