Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton (a Book Review)

Merton provided words for what I was experiencing and what I wanted to nurture in the life of prayer. More than devotional stick-to-it-ive-ness, I felt and wanted to continue to feel drawn to simply be with God.

But, while my heart desired more than accountability or discipline, I’ve also known by experience that, for me, the sense of being aware of God’s presence often occurs within the frame of my disciplined life. When I am making space, clearing time, attentiveness to the God who is always present occurs more freely. The opposite happens when I slip out of disciplined rhythms or
whimsically wish to feel a bit more connected. Of course, God works in these seasons too; he is present there also.

The most impactful thing I read in the book was about meditation. In my circles, where theology and life with God is much more cognitive than affective, “meditation” is an experience similar to tracing through cross references, learning more and more, “chewing on” a question the texts brings up. The end goal is often to come to a mastery of the text, to know exactly what it means, though I doubt many would say it so proudly if you asked them if that’s what they were hoping for.

What Merton wrote is that meditation is dwelling with God in the text. While it does involve a cognitive pursuit of questions, it comes to a point not of mastery, not of doctrine by itself, but of presence. And this presence is what leads to “contemplation.”

“Contemplation” has also lost some of its meaning in my circles. For my circles, it’s described as a deeper mode of meditation. Where meditation might be tracing through cross references and study notes, mulling over a question, “contemplation” is lifting your eyes to the sky and daydreaming through a thought. It is a pause, but it is not restful — it is still seeking to make sense of something; it is looking for where to place it within the systematic shelving system of personal theology.

Merton, then, frees these concepts (meditation and contemplation) from being only about an academic-theological pursuit and lets them return to lived-theological experience, where the goal is not to master the text but to be mastered, to become present to God, the One who is waiting for your attention.

It’s at this moment that silence replaces Scripture, just for this moment (you’ll return to Scripture again later). And in this silence, there you are, you and God. There are no answers, no questions, no images – just restful peace. If you didn’t have a watch or light from the sun to tell time by, you might just slip into eternal time, right then and there.

This leads to the second best part of Merton’s book: how to nurture the above, how it is made possible. Here, he writes frequently from John of the Cross and traces through a few others who are similar. It’s a simple trace through the history of Christian thought as told by those often labeled “the mystics.” Now, that word throws many off course: mystics. People think a mystic is someone who threw their Bible out the window and now waltz’s through life in their own little imagined world, balancing a line somewhere between deep theological thought and scitzophrenic experience. No, this isn’t the case. So, since the word, “mystic” can be unhelpful, I’ll use the phrase, “Aware and Wise Ones.”

So then, these Aware and Wise Ones have Merton telling their short stories, writing his favorite gleanings from their past. And now Merton shares that with us in these pages. I like this because these Aware Ones speak to me — their lives, their inclinations, their pursuit for God’s Own Self, or more, to awaken to God Who Is Present in Jesus, is something I am drawn toward. It is something I want my theological meditations to lead me toward.

12 thoughts on “Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton (a Book Review)”

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