James Finley "An Invitation to the Healing Path" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share these podcasts and our free daily meditations with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen, and we can remind each listener that they’re a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce you to today’s guest. Today I have the privilege of speaking with James Finley. James is an author and clinical psychologist. He’s one of the core faculty of the Center for Action and Contemplation. In his twenties, Jim was a former novice under Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemane. He’s well known for books like Merton’s Palace of Nowhere. He’s also known for his retreats and for his podcast series: Turning to the Mystics. I’ve just read Jim’s beautiful, new book, and I look forward to talking with him about this.
Jim Finley, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Jim Finley: Thank you so much. So glad we can do this. Thank you.
Karen: I am glad, too, Jim. This new book, [The Healing Path:] A Memoir and an Invitation, is full of really unvarnished, honest revelations. It’s a unique, intimate account of your own life, and it starts right at the bedside of your wife who is dying. And then you journey back through your life, and we visit deep trauma from your childhood. You’re a person who’s a survivor. I want to ask you about the intent in this book. Why did you write it? And then take us back into what happened in your childhood.
Jim: Yes. What the story is about, the memoir is about, is, again, it starts with my wife. She died of Alzheimer’s right here in the living room, in house hospice. And then I go back to my own life. What I really look at in the memoir is my early childhood experiences of trauma, and how my faith was instilled in me by my mother, who was a devout Roman Catholic. It gave me the courage and strength to go through the trauma, to the point that when I was in the ninth grade, I was in an all-boys Catholic high school. The instructors talked about monasteries, and they described monasteries as places for people to go to seek and find and give themselves to God in a hidden life of silence and prayer. And they believe that that hidden life, that cloistered, hidden life, touches the whole world in ways we don’t understand.
And he mentioned Thomas Merton, and how Thomas Merton as a young man gave up a promising career in literature. He was at Columbia University, and at 28 years old, he entered the monastery and he wrote his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. He went on the New York Times bestsellers list, and Thomas Merton became one of the great, and has been one of the great, and most widely read spiritual writers of our time. And so, I went up to the school library that day after school, and there was one book by Merton. It was his journal, The Sign of Jonas. It was a journal he kept as a monk. And I read that journal. On the very first page, Thomas Merton said, “As for me, I have but one desire: the desire for solitude, to disappear into the secret of God’s face.”
And I didn’t know at 14 years old what that meant. But something in me did. I said, “Me, too, I want that.” And so, for the four years of high school – the trauma got worse, actually – that book sustained me for the four years, to the point I decided that I felt God was calling me to live in the monastery. So, when I graduated from high school in 1961, I entered the Abbey Gethsemane and lived there as a member of the community for six years. And it had a very profound effect on me – the silent life, God-seeking life. And Thomas Merton, who was novice master, was my spiritual director. So, he guided me in the contemplative way, and he led me into the classical text of the mystics St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart. And so, when I left the monastery after six years, I still very much wanted to live a contemplative way of life.
And so, I would get up in the mornings and do sittings and quiet time. And I got married, had two young children, and I wrote a book called Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, which is Merton’s insight into the ultimate identity beyond the ego, hidden with Christ and God forever. And the spiritual life is finding our way to that ultimate identity. And when that book came out, I began to get invitations to lead silent contemplative retreats around the United States and Canada. So, the meals were in silence. They were encouraged to be in silence for the weekend. And I would cite passages in the mystics and apply it to prayer and to daily life. And not long after I started that, a clinical psychologist invited me to give a retreat with his place. And he said if I would be willing to make a commitment to explore the contribution the mystical traditions make to mental health, he would see to it that I could have a PhD in clinical psychology – with family support, not alone.
So, I was a high school religion teacher at the time. So, we moved from Cleveland, Ohio to Southern California. And I enrolled in five years of full-time doctoral work at Fuller Theological Seminary. And so, I combined my work as a clinical psychologist – I wanted to work mainly with trauma, but a lot of people coming to see me wanted their spirituality to be a resource in their therapy. And so, this combination of the mystic path, like, “How can we, in the midst of the world, live a more contemplative way of life? And what are the powers of healing that are in the contemplative foundations of our life? And how do we draw upon those and apply them to our life?” So, that’s been my life, really.
