From Déchanet's Letters to Thomas Merton
Before he ever began practicing yoga, Jean-Marie Déchanet was an academic monk known for his work on the life and teachings of William of Saint-Thierry. Through his monastery’s library, Déchanet had access to incredible research materials and made original discoveries about this medieval monastic from the 12th century, who played a key role in the monastic reform of that time.
Interested in Déchanet’s work on William of Saint-Thierry, Thomas Merton began the correspondence about William of Saint-Thierry and contemplative prayer—of interest to both priests. Merton’s letters to Déchanet have not yet been found, but Déchanet’s letters to Merton have.
Below is an excerpt from a letter Déchanet wrote to Merton:
“La contemplation c’est la Croix, l’isolement, l’incompréhension; ce sont ces mains largements tendues pour recevoir de manu Domini tout ce qu’il lui plaira. Les Maîtres antiques peuvent nous aider (car ils ont connu cela) mais à nous de faire la synthèse de tant de contradictions qui viennent peupler notre vie.” Jean-Marie Déchanet o.s.b. à Thomas Merton o.c.s.o. 12 mars 1961
"So Father, contemplation is the Cross, isolation, lack of understanding; these are the hands stretched wide to receive from the manu Domini all that it pleases him to give. The old teachers can help us (for they knew this) but it is up to us to make a synthesis of the many contradictions which come to fill up our lives." Jean-Marie Déchanet o.s.b. to Thomas Merton o.c.s.o. on March 12, 1961
In this passage, we see the heart of contemplative prayer: being present with all that is in the messiness of life, which can cause isolation and lack of understanding. Being present to what is in our lives, we stretch out our arms, palms up, receiving from God whatever is going on in our lives today. Our bodies, then, make the shape of the cross.
In the second sentence, we see Déchanet referencing the “old teachers”—perhaps teachers like William of Saint-Thierry was one of the “old teachers” for Déchanet and Merton. For many of us, Déchanet and Merton are “old teachers.” The role of the old teachers is to help us bear these crosses, to perhaps give us tips and tools for how to receive, cherish, and even survive what life brings.
But ultimately, Déchanet says here—ultimately it is up to us “to make a synthesis of the many contradictions which come to fill up our lives.” Our teachers are only guides. We have to live our own lives. What life brings to us is often contradictory: faith and doubt, life and loss, silence and noise, at once boring and overwhelming. Being present to all of it—what we hope to cherish and what we hope to survive—is up to us.
I think about the paradox of being a mom of young children: I love them, and yet sometimes I feel overwhelmed by them. One minute, I marvel at their antics and imagination; thirty seconds later, they can be clingy or fighting, and I’m beyond frustrated. These moments happen side-by-side all day long. I want to cherish these years, keeping them small forever—and I want my kids to be older and potty-trained and able to get themselves cereal. I want these things both at the same time.
I know that Déchanet and Merton did not experience having children or being a mother. I can use their words to guide me, but I also have to work this out myself. Holding adoration for my children on one hand and frustration in the other, I acknowledge both as being part of parenting and life. In contemplation, I acknowledge this tension, accept it as where I am. A tiny release happens—I do not have to reconcile these things.
Contemplative prayer and teachers can aid us, and the Holy Spirit works within us.
Invitation to Practice
Before you click away, take this idea into practice: Stretch your arms out to either side of you, palms up.
Consider the contradictions that life is bringing you today. What are you holding in your left hand at the same time you are holding its opposite in your right? Name these contradictions. Imagine holding them both at the same time.
Bring your palms to your lap, palms still up. The contradictions are side-by-side before you.
Do you and the Holy Spirit notice a synthesis between them? Perhaps. And perhaps not. That, too, is a contradiction. It is enough to simply notice what is present in your life.
When you are ready, bring your palms together in front of your heart, offering the contradictions back to God in prayer.