Merton – On Contemplation

In addition to our regular Sunday posts, Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, offers a weekly Lenten Reflection on the thought and spirituality of Thomas Merton, to be posted mid-week during Lent.

Thomas Merton wrote voluminously about contemplation, which he stresses is part of normal development in the spiritual life.  According to Merton, contemplation is the rendezvous between God and a person in which one gazes on God in silent adoration and tastes the very goodness of God. Merton writes:  “Contemplation, by which we know and love God as He is in Himself, apprehending Him in a deep and vital experience, which is beyond the reach of natural understanding, is the reason for our creation by God.”[i]

In his writings, Merton emphasizes that silence and solitude are integral to the development of the life of contemplation.  The contemplative person belongs to silence and lets it soak into his or her being.  In the solitude of silence, the contemplative listens expectantly for and to God and experiences the “presence of the Three Divine Persons: the Father, the source and giver of Love; the Son, the image and glory of Love; and the Spirit who is the communication of the Father and the Son in Love.”[ii]

The contemplative enjoys the first-hand experience of God’s abiding presence in, to, and for all that exists.  Regarding this, Merton declares:  “There is no awareness like the awareness of the contemplative who suddenly wakes up to the fact that … all of reality is full of God, and that the universe is swimming in meaning.”[iii]

Since God is ineffable Mystery, no quantity or quality of words can ever adequately communicate the fullness of God’s Reality.  In Figures for an Apocalypse, Merton insightfully asserts:

Not in the streets, not in the white streets
Nor in the crowded porticoes
Shall we catch You in our words,
Or lock you in the lenses of our cameras,
You Who escaped the subtle Aristotle,
Blinding us by Your evidence,
Your too clear evidence, Your everywhere.[iv]

In and through the intimate experience of God in contemplation, a person  comes to know his or her true self.  In the following way, Merton articulates the profundity of this truth:

Contemplation is a mystery in which God reveals Himself to us as the very center of our most intimate self – interior intimo me, as St. Augustine said.  When the realization of His presence bursts upon us, our own self disappears in Him, and we pass mystically through the Red Sea of separation to … find our true selves in Him.[v]

In his writings, Merton points to experiences of music, art, literature, and nature as possible contemplative entryways.  Gardening, gazing at paintings, walking in the woods or by the sea, savoring poetry, and meditative listening to a concert can be ways to become aware of God’s presence. Highlighting the contemplative solitude one can find at dawn, Merton reflects:

Besides, the dawn is by its very nature a peaceful, mysterious and contemplative time of day – a time when one naturally pauses and looks with awe at the eastern sky. It is a time of new life, new beginning and, therefore, important to the spiritual life: for the spiritual life is nothing else but a perpetual interior renewal.[vi]

Merton’s writings offer insights into the nature of both active and passive (infused) contemplation.  Active contemplation involves the experience of God’s presence in the ordinary activities of life. This kind of contemplation entails the “deliberate and sustained effort to detect the will of God in events and to bring one’s whole self into harmony with that will.”[vii] Merton notes that vocal prayer, meditation, and the sacraments (especially celebration of the liturgy) nourish the life of active contemplation.

Merton describes passive contemplation as a person’s groping in darkness toward God and God’s seeming darkness becoming brilliant light. During this experience that is beyond thoughts, words, or concepts, the contemplative is conscious that she or he is at-one with God in the embrace of intimate love.  Merton suggests that one can prepare to receive the gift of this type of contemplation by seeking solitude, not being anxious about the progress of one’s prayer, and accepting trials and crosses in life.

The contemplative seeks to integrate experiences of contemplation and action.  Love is the hinge that unites action and contemplation. Regarding this, Merton reflects:  “Action is charity looking outward to others and contemplation is charity drawn inward to its own divine source.”[viii] Contemplative persons who embrace God’s love in faith understand that they are responsible for sharing their faith in God by loving others.

Aware of the interdependence of all that exists, the contemplative seeks to  respond to the needs of others and the concerns of the world.  Merton stresses that the socially responsible contemplative prayerfully critiques the “war machine, bombs, violence, racism, materialism, and physical and spiritual poverty in contemporary Western life.”[ix]

To conclude, according to Thomas Merton, through contemplation one who journeys in faith experiences the freedom that comes from becoming more and more centered in God.  Life simplifies; one’s focus becomes God alone.  The most important thing in the life of contemplation is desire to receive God’s gifts. Those who enjoy experiences of contemplative communion with God need to offer their utmost gratitude for the grace of tasting the truth that the universe indeed swims.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[i] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1949) 144.