Karen: Amazing how, in a sense, it’s prepared you for a very deep ministry to people that have had trauma, not just because you have brought to it your understanding of what it is to be a contemplative, but because you needed healing in your own life. I mean, in The Healing Path, you’re very honest about your own story. And I think it might be helpful for people to understand a little bit about how serious that trauma was and, in a sense, how it propelled you to a monastery.
Jim: Yes. What I share in this story, along with the insights that I weave into my story, is my first memory. I think I’m about maybe about three years old. And in my mind, I can see myself standing near the window in the living room of the house on Bruner Street in Akron, Ohio, where we lived, across the street from my grandmother. And I’m looking up, and I can see my father coming towards me. He has a slight smile on his face. I think he’s going to pick me up to hold me. And instead, he picked me up and threw me across the room, and my face hit the side of the table. I remember it felt hot, and I dropped to the floor. He stood over me and then walked away. That’s my first memory that I had. And it was the first of explosive violence towards me, my four younger brothers. He incested my sister. He was very physically violent towards my mother. And when she would take us to Mass on Sunday, a lot of their arguments were about religion, Catholic church, and so on. She would tell us to pray to God to give us the strength to get through the things that happened “when Daddy gets mad.” That’s how she put it. And I took what she said to heart. And so, I was maybe four years old, maybe five, and I’m lying in bed in the dark, and I’m listening to my father beat my mother outside the door. And I’m sad, because maybe earlier that day, he hit me, and I know if he wanted to tomorrow, he’d hit me again and no one would stop him. And so, I prayed. I prayed the way frightened children pray.
And my experience was that God heard my prayer, and in a moment I can’t remember, merged with me in the dark. So, when I got up the next morning and went outside my bedroom door, the violence went on. But it was a lot better for me, because my father thought he was hitting me, but he was hitting that other little boy that people can see. He didn’t know the real me had been secretly taken by God to a place inside of God, where the violence couldn’t find me. And so, it sustained me. And years later, when I became a clinical psychologist, I learned that I was dissociating. I split myself. I borrowed the religious imagery of my mother’s faith to give meaning to dissociating myself off from this. And it wasn’t until years later, in my own therapy, I learned to not depend on dissociating like that.
And my insight is that although I was dissociating, that doesn’t mean God did not hear my prayer and merge with me. So, in a way, my spiritual awakening occurred in a traumatized state. And I think there’s a deep lesson there. That sometimes when we’re in the midst of trauma or in the midst of pain or addiction, sometimes graces come to us in the midst of our confusion and hurt. But the fullness of God’s presence doesn’t flow out until we’re healed from the symptoms themselves. It’s still operative; grace is there in the life of the traumatized person or the addict. Grace is always there. But the more grace empowers us to liberate ourself from long-term, internalized effects of trauma and abandonment, then the fullness of grace can come out into the open, so we can live it and share it with other people.
So, that’s been a key insight for me, not just in my own life, but when I work with people in psychotherapy, because they’re in the midst of their struggles. And I know it takes one to know one. I know by experience what that’s like, the unrelenting courage of the human spirit to walk the walk and walk through that and be patient and open and receptive and all of that. So, that’s been a big part of my life.
My first marriage ended in divorce. I talk about it in the book. And I met Maureen, my second wife. She had been living alone for a long time, and had a very strong spirituality grounded in 12-step recovery. She gave me permission to break her anonymity. And we got married and it was just blissful, really. She became a spiritual director and a psychotherapist. And we lived here at the beach, and we were just so, so close. We would go in and see the people in therapy together. We had a two-office suite. And sometimes she’d come with me on my retreats. It was just such a grace for me, the marriage.
