on November 9, 2002
This is not a how-to book. It is a study of the history and meaning and reason for contemplative prayer, deeply thought of, deeply experienced. My little old copy is dogeared and heavily underlined, having been read so many times. And it is not my first copy - I've given others to friends.
As with much of Merton's writing, it is a tool for examining our own prayer, our own lives. He shows us many ways we may be evading the very goal of our prayer, how we may be shielding ourselves from God's light shining upon us.
Merton did not write this book in order to become popular. It is not all sweetness and gentle breezes of the Spirit. It is more like a cold wind that seeks to blow away our defenses and leave us face to face with what our souls really want - God. Whether we enjoy the process is not the point, but a book like this lets us know that we are not alone on the path, that, tough as it is, others have gone before. It gives comfort in the old English meaning of the word: strengthening. Read this if you need a good dose of spiritual tonic.
review by Janet Knori, author of Awakening in God
on January 15, 2006
Thomas Merton was a monk, and in this book he explains ways that the non-monastic can live a life of prayer. In doing so he provides exercises for the contemplative novice (like me) and warns against bad habits of prayer that are easy to fall into. Here is his explanation of the purpose of monastic prayer: "To prepare the way so that God's action may develop this 'faculty for the supernatural,' this capacity for inner illumination gy faith and by the light of wisdom, in the loving contemplation of God" (p. 45). He writes well and clearly; one need not be a monk or an academic to understand what he is teaching.
This was the first book of Merton's I ever read. I read it during a grief-filled time in my life when I felt the need of something to anchor me, to help me to pray more meaningfully, to concentrate on listening to God more than on my own verbalizing. At one point he says that he is easily distracted by many things; I realized that I had just heard my true name--Easily Distracted By Many Things--for the first time. He promised to teach "a way of keeping oneself in the presence of God and of reality, rooted in one's own inner truth" (p. 23), and he did.
The book's introduction is by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist; it includes a helpful series of prayers as well.
Merton helped me to heal, and to grow from the healing, and to re-engage an often hurting world. He opened up what was to me a new practice in Christian spirituality. I recommend you read him.
This book, 'Contemplative Prayer', was Thomas Merton's last book. A prolific writing on spiritual topics, Merton was perhaps in an ideal setting to be able to write about the ideas and methods of contemplative prayer, being a Trappist. Trappists devote themselves to prayer, adding the disciplines of silence and solitude, things that are needed for the contemplative side of things to emerge.
In the introduction by Merton's friend, Thich Nhat Hanh, there is a nine-fold prayer that relates to many of Merton's ideas about contemplative prayer. However, it is a mistake (and both Hanh in the introduction and Merton in the text mention this) to think that prayer is something in and of itself - Christians and Buddhists tend to have the understanding that prayer without practice lacks efficacy.
Merton traces a strong history of contemplative prayer, from the earliest Christians (particularly the Desert Fathers and early monastics) to the latest theologians (Hahn relates Merton's ideas to Paul Tillich, and without mentioning him by name, Merton also seems to strive for that same purity that was the pursuit of Kierkegaard). Merton concentrates especially on various 'via negativa' methods and theologies - St. John of the Cross is but the most powerful example, but Merton draws on Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Catherine of Siena, Meister Eckhart and others.
This is not a how-to manual for contemplative prayer. This was a subject that was beginning to interesting Merton more and more near the time of his death, and we can but wonder if he would have gone on to produce more practical writing on the topic after this piece. However, Merton, being a person with a good grasp for the authority and power of tradition and history, understood that the first task would be to understand what people have done before and how things have worked or not worked, before embarking upon a new subject for oneself. This is that product, and we are the poorer for not having a follow-up to the book.
