Beginning at the Right Time
I may be a week later than I'd hoped in getting started, but I think Thomas Merton would be alright with that. I found myself having a quiet and peaceful moment today--a moment when I truly wanted to sit and to read something else today. I wasn't trying to rush to get something done, and I wasn't trying to make sure something was "perfect." I'd finished my morning prayers and had a choice of what to do next. And Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation sat beneath my prayer book, ready to be cracked open.
It's not the first time I've cracked it open. In 2015 I served as a teaching assistant to one of my most memorable mentors who used Merton's NSoC in his "Intro to Christian Theology" course, and I was able to learn from him--until he asked me to lecture on it myself. I freely admit: I wasn't entirely sure what I was doing.
You (I) might feel the same way as we begin to make our way through the first chapter, "What is Contemplation?" (which gives anything but one, straight answer). As I reread this chapter this morning, I found myself both unsettled by the strangeness of Merton's language and inspired by the hope of contemplation that he puts before us.
This strangeness and hope are a pair that we need right now--the former fits with our present circumstances; the latter drawing us further toward where we want to be. Maybe, just maybe, this is the perfect time to be reading strange and hope-filled words like these.
We tend to think of "contemplation" as something monks and nuns do. Merton was, of course, a monastic--but his life was not what you'd necessarily expect of one (just read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain). We might be used to thinking of "contemplation" as opposed to "action" (Thomas Aquinas spent several questions of the Summa Theologiae contrasting the "contemplative" way of life with the "active" way of life and concluded that the "contemplative" was superior). And if we do pit action and contemplation against one another, we tend to prefer action--we like to get things done and accomplish things, sew on our merit badges and call it a "job well done."
Hence the strangeness: when we hear (to put it simply) "we should be contemplative," our minds may rush to conclude that we're being told to "give up action." But that's not what Merton is saying.
Hence more strangeness: contemplation is an "awakening." Merton's words fly in the face of an age-old distinction between "the spiritual life" and any other form of life that sees "spiritual things" as separate and closed off from the rest of our lives ("That's what I do on Sundays" or "That's what I do in church"). Instead:
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. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. (1)
Contemplation is not, as Merton will say more about in the second chapter, just praying alone in your room. It's not what you do in church during those "quiet times." It's more. It encompasses more. It's existential--it's a way of being in life and in the world, whether bodily, spiritual, active, prayerful, awake, tired, young, old, busy, rested, working, taking a day off, quarantined, or anything else.
Contemplation is and must be compatible with all these things, for it is their highest fulfillment. But in the actual experience of contemplation all other experiences are momentarily lost. They "die" to be born again on a higher level of life. (2)
Contemplation, is an all-encompassing mode of existence--though not one we're meant to turn on and off at a whim or when it's convenient. Contemplation, as Merton describes and defines it, is a calling and a response to a call. It is "above all, awareness of the reality" of God as the "Source" of our existence (1), and our choice to live our lives in the light of that awareness.
You can be contemplative and pray (that's where most of our minds go when we hear that word). But to be truly "contemplative," as Merton describes it, is to live your life completely and utterly in the light of God's active, creative presence within you and those around you, so that your life itself becomes a prayer, a response to God at all times and in all places.
We began Lent at Saint Peter's by reflecting on a fundamental truth of Ash Wednesday: we are creatures dependent on the creative love of our Creator. This, I think, lies behind much of what Merton is saying in this first chapter:
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. (3)
In a life of contemplation, therefore--better yet, in a life that is contemplation, we are able to live into the lives that God has created us for.
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. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo. (3)
We are created in God's image (Gen. 1:26-28) and, as J.R.R. Tolkien so beautifully put it, this means we are "made in the image of a Maker." This implies that our lives are to be anything but inactive: we are active, creative agents who "echo" God's "divine life, divine creativity, making all things new" (3).
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. (3)
The hope, therefore, is a vocation, one that awaits each and every one of us who seek God's will for our lives and the life of the world. Awakened to the experience of God, not just in church or so-called "spiritual" functions, but in the very act of existence itself, and in the transformation of that existence through Christ, we can better--best--understand and live out our vocation to be God's people, to be the people God has created us to be.
It is the gift of God Who, in His mercy, completes the hidden and mysterious work of creation in us by enlightening our minds and hearts, by awakening in us the awareness that we are words spoken in His One Word. ... Contemplation is the awareness and realization, even in some sense experience, of what each Christian obscurely believes: "It is no longer I that live but Christ lives in me." ... It is awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God's creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life. (4-5)
My hope through this sort of contemplation is for that better, deeper, and more profound awareness and certainty of "God's creative and dynamic intervention in our daily lives." As we continue reading through Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation, we can also hope to see how those seeds can bear more fruit than we can ask or imagine.