Karen: Well, your book, The Healing Path, shares that. It’s infused with that. But I wanted people to hear this early story. Maybe many are familiar with it, maybe very few are. But it actually helps us realize there is a healing path. There is a way. And as I read about the trauma in your life, I mean, it was as dramatic as any that I’ve read about. It was painful. It, in a way, propelled you to a monastery, which I thought was fascinating. And I thought it was amazing, your father’s response when you said you were going to a monastery. Maybe share that, because that was kind of interesting. And I felt myself tense with what it said.
Jim: When I was in the ninth grade, and I started this idea of going to the monastery. I wrote to the vocation director at the monastery. And I would have the mail sent to my grandmother’s house, so my father wouldn’t see the mail. So, he didn’t know I wanted to go to the monastery. And when I graduated from high school, he didn’t go to my graduation. He was drunk; he didn’t go. Then the next day he was out trimming the hedges in front of the house. And I went and I told him I wanted to go to the monastery, and he wanted to know what a monastery was. So, I explained to him as best I could. And he said, “If you go to that place,” he said, “I’ll kill your mother to punish you.” He said, “That’s not a threat. I’ll kill her if you go there.”
And I walked away and I left the next morning. I was used to that. That’s how I left. And I tell people, I think this is touching – you know, years later, after I left the monastery and I was in my first marriage and had my children, I always felt – and as I was going through my own therapy, too – I often felt that I forgave him spiritually, but I didn’t forgive what he did, because he didn’t admit it. And so, to be true to myself, I forgave him as a broken human being. I had to set boundaries with him and all of that. But I didn’t accept what he did, forgive what he did.
And one day, he said to me he wanted me to come with him, to take him down to the monastery so he could see the monastery. We were in Akron, Ohio. It was like a nine-hour drive down to Louisville, Kentucky. And he didn’t mention the trauma. He didn’t, and I didn’t either. He wasn’t functional enough to talk about it. And I hadn’t been through my own therapy yet, either, so I couldn’t. But the fact we went down there, he listened to the monks chanting the Psalms, and we walked in the woods and the farms. But I saw that was his way of telling me he was sorry. And that’s entirely why I forgave him also for what he did. And so, it’s been part of my own healing journey, really.
Karen: Jim, I’m very struck as I read this, you know, the miraculous way God leads us. I see that in my own life. I see it in yours, and I see a kind of parallel that touched me. Here you had a hero, Thomas Merton, and you not only get to the Abbey of Gethsemane, you actually end up having him, in a sense, tutoring you and speaking to your life. Tell me a bit about that. I mean, that’s quite miraculous.
Jim: Yeah. First of all, I should share something for the Henri Nouwen Society. So, when I wrote Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, I was living in Cleveland as a high school religion teacher. And I used to take students, seniors at this Catholic high school to the Abbey of the Genesee in New York, in Piffard, New York, because John Eudes Bamberger, who was a monk and a psychiatrist, was abbot there. And he was friends with Henri Nouwen. So, I knew that Henri Nouwen was visiting him. So, I took my manuscript with me and, I want to say that there was a chance that I would see Henri Nouwen, I’d approach him and say, “Would you read my manuscript?” And so, I carried it around with me, and one day Henri Nouwen was coming down the road and I had my manuscript. So, I introduced myself and I said, “Here, this is my book I did on Merton. Would you consider writing a foreword for it?”
He said he would read it. And he called me and said he would write a foreword. So, I flew to Yale University where he was teaching at the time, and he spent a day with me in his room going through the manuscript, and he wrote the foreword. And when I first got there, I was waiting, and someone came out and said he might have to cancel. His physician was with him in his room. He thought he might be having a heart attack. And [Nouwen] brought me into the room and told me that really, the doctor told him it was from drinking too much coffee and giving too many retreats. And he said he was always working on that, on learning how to say no to things, he said, but it wasn’t going well. He was always on this hyper kind of thing, keep saying yes to people. And it was very touching, really. I saw him a few more times, but he was very loving towards me and wrote a lovely foreword and so encouraged me and was very important, just as his holiness, you know, how he touched my life.
