|Depiction of St. Brenden the Navigator|
In a talk that he gave to the novices at Gethsemani Abby, Thomas Merton once compared spirituality to a journey down the river. He talked about the Irish monks who took off in a boat, going where God led them. He said that the image of embarking on a boat and letting the river carry us is a metaphor for how we can abandon ourselves to the guidance of God. It is not an image of being in control, but rather of resting in the boat and trusting the river. Merton speaks of that journey being one of progressive insight that is ultimately fulfilled upon the spiritual pilgrim’s death with full realization in heaven. He went on to say that “journey” is symbolic of our state on earth – we are all going somewhere.*
I like the imagery of embarking upon the river when speaking of the spiritual life. My own view of spirituality is not one that is centered upon life in heaven after death. I don’t think Thomas Merton made the afterlife his focus either. He referred to heaven in traditional terms as the ultimate destination of the faithful soul after death, but his focus was on how we live in our present life on earth. In my view, we are all on a journey and we can make that journey as spiritual as we want to. By “spiritual,” I refer to that act of understanding the true value and meaning of our existence. That understanding may be enhanced by seeing the work of an artist in a gallery, listening to music in a concert hall, or watching a sunset and realizing that we are connected to creation.
To find our spiritual path, we need not take traditional imagery literally. For example, when I hear or read traditionally religious terms like salvation, heaven, hell, paradise, etc. I find that if I think of these things symbolically rather than as actual places in some afterlife, then that imagery begins to inform my life and to expand my appreciation of what Life has in store. In other words, spirituality is not about life after death, it is about life in the here-and-now. When we begin to see that, then we can let the imagery of traditional religious language inform our journey as we embark upon the river of life.
I wrote in Spirit Work, Soul Work, “True spirituality integrates and connects. In order for spiritual practice to be more than just an opiate or a distraction, it must take into account the whole of life. Work place, family, hobbies and social life each represent opportunities for the implementation of spirituality. Every religious tradition offers methods for spiritual practice, the goal being to eliminate distractions and to pay attention.”
A Universal Hope
We have some powerful archetypes to inform us along our journey. I have an appreciation for Marian spirituality, and I am fascinated by stories of Marian visitations. From a purely psychological standpoint, these stories can be very illuminating in regard to the role of the feminine archetype in our lives (see A Jungian Appreciation of Mary). The reported visions at Fatima in 1917 are most intriguing. There have been books written about the phenomena that occurred there in Portugal, and there was even a movie made about it, “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima.”
There is a prayer, supposedly requested by the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima, that is now traditionally recited while praying the rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.”
Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy! I love finding concepts of universalism in faith practices. When I first began to learn to pray the rosary As a Catholic convert, I was already familiar with the story of Fatima, and I was also drawn to the idea of universalism. It was a true joy to find this prayer for all to find their way to heaven, even those we might consider to be far from God’s grace.
The Gate of Heaven Is Everywhere
We can turn again to Thomas Merton for an image of how we might understand heaven. There is a famous passage in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander** in which he describes an epiphany that occurred on a rare trip from Gethsemani Abbey to Louisville, Kentucky:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.
Merton wrote of how the people he saw on that street corner were just and much a part of God as he and his monastic brothers were. The only difference was that “We just happen to be conscious of it” but that that did not mean he was any better than the rest of the world. As he continued to discuss his epiphany, Merton declared:
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.
…It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody…I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
So while that Marian prayer from Our Lady of Fatima is to lead all souls to heaven, Thomas Merton affirms that the gate of heaven is everywhere, if only we will become conscious of it. That is all the more reason to set our craft upon the water, and trust the waters to take us to that destination that we seek on our spiritual journey.
* "The Spiritual Journey," lecture given by Thomas Merton on January 16, 1963; from Thomas Merton on Contemplation, audio recordings from the archives of The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, Louisville, Kentucky, under the copyright of Know You Know Media.
** Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, by Thomas Merton, 1966, Doubleday, Garden City, NY.
St. Brendan from "Irish Monks and the voyage of St. Brenden"
Thomas Merton from Dover Beach blogsite
Irish currach from Kelticos