Book Review – Contemplation in a World of Action by Thomas Merton

by Mark Votava


Thomas Merton writes about the renewal of contemplative life in this book Contemplation in a World of Action.  This is one of Thomas Merton’s best books!  The problem of identity that we face is crucial if we are to live authentic lives.  This is a big theme in the book.

It seems that Merton is speaking to the twenty-first century church, but this was written in the 1960’s.  So profound and prophetic for Merton’s time fifty years ago as well as ours today.  I am always captivated by the eloquence and grace in which Thomas Merton writes.

After studying over 80 books written by or about this great mystic of the twentieth century, I am moved to a deeper contemplative life myself as I live out my active life in the world.  No writer has shaped me like Thomas Merton.  I am so grateful we have his writings today to help us with understanding a contemplative spirituality.

This book will open our eyes to the importance of cultivating a mystical imagination in our active lives.  There is no future for the church without this.  If we want to engage the world with compassion instead of judgment, this is an essential book to teach us new ways of authenticity, honesty and courage.

Thomas Merton leaves behind a legacy that we should all cherish.  He was one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century.  His writing constantly subverted the narratives of modernity.  And this book particularly, Contemplation in a World of Action, could bring renewal to our interior lives as we struggle with the embedded dualities in the Western world.

  • A great deal of variety and originality

“Authentic renewal is going to demand a great deal of variety and originality in experimentation…  But renewal must be bought at the price of risk…  The winds are blowing and a lot of dead wood is going to fall…”

  • Evading the identity problem

“One of the most characteristic American ways of evading the identity problem is conformism, running with the herd, the refusal of solitude, the flight from loneliness…”

  • Our life does not consist in magic answers

“Our life does not consist in magic answers to impossible questions but in the acceptance of ordinary realities which are, for the most part, beyond analysis and therefore do not need to be analyzed.”

  • Honesty, humility and courage

“There are some problems in life which are not to be solved except by being lived with all honesty, humility and courage that grace and nature can provide for us.”

  • A courageous commitment in the face of anguish and risk

“To have identity is not merely to have a face and a name, a recognizable physical presence.  Identity in this deep sense is something that one must create for oneself by choices that are significant and that require a courageous commitment in the face of anguish and risk.  This means much more than just having an address and a name in the telephone book.  It means having a belief one stands by; it means having certain definite ways of responding to life, of meeting its demands, of loving other people and, in the last analysis, of serving God.  In this sense, identity is one’s witness to truth in one’s life.”  

  • A more authentic and honest way

“The question remains: can we adjust our life and our view of life in such a way that it will be capable of being lived in a more authentic and honest way…”

  • Lack of identity is a disaster

“In the contemplative life above all, lack of identity is a disaster…”

  • The inner transformation of consciousness

“A merely external practice of silence and enclosure will never do anything by itself to guarantee the inner transformation of consciousness which the contemplative life requires.  We have to reexamine all our practices with a serious willingness to admit that our present conceptions may simply be inadequate.  They need to be made much deeper and much more alive – and perhaps given an entirely new perspective.  In this way we will show ourselves truly alert to the new needs of a new generation, aware that in this alertness we are being open to grace, obedient to the love of the Holy Spirit…”

  • True discipline

“True discipline is interior and personal…”

  • The crisis of real growth in the contemplative life

“The purpose of discipline is, however, to make us critically aware of the limitations of the very language of the spiritual life and of ideas about that life.  If on an elementary level of discipline makes us critical of sham values in social life (for example, it makes us realize experientially that happiness is not to be found in the usual rituals of consumption in an affluent society), on a higher level it reveals to us the limitations of formalistic and crude spiritual ideas.  Discipline develops our critical insights and shows us the inadequacy of what we had previously accepted as valid…  It enables us to abandon and to discard as irrelevant certain kinds of experiences which, in the past, meant a great deal to us.  It makes us see that what previously served as a real ‘inspiration’ has now become a worn-out routine and that we must go on to something else.  It gives us the courage to face the risk and anguish of the break with our previous levels of experience.  It enables us, in the language of St. John of the Cross, to face the Dark Night in full awareness of our need to be stripped of what formerly gratified and helped us.  To adjust to a new level of experience is at first painful and even frightening, and we must face the fact that the crisis of real growth in the contemplative life can bring one perilously close to mental breakdown…”

  • The ordinary authentic real experiences of everyday life

“…it is very important in the contemplative life not to overemphasize the contemplation.  If we constantly overemphasize those things to which access is unavoidably quite rare, we overlook the ordinary authentic real experiences of everyday life as real things to enjoy, things to be happy about…  But the ordinary realities of everyday life, the faith and love with which we live our normal human lives, provide the foundation on which we build those higher things.  If there is no foundation, then we have nothing at all!  How can we relish the higher things of God if we cannot enjoy some simple little thing that comes along as a gift…  We should enjoy these things and then we will be able to go on to more rare experiences…”

Which quote stands out to you most?