Karen: It’s cute, because one of the things that I saw in your awe of Merton, I shared that kind of feeling about Henri. I had him on such a pedestal, in a way, that it was hard to have a relationship with him. Not that Henri prevented that, but I prevented it because I just was so aware of what an influence and what a wonderful spiritual voice he was, that I missed having a really good relationship. I’m glad that you got to meet him and you got to spend time.
And I’m glad that . . . I love the foreword that Henri wrote to Merton’s Palace of Nowhere. It’s beautiful. And clearly, he enjoyed what you had created, and he wanted to be part of it. And I think that’s lovely. And it is a classic book. If you read all the comments by people on it, it’s really one of those books that people suggest: “Gosh, this is the book that really helps you open up and understand the contemplative Thomas Merton.”
Jim: To share with you, then, too, my relationship with Merton, then, along those lines, is I entered right after high school, and Thomas Merton was novice master. And because of my trauma, I had trouble with authority figures, like insecure trauma feelings. I wasn’t aware of my own trauma yet; I wasn’t consciously aware of it. So, when I went to see him for the first time, of course I thought it was so amazing I was going to have Thomas Merton for my spiritual director. But because of my issues with authority figures, I was so nervous, my voice was shaking. I was sitting there hyperventilating, and he wanted to know what was going on, like, what’s happening.
And I said, “I’m scared because you’re Thomas Merton,” is what I said. I can remember feeling embarrassed because I wanted him to think well of me, and he could see the way I was inside.
And then he said something that was really so touching to me. He said to me, “Under obedience, I want you to end afternoon work early.” I worked at the pig barn at the time, on the farm. He said, “I want you to end afternoon work early, before you go to vespers. And I want you to come in here every day at the end of work, and tell me one thing that happened at the pig barn that day.”
And I think later, as a psychotherapist, that was a brilliant intervention that he did. Because I remember the voice inside said, “I can do that.” And we would go in and he’d remember the stories about the pigs and make pig jokes and laugh. And what it did really, it leveled the playing field. And it allowed me to talk about my desire for God and how reading his book led me there. And he led me along that path toward that unity of states, the contemplative union with God. So, the relationship was a real gift for me.
And he became a hermit. He got permission to live in a hermitage on the grounds of the monastery. And I got permission. I wanted to do the same thing when I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life there. And I got permission to spend so many hours a day in an abandoned sheep barn. So, he had a strong influence on me that way, toward the intimacy of solitude in my own life and in my own journey and so on. So yeah, I see him as a lineage holder in the mystical lineage of the Christian tradition. You know, like with John of the Cross and Teresa and Eckhart, I think he was a living mystic and saint to me.
Karen: You are a treasure to us, because you help us kind of understand how to come into the contemplative life. What does it mean and why do we need it today? I’m thinking about some of the things that – you know, our world has changed so much since Henri’s death and Thomas Merton’s death. It’s 50, 30 years ago, for Henri. I want to understand how you see the contemplative heart today, and why is it so valuable and essential?
Jim: My sense is this, how I see it: In the cloistered monastery, every part of the life was intended to protect and nurture this deepening, contemplative union with God. The silence, the chanting of the Psalms, the manual labor, the simplicity. And out here in the world, it’s not like that at all. We don’t live in a society that protects deepening union with God’s oneness with us in every breath and heartbeat. We don’t. And so, the way I put it is this: We often, one of the experiences we have, I think, in the world is we get the feeling and the complexities and the demands of daily life. We feel, in the momentum of those demands, that we’re skimming over the surface of the depths of our own life, is how we feel. And the thing about it is that we realize that something’s missing, and we’re suffering from depth deprivation, that as we long to go to the deeper place, because we’re created by God in the image and likeness of God, destined for eternal union with God who lives within us. Merton says God’s presence, it courses, it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
So, not only are we exiled from the depths of our own life but, all the more regrettable, God’s unexplainable oneness with us is hidden in the depths over which we’re skimming. So, then we say to ourselves, “Well, what can I do about this? What can I do about this?” And so, what Thomas Merton says is what we do first – this is what helped me, too, to help with people – is first of all, notice that there are certain moments where we get fleeting tastes of God’s oneness with us. So, for – and these might be very subtle – so, for example, Merton says – this is the last chapter, New Seeds of Contemplation – Merton says, “In the midst of nature,” he says, “You’re out walking and you turn to see a flock of birds descending.”
