Marvelous vision of the hills at 7:45 A.M. The same hills as always, as in the afternoon, but now catching the light in a totally new way, at once very earthly and very ethereal, with delicate cups of shadow and dark ripples and crinkles where I had never seen them, and the whole slightly veiled in mist so that it seemed to be a tropical shore, a newly discovered continent. A voice in me seemed to be crying, “Look! Look!” For these are the discoveries, and it is for this that I am high on the mast of my ship (have always been) and I know that we are on the right course, for all around is the sea of paradise.— Thomas Merton in Turning Toward the World: The Journals of Thomas Merton edited by Victor A. Kramer
Even when we’re focused on inner work, Merton reminds us to pay attention to the outside world because it also holds new discoveries. As a contemplative monk, his focus was meditation, silence, and solitude. But rather than withdrawing from the outside world, this focus seems to have helped him pay more attention to the marvels of the world.
So many truths in life seem to have a kernel of paradox. To change ourselves, it helps to have self-compassion and accept who we are right now. To develop our spiritual life, it helps to remain grounded in the physical world of nature.
Merton points out that “all around is the sea of paradise,” reminding us that God created (and continues to create) this world. This brings to mind a quote from St. Catherine of Siena that inspired Dorothy Day, “all the way to heaven is heaven.” So many spiritual masters have shared this insight that I think we’d be foolish to ignore it.
And if we need more convincing, the numerous benefits of being mindful and paying attention to what is happening in our present moment are now widely studied and measured by modern medicine.
I particularly enjoy hearing about insights from spiritual masters being “proved” by modern technology. As far as we’ve progressed with technology and a deeper understanding of the physical world, we still have important lessons to learn from the wisdom of spiritual traditions. I appreciate that Merton (and so many others) remind us of these truths with words that are so poetic and inspiring.
A Closing Prayer
May we never get so caught up in striving to be better people that we miss seeing the marvels of our physical world. May we always have that inner voice reminding us, “Look! Look!” Let our hearts fill with gratitude for the glimpses of heaven around us each day – in sunrises and sunsets, in touching the soft fur of our beloved pets, in the kindness of a stranger, in an unexpected moment of shared laughter, in the joyous raucousness of the birds (way too early in the morning!), and in all the many marvels we often take for granted. All the way to heaven is heaven. Amen.