[ii] Merton, “The Inner Experience: Kinds of Contemplation (IV),” Cistercian Studies 18.4 (1983) 54.

[iii] Thomas Merton, “The Gift of Understanding,” The Tiger’s Eye 6 (December, 1948) 41.

[iv] Merton, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1977) 179.

[v] Thomas Merton, The New Man (New York: The Noonday Press, 1996) 19.

[vi] Ibid. 

[vii] Merton, “The Inner Experience (IV),” 45.

[viii] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1978) 70.

[ix] Anne E. Carr, A Search for Wisdom and Spirit: Thomas Merton’s Theology of Self (Notre Dame, In.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) 6.

Mary the Contemplative

In our final installment in this mini-series on contemplation we offer a reflection on Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

Our Blessed Mother is such a prominent figure in our spirituality and faith.   She must have been a powerful presence in the course of her earthly life.  One might expect that a person like that would have been a powerful speaker and, while she may have been, her voice is curiously silent in Sacred Scripture.  Surveying the New Testament, we find her speaking only seven times, and some of those are Gospels quoting the same words.   Others are Mary quoting the Old Testament (for example the Magnificat is Hannah’s Song of Praise).    I am reminded of the old expression that “Actions speak louder than words”.  One can be heard without words.

The last time we hear her voice in Scripture is at the Wedding Feast of Cana when she turns to the wine steward and says, “Do whatever He tells you”.  She always directs us to her son.  She always tells us to follow him.  For us Catholics, it is our joy to be directed by her to Jesus…Ad Jesu per Mariam (to Jesus though Mary).

The use of models and types in contemporary Marian theology has become a standard for analysis, expression, and explanation of theological principles and spirituality.   Mary as the Model of the Church and Mary as the Model of the Perfect Disciple are prime examples.  Mary as the Model Contemplative is the image that prompts us to imitate her in our desire for a genuine encounter with God.  Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, are frequently presented as the emblematic expression of contemplation and action.  In Mary, the Mother of Jesus, we see the perfect integration.

The Scripture tells us that ”she treasured all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:19).  Some translations say “she pondered these things”.  This treasuring, this pondering is the functioning of contemplative prayer.  Sitting with, being quiet with, being open and receptive to God are the very attributes she models for us.  Spiritual writers have suggested that this openness and receptivity are the disposition of prayer that marked her conception of Jesus.  It is said that she conceived of Him in her heart before she conceived of Him in her body.  As the Model of the Perfect Contemplative she invites us to be mothers of God.  As Meister Eckhart, the German Medieval Mystic has reminded us: “We are all meant to be Mothers of God, for isn’t God always needing to be born?”

Some are immediately intimidated by the very mention of contemplative prayer.  They think that it’s only for very advanced souls, for Religious Sisters or Nuns or Monks, and not for the ordinary person in the world.  Some of the most learned and yes, holy, people have written reams of words trying to encourage us that prayer, deep prayer, meditation and contemplation are available to everyone.  This intimate closeness with God is not a prize to be won or earned.  Rather, it is, we believe, the fondest desire of our loving God, if only we would allow that desire into our hearts and be open.  The very desire to encounter God is itself His gift first to us.  If only we would allow ourselves to be enveloped by that desire, God would do the rest.

Mary, the Theotokos, Mary, the Mother of God was also Mary of Nazareth who lived in the most humble of circumstances.  She cooked, mended, drew water and went about the everyday concerns and activities of the most common life.  She found God in and through those activities and not in spite of them.  She found no divide between prayer and activity but rather found a union in the harmony and integration of her life and prayer.  Would it not be this perfect openness to God’s Presence in all things and circumstances that prepared her to conceive of Him through the power of the Holy Spirit?  Her contemplation and union with God led her to resolute action.  We continue to look to her as our exemplar and model…Ad Jesu per Mariam.

We conclude our mini-series on Contemplation where we began.  In our first blog we noted Laurence Freeman and his reminder of the necessary elements of contemplative prayer.

*     Interiority: going into “our inner room” (Mt 6:6)

*     Silence: prayer is about brevity, simplicity, and trust

*     Calmness: freedom from anxiety and obsession with material things

*     Mindfulness: focusing on God’s Kingdom before all else

*     Presentness: living in present moment, free from fear of the future

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.