And how I’d put it: As if out of the corner of your eye, you catch something in their descent that’s primordial, vast, and true, that somehow being in the presence of the birds in their descent, you’re in the presence of God. Likewise, it can happen also in intimacy, he says, with another person. Sometimes in the arms of the beloved, you get a sense of the presence of God incarnate as your love for each other. Sometimes in reading a small child a goodnight story, it’s so disarming; you get a sense that when you’re in the presence of the child, you’re in the presence of God. Sometimes in a pause between two lines of a poem, or a quiet hour at day’s end.
So, the first thing that’s helpful is there are certain moments we become fleetingly aware of this taste of the presence of God that’s always there. And the thing is, then, what happens a lot of times, what happens next is: nothing happens. The cell phone goes off or nothing happens. But sometimes, what happens, is it hallows our faith. That is, our faith in God is enriched by a touch of the intimacy. It’s like we’re experiencing what faith proclaims. Faith tells us that God is all about us and within us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, St. Augustine says. Being poured out and given to us is every breath and heartbeat. And so, in these little moments, in the birds’ descent, in the arms of the beloved, the moment of silence, we experientially taste what faith proclaims. It like hallows our faith. And then what can happen is, it deepens a longing to abide there, that is, we long to abide in the depths so fleetingly glimpsed.
It’s like, the way I put it is, I will not play the cynic. I will not doubt my awakened heart and my most childlike hour and my most vulnerable hour. I know that I was in the presence with God. And I also know that in that moment, as subtle as it was, it isn’t that more was given to me. But in that moment, a curtain opened and the infinite presence of God, that’s infinitely one with me in every moment in my life, was revealed to me. It’s here, right now. It’s here when I wake up. It’s here when I go to sleep. But I can’t make these moments happen. It doesn’t lie in my power to make the moments happen. But what I can do is assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to being overtaken by the presence of God we can’t make happen. And that’s prayer and meditation.
See, the daily rendezvous with God, the date where there’s no agenda but love, that daily rendezvous with God is I’m freely choosing that inner stance, like, “Here I am, Lord.” I choose the inner stance that offers the least resistance to being overtaken by this touch, the awareness of God sustaining me and guiding me in my life. And when my daily rendezvous with God ends and I go throughout my day, I ask God for the grace not to break a thread of that awareness. Because the more we become habitually established to an underlying sensitivity to God’s oneness with us and the rhythms of the day, then we’re living a contemplative way of life in the midst of the world. And then we share it with others. We share it with others, because we’re able to see in them that they’re like us. They’re an infinitely loved, broken person like us. And by the way we listen to them or we’re real with them, or we’re patient with them, we pass on the contagious energy of healing in the world and through our ministry, our work to our daily life, whatever. So, those are some of the ways that I see it. It helps me.
Karen: Oh, my goodness, that is rich. And reminds me of the books of yours that I’ve been reading. There is poetry and wisdom just woven together and expressed with a kind of immediacy. I just have to say to everybody that’s listening right now, do go to Jim’s podcast. I think you’ve got more of this delicious, truthful, hard-earned truth, hard-earned truth. God-given. Isn’t it fabulous to look backwards and see the way God brought you, see that he brought Maureen into your life. See that he brought Thomas Merton into your life and something we can easily rejoice over, is the things that propelled you into a monastery. The need and the pain.
