What Contemplation is Not – 6 quotes from Thomas Merton’s book – New Seeds of Contemplation

by Mark Votava

download (9)1. Belonging to the external self

“Contemplation… is the experiential grasp of reality as subjective, not so much ‘mine’ (which would signify ‘belonging to the external self’) but ‘myself’ in existential mystery. Contemplation does not arrive at reality after a process of deduction, but by an intuitive awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive to its own existential depths, which open out into the mystery of God.”

2.Not just the affair of a passive and quiet temperament

“Obviously contemplation is not just the affair of a passive and quiet temperament. It is not mere inertia, a tendency of inactivity, to psychic peace. The contemplative is not merely a man who likes to sit and think, still less one who sits around with a vacant stare. Contemplation is much more than thoughtfulness or a taste for reflection. Certainly, a thoughtful and reflective disposition is nothing to be despised in our world of inanity and automatism – and it can very well dispose a man for contemplation.”

3. Passive acquiescence in the status quo

“Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial ‘doubt.’ This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion. This false ‘faith’ which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our ‘religion’ is subjected to inexorable questioning. This torment is a kind of trial by fire in which we are compelled, by the very light of invisible truth which has reached us in the dark ray of contemplation, to examine, to doubt and finally to reject all the prejudices and conventions that we have hitherto accepted as if they were dogmas. Hence is it clear that genuine contemplation is incompatible with complacency and with smug acceptance of prejudiced opinions. It is not mere passive acquiescence in the status quo, as some would like to believe – for this would reduce it to the level of spiritual anesthesia. Contemplation is no pain-killer. What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, clichés, slogans, rationalizations!…”   

4. No longer knows what God is

“In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is…”

5. Has nothing to do with temperament

“Contemplative intuition has nothing to do with temperament. Though it sometimes happens that a man of quiet temperament becomes a contemplative, it may also happen that the very passivity of his character keeps him from suffering the inner struggle and the crisis through which one generally comes to a deeper spiritual awakening.”

6. Cannot be taught

“For contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized…”

What do you think contemplation is not?

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