The Contemplative

Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life…It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. 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
— Thomas Merton: from New Seeds of Contemplation

Photograph of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin. Used with Permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center.

Perhaps Thomas Merton’s greatest gift to us, through his writings, is his insight on contemplative living in a world filled with chaos and distraction. He wrote extensively on this subject, in books such as Seeds of Contemplation, What is Contemplation, Tears of the Blind Lion, The Inner Experience, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and others. In his journal, Road to Joy, he discusses his own contemplative life as a search for God, "finding the true significance of my life and my right place in God’s creation."  We learn that contemplation is more than an exercise in prayer: it is the experience of seeking God in everyday life, coming to  know one’s true self, and learning one’s relationship to the world. It involves everyone’s vocation to be fully human, aware of who we are, and how we relate to others. Merton tells us spiritual formation cannot take place in isolation, but must be grounded in the experience of relationships and community.

Merton offers a potent tool for those seeking a more contemplative way of living, in the form of meditation. He tells us “To meditate is to exercise the mind in serious reflection,” but notes that it also involves our hearts, and indeed, our whole being. “One who meditates does not merely think, he also loves.” He draws his initial definition of meditation from Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, as primarily “the quest for truth.” Later in his life, he would link his conceptions of contemplation and meditation with the traditions of Eastern faiths and wisdom, as he continued, to the very end of his life, to seek and understand the “ultimate reality” of God and life.

…the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence…
— Thomas Merton: The Climate of Monastic Prayer

Listen to Merton's vision of the Contemplative Life. A Catholic Trappist Monk, his mystical spirituality was informed by the mystics of the Western and Eastern Religious Traditions.

Merton’s genius was largely that he was a massively unoriginal man: he is extraordinary because he is so dramatically absorbed by every environment he finds himself in- - America between the wars, classical pre-conciliar Catholicism and monasticism, the peace movement, Asia. In all these contexts he is utterly ‘priestly’ because utterly attentive: he does not organize, dominate, or even interpret, much of the time, but responds. It is not a chameleon inconsistency (though it could be so interpreted by a hostile eye), because all these influences flow into one constant place, a will and imagination turned Godward.
— Quoted from Rowan Williams, A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011).
The Rt. Revd. Rowan Williams discusses the continued importance of Thomas Merton's writings at the 2015 ITMS conference. Interviewed and filmed by Robert Grip.