Jim: And you know, two things I would say, in my writing and when I’m doing spiritual direction and being a therapist, it’s two things. I’m trying to help people see their own life in this way. Like, say, so how did it come to pass? You have come to be the person who’s even capable of being concerned about such things. And if you look back at your own life, how did this happen? Isn’t it true you couldn’t have planned it if you tried, you couldn’t have planned it if you tried, that you’re on a path not of your own making. And isn’t it also true that everyone has in their own life the place where suffering and the presence of God touch each other? All of us do. And so, this autobiography is really our biography. You know, look at the interiority of ourself and life and so on.
Another thing I’d like to share about the way I teach or the way I write. When I was in the monastery, I had an opportunity to study medieval philosophy under Daniel Walsh, who taught philosophy at Columbia University. And he had an influence on Merton’s life. Merton used to sit in on his classes at Columbia. And so, I was immersed for two years in the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus and Bonaventure and Augustinian, Franciscan, all that. It had a deep effect on me. And so, when I left the monastery and I was writing Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, I wrote a letter to Dan Walsh, who taught philosophy, who was still living there at the time. And I said, “How can I communicate this to people out here that we subsist in God, like light subsists in flame? How could we communicate it?”
And he wrote back and said – I’ve always let this guide me in my teaching – he wrote back and he said, “You cannot communicate it, but it will communicate itself through you, if you’re convinced in what you say and if you are what you say.” And he said, “You know it’ll be communicating itself, because there’ll be a response in the listener. They’ll know that something deep within them is being addressed or being accessed.” So deep unto deep; there’s a resonance Merton called the spiritual communication. So, it’s always guided me in therapy and in teaching, like right now, or my writing. That pedagogy of awakening, that I like to bring about this encounter between us. So, it’s had a big effect on that.
Karen: Called to deep. Deep calls to deep. It’s interesting. It’s so interesting that you and Henri were both psychologists. When Henri came in the Sixties and he was trying to see how this worked together with his faith, and that was really what he wanted to know, it was fairly new.
But for you today, in what ways have you learned about the gift of psychology and the pursuit of mature spirituality? How do these two come together for you?
Jim: I think first of all, because I was awakened by God in the midst of trauma, although I wasn’t capable of reflecting on it psychologically. I couldn’t sort that out psychologically. But because I was touched by God in the presence of trauma, so, what I was psychologically and what I was spiritually or strangely and intimately … So, in the monastery, I think my clarity around that deepened around the mystical, contemplative dimensions of that, like the divinity of ordinariness and so on. So, what happened then for me was that I left and I taught high school religion. I co-authored a series of high school religion textbooks with Ave Maria Press that were used in the United States and Canada. Jesus and You, The Church and You, Your Faith and You. And so, then when I wrote Merton’s Palace of Nowhere and got the doctorate in clinical psychology, I had no background in psychology at all.
But when I started studying psychology, then I could see the interface, because people would come to me and they would say to me, you know, they’d be in therapy working on the issues, but they felt that what was missing was they wanted their spirituality to be a resource in that, like where they touch each other. Likewise, people in spiritual direction: They would come to me in spiritual direction and sometimes in spiritual direction, and here you would say to them something like, “You know, in our sessions together, when we talk about your search for God, I get this feeling by some of the things that you say, you know, it’s possible you’re clinically depressed. It’s possible you have anxiety disorder, and it would be possible, you could really be helped by addressing that.” It’s like if you had diabetes and a spiritual thing to do would be to take your insulin.
Because, the suffering has to be healed at the level at which it’s occurring. So, you can’t cause a spiritual bypassing, you can’t heal physical, psychological pain at a spiritual level. But likewise, you can’t reach spiritual dimensions at a purely psychological level. Each one is incomplete without the other. So, seeing the dynamic interface of the two in our life and how they work with each other like this, I think it’s probably what Henri saw. Once you see that connection, that’s why [in] Henri’s writings, there’s a spiritual depth to him, but he’s so psychologically accessible. There’s no pretense to it. He has the language of experience with this depth dimension to it. And I think that’s the thing.
