NOTES on Thomas Merton (1915-1968): What is Contemplation?


Thomas Merton wrote widely on the contemplative life. He graduated from Columbia University, and in 1941 he became a Trappist monk at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky.

His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was an immediate success when it was published in 1948, and for the next 20 years of his life, Merton divided his life between a contemplative and an active life. As a monk, he devoted himself to contemplation, prayer, manual work, and solitude; however, he also was active in social affairs and was a prolific author.

This may seem like a conflict of interests, but it can also be interpreted as a reflection of the awareness of God on two levels. First, God is transcendent — outside of the universe. Merton’s life as a monk — at one time, Merton was a hermit — helped him understand God on this level. Second, God is immanent — God’s influence is seen throughout the universe, which after all is His creation. Merton’s life as a man of action involved in social affairs helped him understand God on this level.

In his book New Seeds of Contemplation(1961), Merton says what contemplation is, and what contemplation is not.

What Is Contemplation?

According to Merton, “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.”

Often religion is seen as otherworldly, as being concerned with heaven and hell, and not with the World. This is incorrect. If God created the World and put us in the World, apparently there is something God wants us to accomplish here.

Indeed, religious people see human and other life as immensely valuable. It is a tragedy when a human life is cut short. Other people may be willing to needlessly risk human life — to build a car knowing that it may catch fire when rear-ended (the Ford Pinto). This is something that a truly religious person would not do. A religious person sees human life as infinitely valuable.

In addition, Merton writes of contemplation,

It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knowsthe Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and beyond simple faith. … It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words or even in clear concepts.

In the above passage, Merton tells us what contemplation is “above all.” It is awareness of God. When we contemplate, we become aware of God and know that He exists and that our being proceeds from Him. Contemplation is very much different from philosophical argumentation. A philosophical argument can treat God as an object, but contemplation knows God as a Person.

According to Merton, “Poetry, music and art have something in common with the contemplative experience. But contemplation is beyond aesthetic intuition, beyond art, beyond poetry. Indeed, it is also beyond philosophy, beyond speculative theology.”

Although contemplation seems to reject such things as poetry, music, art, philosophy, and speculative theology, actually it does not. What these things are trying to accomplish, contemplation actually accomplishes. Thus, contemplation fulfills all these things.

According to Merton,

In other words, then, contemplation reaches out to the knowledge and even to the experience of the transcendent and inexpressible God. It knows God by seeming to touch Him. Or rather it knows Him as if it had been invisibly touched by Him. … Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within all that is real. A vivid awareness of infinite Being at the roots of our own limited being. An awareness of our contingent reality as received, as a present from God, as a free gift of love.

Once again, Merton stresses awareness of God and awareness that our being is a gift of God.

According to Merton, “Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His.”

God created us, but God created us so that we may commune with Him. We can have a relationship with God, for God is a Person. God wants us to commune with Him as a Person.

According to Merton,

It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us to contemplation He answered the question, so that the contemplative is at the same time, question and answer.

The life of contemplation implies two levels of awareness: first, awareness of the question, and second, awareness of the answer. Though these are two distinct and enormously different levels, yet they are in fact an awareness of the same thing. The question is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both. … And all is summed up in one awareness — not a proposition, but an experience: “I Am.”

I cannot say that I understand all of what Merton is saying here; after all, I do not engage in contemplation. However, Merton is saying the experience of existing is very important. It is important that we experience “I Am.”

According to Merton,

The contemplation of which I speak here is not philosophical. … It is the religious apprehension of God, through my life in God, or through ‘sonship’ as the New Testament says. … And so the contemplation of which I speak is a religious and transcendent gift. … Contemplation is the awareness and realization, even in some sense experience, of what each Christian obscurely believes: “It is now no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me.”

Several things are going on in the above passage. First, contemplation is not philosophical thinking about abstract concepts. René Descartes (1596-1650) and other philosophers do this when writing about God. In my opinion, arguing for God’s existence and trying to determine His attributes is not necessarily bad (in fact, it is good), but it is not what contemplation is about.

Second, contemplation is a gift of God. True, a person can decide to try to contemplate, and can prepare him- or herself for contemplation, but what is learned comes from God and not from the person’s own efforts. It’s not a good idea to say, “Today is Thursday. I think today I’ll contemplate and experience God.” A person can put aside a time to contemplate, but the experience of God is a gift from God and cannot be scheduled.

Third, contemplation is awareness of Christ living in you. Christians speak of turning their lives over to God. They also speak of losing their life in order that they may save it. This is not a contradiction, although it sounds like one. A person can give up some of one kind of freedom in order to gain more of another kind of freedom. For example, take being in shape. To get or to stay in shape requires giving up some freedom. You are no longer free to gorge yourself on ice cream or to become a couch potato. However, by watching your diet and by exercising, you will be free to demand more of your body than the people who use their freedom to become overweight slugs. According to C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), a person who turns his life over to God becomes truly free.

