Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Musings on Merton: What is Contemplation?

            Perhaps you have heard about or even practice some form of meditation such as Mindfulness Meditation, or a type of contemplative prayer like Centering Prayer, but you struggle, as I do, to articulate, either to others or for your own understanding,  just what contemplation is and isn’t. Well, I recently participated in a Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Spiritual Formation Class about “Thomas Merton and the Journey to True Self” that required I read Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. Its first chapter is entitled “What Is Contemplation?” “What Contemplation Is Not” is the title of the second chapter. Merton has therefore offered me some guidance to better express what contemplation is and isn’t.
From new seeds, growth begins and spreads.
            In the first sentence of the first chapter of New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton writes “Contemplation is the highest expression of [humanity’s] intellectual and spiritual life” and “reaches out to the knowledge and even to the experience of the transcendent and inexpressible God.”[1] I like that Merton defined contemplation in broader terms than just an intellectual knowledge of God or only a spiritual experience of the Divine. Merton did not divorce his heart from his head, something my own beloved Reformed Tradition has sometimes been prone to do.
            Having been raised and educated in the Reformed Tradition, my head was often more engaged than my heart. My faith frequently seemed to be measured by what I thought about God rather than if, or how, I experienced God’s grace, mercy, and love.  Therefore I have found Merton’s writings about spirituality in general and contemplation in particular offering me a much needed corrective to a spirituality of the head because I not only want to know about God intellectually but to actually know God experientially. Contemplation, or contemplative prayer, such as Merton describes it, is the primary way I have experienced the Divine in an affectional, intuitive, and personal way that transcends a mere intellectual assent.
            Just as it is often difficult to describe God because God is so far beyond our ability to formulate our thoughts and feelings into words, it might also be equally difficult to describe contemplation for similar reasons. God can be so difficult to describe that sometimes we resort to saying what God is not. After we remove everything that is not God, all we should be left with is the Divine. Likewise, it might make more sense to say what contemplation is not, and whatever remains is contemplation. Merton follows this “negative” approach in the second chapter of New Seeds of Contemplation, where, in the first paragraph of the second chapter, he writes that contemplation “cannot even be explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, [and] symbolized.”[2]
            Pointing to contemplation by describing what it is not, Merton notes that “nothing could be more alien to contemplation than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes.”[3] As a child of the Enlightenment who has been educated by both a culture and a church that has tended to separate the head not only from the body but also from the heart, I find Merton’s assertion both troubling and liberating. It troubles me because I have been raised to value education and an intellectual faith that emphasizes orthodoxy. I find it liberating because I have come to believe that we can never think our way to divine union or experience union with God simply by theological reflection or believing the right things.
            Merton also states in the second chapter that “contemplation is not prayerfulness, or a tendency to find peace and satisfaction in liturgical rites. These, too, are a great good, and they are almost necessary preparations for contemplative experience. They can never, of themselves, constitute that experience.”[4]
            I value liturgical, ordered, public worship. I affirm, along with the new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Common Worship that “over time, an order of worship helps to shape our faith and faithfulness as the people of God, becoming a pattern for how we live as Christians in the world.”[5] Yet Sunday Worship has rarely satisfied my thirst and hunger for an experience of the living God in the same way that the spiritual discipline of daily contemplative prayer has fed my soul.

             Here is the link to the introductory post in the series.

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 2007), 1-2.
[2] Ibid., 6.
[3] Ibid., 8.
[4] Ibid., 9.
[5] Book of Common Worship, PC(USA), 4.

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