Karen: It’s interesting how today – your experience with both of these wonderful models, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen – it’s interesting how people are still so drawn to them. What do you think it is about them that seems to have an endurance to it and an immediacy to it? I’m very struck by that. I may even say that it might be more so than ever. What do you think?
Jim: As to why people are drawn to it, here’s what I think. Ultimately speaking, just one thing is happening. This is an insight I learned in the monastery, that creation is absolute and perpetual. That ultimately speaking, just one thing is happening. The infinite presence of God is presencing itself. That is this pouring itself out, kenosis, it’s emptying itself and it’s giving itself away in and as the gift and the miracle of the intimate immediacy of your very presence. That if we think of Eckhart, if we think of God as generosity, we are the generosity of God. We are the song God sings. We are this, but we don’t live in a world that offers invitational points of entry into it. So, when we open up a book and we can tell it has that quality to it, that intimate quality, something in our heart recognizes that depth dimension, like, “This person’s talking about what my heart longs for.”
And I’m drawn to it. It doesn’t define anything. It doesn’t explain anything. It’s not deep down, it’s not necessarily a system or anything, but it’s the power of a person’s presence to speak, to be kind of a conduit for this presence that accesses the presence of the person. And I think that’s what happens. You almost want to get out their underlying words or like, put little stars by like, “How did he . . .?”
And I think another thing people do, like Nouwen and Merton, they help us put words to our own heart’s experience. It rings true, like he or she’s helping me become more present to myself and the presence of God. And they offer guidance. I think that’s what the mystic teachers are – see, they bear witness to, and they’re helping us to discern the subtle stirrings of this deepening union, and how to cooperate with it. And because we’re all potentially, it’s our very destiny, is God, I think that’s why we’re drawn to it.
Karen: Now, if I want to start at the beginning and say, “I want a more contemplative life,” what would you tell me to do? How do I get there? I would say definitely read Jim’s books. But what would your recommendation be?
Jim: Well, this is how I approach it. One way I approach it. Let’s say if we start at a very basic level – the word “contemplate” – what that means. A basic definition of to contemplate is to observe carefully, to pay close attention. To contemplate. So, because most of the things we experience during the day, we experience in passing on our way to something else. But every so often, something catches our eye. You know, we pause for a minute out on the porch where I sit and look at the water. I have a hummingbird feeder out there, and I’m so enchanted by hummingbirds. They come; and so, you can look out your kitchen window and you see a bird building a nest outside the window, or a slant of light across the floor, or you give yourself over to the smell of a rose.
There are certain moments where you’re not thinking about it. You’re not defining it. You’re becoming more present in the presence of it, the rose, the flower, the darkness of the night, the beloved. But whatever it is, whatever it is. Next: When that contemplative attentiveness is sustained, not just for a few seconds, but you kind of stay there for a while, like a prolonged conversation with the beloved or an unhurried afternoon at the art museum in silence, looking at the beauty of the paintings, or a long, slow walk to no place in particular. And you just sit. When the contemplation is sustained, you can feel yourself interiorly descending into a qualitatively deeper awareness of, and oneness with, qualitatively deeper dimensions of yourself and the qualitatively deeper awareness of the dimensions of the presence that you’re in. The tree, the ocean, the flower, the stars, whatever.
We just pay close attention to see that happen. This is so subtle – how I put it, “That which is essential never imposes itself. That which is unessential is constantly imposing itself.” And so, it’s very gentle. It never imposes itself. It’s like a quiet, it’s like this, this… So then, to go a little bit deeper poetically, you make this descent into every deeper dimension, the oneness and deeper dimensions of yourself. And you discover those dimensions drop down into and open out upon the bottomless abyss of God, this welling up and giving the infinity of yourself away as you’re sitting there looking at the ocean. And that’s a moment of oneness.