According to Merton, “Hence contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract truths about God, more even than affective meditation on the things we believe. It is awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our lives.”

Once again, we find that contemplation is awareness of God and of God’s playing a part in our lives.

What Contemplation Is Not

Merton also speaks about misconceptions about contemplation. However, according to Merton, “The only way to get rid of misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it. One who does not actually know, in his own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it.”

One consequence of this is that contemplation cannot be taught. Indeed, even though Merton writes a lot about contemplation, he admits that contemplation “cannot even be clearly explained.”

The only thing that Merton can do in his writing is to hint at what contemplation is. The worst thing that someone could try to do is to explain contemplation scientifically. Psychology can look at the “superficial consciousness” of the “external self”; however, in contemplation, the external self “dies.” Therefore, contemplation cannot be a function of your external self. What awakens in contemplation is a “deep transcendent self” — a self that is “the hidden and mysterious person in whom we subsist before the eyes of God.”

According to Merton, “Our external, superficial self is not eternal, not spiritual. Far from it. This self is doomed to disappear as completely as smoke from a chimney. It is utterly frail and evanescent. Contemplation is precisely the awareness that this ‘I’ is really ‘not I’ and the awakening of the unknown ‘I’ that is beyond observation and reflection and is incapable of commenting upon itself.”

Merton writes of two selves: our real self, and our superficial self. Our superficial self is the self that is in the World — buying and getting, concerned with things that are not eternal. Our real self, however, is concerned with eternal things. We may be able to think of the two selves as the superficial self in this World and the real self that is the ideal self that will eventually — if all goes well — reside in Heaven.

Christians believe that God wants us to be more than good people — God wants us to be new people. We are supposed to become “born again” as new people — to become children of God. As such, we will do the right thing because we want to, not because we are ordered to. C. S. Lewis describes Heaven as a place where everything is permitted because it is impossible to want to do the wrong thing.

According to Merton, “Contemplation does not arrive at reality after a process of deduction, but by an intuitive awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive to its own existential depths, which open out into the mystery of God.”

Doing philosophy is not contemplation, Merton writes. A philosopher such as Descartes attempts to prove the existence of the self and the existence of God, but the contemplative experiences the self and God. For the contemplative, “I Am” is experienced and does not need to be proved.

Merton also tells about several things that contemplation is not.

  • “Obviously contemplation is not just the affair of a passive and quiet temperament.” Such a temperament is not to be despised, Merton writes, but contemplation is more than just sitting around, looking off into space.
  • “Contemplation is not prayerfulness, or a tendency to find peace and satisfaction in liturgical rites.” The rites are “a great good,” Merton writes, and “they are almost necessary preparations for contemplative experience”; however, the rites are not contemplation itself.

According to Merton, both a person with a quiet temperament and a person with an active temperament can discover contemplation. Both have advantages. The person with the quiet temperament may be more naturally attracted to contemplation, but the person with an active temperament may be more willing to suffer “the inner struggle and the crisis through which one generally comes to a deeper spiritual awakening.”

  • “Contemplation is not trance or ecstasy, or the hearing of sudden unutterable words, or the imagination of lights.” Such things can happen, but they are the work of the emotions. Although such things can accompany a religious experience — such as Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus — they are not contemplation.
  • Contemplation is not “the gift of prophecy, nor does it imply the ability to read the secrets of men’s hearts.” Merton writes that such things can accompany contemplation, but they are not contemplation.

Merton writes, “There are many other escapes from the empirical, external self, which might seem to be, but are not, contemplation. For example, the experience of being seized and taken out of oneself by collective enthusiasm, in a totalitarian parade: the self-righteous upsurge of party loyalty that blots out conscience and absolves every criminal tendency in the name of Class, Nation, Party, Race or Sect.”

We can imagine the Nazis attending mass rallies. The Nazis were part of a Mass Society, and they were unable to attain any longer a “genuine spiritual experience.” Their mass rallies were a poor substitute for contemplation.

Merton makes two more important points:

1) “Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.”

We see this, I believe, in Merton’s own life. Merton was torn between becoming a monk and becoming active in social issues. He ended up devoting his life to both the contemplation of God and the carrying out of God’s work in the World.

2) “In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is. He may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because ‘God is not a what,’ nor a ‘thing.’ … God is neither a ‘what’ nor a ‘thing’ but a pure ‘Who.’ He is the ‘Thou’ before whom our inmost ‘I’ springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo ‘I am.’”

Note: The quotations by Thomas Merton that appear in this essay are from his New Seeds of Contemplation(copyright 1961 by the Abbey of Gethsemane, Inc.).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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