Contemplation Cannot Be Taught – 2 quotes from Thomas Merton’s book – New Seeds of Contemplation

by Mark Votava

download (9)1. Contemplation cannot be taught

“The only way to get rid of misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it.  One who does not actually know, in his own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it.  For contemplation cannot be taught.  It cannot even be clearly explained.  It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized.  The more objectively and scientifically one tries to analyze it, the more he empties it of its real content, for this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization.  Nothing is more repellent than a pseudo-scientific definition of the contemplative experience.  One reason for this is that he who attempts such a definition is tempted to procede psychologically, and there is really no adequate psychology of contemplation.  To describe ‘reactions’ and ‘feelings’ is to situate contemplation where it is not to be found, in the superficial consciousness where it can be observed by reflection.  But this reflection and this consciousness are precisely part of that external self which ‘dies’ and is cast aside like a soiled garment in the genuine awakening of the contemplative.”  

  • The superficial, external self

“Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of this external self.  There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular.  We must remember that this superficial ‘I’ is not our real self.  It is our ‘individuality’ and our ‘empirical self’ but it is not truly the hidden and mysterious person in whom we subsist before the eyes of God.  The ‘I’ that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes its own reactions and talks about itself is not the true ‘I’ that has been united to God in Christ.  It is at best the vesture, the mask, the disguise of that mysterious and unknown ‘self’ whom most of us never discover until we are dead.  Our external, superficial self is not eternal, not spiritual.  Far from it.  This self is doomed to disappear as completely as smoke from a chimney.  It is utterly frail and evanescent.  Contemplation is precisely the awareness that this ‘I’ is really ‘not I’ and the awakening of the unknown ‘I’ that is beyond observation and reflection and is incapable of commenting upon itself.  It cannot even say ‘I’ with the assurance and the impertinence of the other one, for its very nature is to be hidden, unnamed, unidentified in the society where men talk about themselves and about one another.  In such a world the true ‘I’ remains both inarticulate and invisible, because it has altogether too much to say – not one word of which is about itself.”   

Which quote do you like the best?

Here are some other posts I have done on Thomas Merton and his writings.

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