See, that’s the moment. And in that moment, it’s self-explanatory. When it’s happening, it’s like, “Why do I worry so, the way I sometimes do?” How is that everything’s already unexplainably holy or sacred, but I’m exiled from this holiness that’s always there? And I know it’s there, because I’ve experienced it. I’ve experienced it. So, first thing is to have faith in the revelatory nature of our moments of spiritual – that’s the first thing. Not to play this cynic, not to be dismissive of them, how important they are. Like the world will be a dimmer place without these moments of luminous clarity. So, then I say, well, it’s not enough to just wait for the next serendipitous touch. It’s like someone falling deeply in love with someone. They’re not content to just randomly keep their fingers crossed that they’re going to occasionally run into the person. They’re going to spend more and more time with the person. Because love is like that.
So, you say, “You know what, if I keep waiting for the next touch, I’ll be forever estranged from it. Therefore, I’m going to set aside a time, a rendezvous time. Like, ‘Here I am Lord,’ and I want to be faithful to the quiet time with God.”
And usually, it starts with a lectio divina meditation and prayer. Usually, it starts in the peripheral reading of scripture, say, Henri Nouwen or whoever. So, you quietly sit and you listen to words. And you believe in faith that God is personally saying that to you through the words of this person. That’s lectio divina. So, if we open the scriptures and Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you always,” we believe that the deathless presence of Jesus is telling us right in the moment and telling us not to be afraid, that God’s one with us. And that’s lectio divina. It’s like learning to listen.
Next, God says then, in effect, “Now that I’ve talked to you, you talk to me. What do you think?” And this is a loving exchange between you and God. You might journal it out. This is a dialogue, a very sincere . . . Merton says, “With God, a little sincerity goes a long, long way.” And there’s a sincere exchange with God, and a reflective awareness of what was received in the sincerity of faith. And then, that exchange gives rise to prayer, which is the heart center, which is love. “Help me with this. I can’t learn to be more one with you without you. Help me with this.” And if one does that faithfully every day, over a period of weeks and months and years, it stabilizes this contemplative way.
And what can start to happen is that in the moments where you’re sitting in this prayer like this – this is on the website Turning to the Mystics, we have a section on the ladder to heaven, and the first rung of the ladder is lectio meditation and prayer – what starts to happen is while you’re sitting there, you can discover that. . .
Teresa of Avila, how she puts it in The Interior Castle, she says, you discover as you’re sitting there reflecting with the scriptures open, you’re not inclined to say anything, she says. You’re not inclined to ask for anything. And she says, while you sit there, you get a sense that your heart’s being enlarged to divine proportions. She says, imagine a basin filling with water till it overflows. But what if there was a basin where, as the water flowed in, the basin kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. So, you realize the infinite love of God is flowing into you and is enlarging your heart to divine proportions. It’s very subtle. And you surrender to that. And that’s the beginning of contemplation.
So, all these mystics, when you really listen to them, they’re offering spiritual direction to help us discern we’re being invited to that and how to understand it, how to cooperate with it, how to move with it, and so on.
Karen: This conversation is delicious, and it invites all of us into a deeper, very intimate relationship with our God. And I’m so grateful for your time, Jim. I’m so grateful that I’ve had this chance to talk with you. Thank you for joining us on Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Jim: I was so glad to do it. And, and also the very fact your listeners are drawn to listen to this bears witness they’re already on the path we’re talking about. You know, I think it’s encouraging to know this. So anyway, thank you for inviting me. It was a grace. Thank you.
Karen: I want to thank you all for listening to our conversation today.
You’ll find links in the show notes of this podcast for Jim’s book, The Healing Path: A Memoir and An Invitation. As well, there will be links to other books by James Finley and a link to his podcast series, Turning to the Mystics.
I can highly recommend Jim’s book. It’s honest, insightful, and beautifully written. I think for those who wrestle with the trauma of domestic violence and abuse, there are valuable insights and hard-won wisdom within its pages.
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