Reading Merton is never wasted time. This is perhaps less 'spiritual' and more 'academic' than much of his writing, but it still has characteristic Merton sensitivity to subject, and is worthwhile for any looking for a deeper understanding of comtemplative practices.
on May 31, 2002
This book is profound: in a mere 116 pages Merton reveals indispensable spiritual insights one after another. Contemplation is the practice of seeking clarity--a clear vision of who we are, a clear vision of our relationship to God. So, with honest, relentless precision, Merton exposes our false postures of ego, pride, attachement, fear--those unholy but seductive impulses that cloud our souls and separate us from God. It is obvious that "Contemplative Prayer" is the product of an experienced contemplative, one who has experienced and reflected upon a lifetime of struggle, enough so that he can boil down the essence of spiritual survival into a handful of simple words. But he does much more than that: after shattering each underpinning of our personal complacency, he draws back and puts his observations in their monastic and theological context, giving us a fuller, deeper understanding of the religious tradition we belong to. For example, at one point, Merton elegantly and brilliantly summarizes "Dark Night of the Soul" (St. John of the Cross) in a way that makes it fully relevant to the modern reader. As a bonus, this edition contains an introduction by the distinguished Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (who in some respects is himself a Buddhist version of Thomas Merton). Hahn explores and compares the spiritual struggles of Buddhism and Christianity with respect to prayer, meditation, practice, and God--on those crucial levels we see that ultimately we have one nature, despite the obvious and superficial differences that tend to separate us. On a literary note, "Contemplative Prayer" will be particularly interesting to those drawn to existentialism or seeking a deeper understanding of it. At first glance, one might think no two people could be further apart than Camus' Stranger and the Christian contemplative, but they are in fact quite alike. Both have heightened awareness of their true nature. Both acknowledge the meaninglessness of the world formerly thought of as "real". Both have learned that contemplation of the real comes at a heavy price, yet one that is unavoidable to the soul honestly seeking truth. Christian, Buddhist, existentialist...in the end it seems we are all drawn to the same road.
on September 2, 2000
"Without true, deep contemplative aspirations, without a total love for GOD and an uncompromising thirst for his truth, religion tends in the end to become an opiate." These are the words with which Thomas Merton (1916-1968) closes this book. I learned to appreciate that meditation is an embracing of reality more than a retreat from reality. I have been inspired to focus more clearly on the situation at hand and to reveal how my spiritual relationship can improve what I see. It is easy for me to be distracted by many things during the day, and this tendency is only exacerbated when the task is daunting. Thomas Merton has taught me that, in meditation, I am advantaged by an attitude or outlook of faith, openness, attention, reverence, expectation, supplication, trust, and joy. All these finally permeate my being with love in so far as my living faith tells me I am in the presence of the LORD, that I live in Christ, that in the Spirit of the LORD I "see" the LORD, my GOD, without "seeing." I know her in "unknowing." Faith is the bond that unites me to him in the Spirit who gives me light and love. If you are interested in meditation in the twentieth century, or in building a stronger spiritual awareness, this book will be interesting to you.
on July 26, 2006
Contemplative Prayer, the last book by the renowned Trappist monk Thomas Merton, is a treatise on the practice, benefits and dangers of contemplative prayer for modern day monks. Although it seems to have been written primarily for others that have devoted their lives to monastic living, the casual reader and spiritual seeker can still glean much from Merton's book. In its 19 chapters, Merton takes the reader from the desert, through the dark nights of contemplation, to the effects that such contemplation should have on the contemplative and, therefore, on the world.
Merton combines both personal insight and traditional Christian teachings on the practice of contemplative prayer; his sources include Scripture, the Desert Fathers, Patristic texts, as well as mystical writings from the Christian tradition, most notably those of St. John of the Cross. Perhaps reflecting the ecumenical spirit of the middle to late 60s that was present in the Roman Catholic Church - due in large part to Vatican II - Merton also uses various ascetic writings from the Eastern Orthodox Church, most notably excerpts from the Philokalia, which is sometimes referred to as "the Bible of Eastern Orthodox spirituality." Merton's use of sources and personal insight serve to convey a deep understanding of the practice of contemplative prayer; the reader is left feeling that (s)he is in the presence of a spiritual guide, a wise fellow seeker, and a friend.
There are two other sources that are worth pointing out although they are less obvious than the sources cited above. First, the existentialist theme that runs through the book is worth noting; Merton seems to desire to engage some of the intellectual trends of his time with his book. Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Gabriel Marcel are both alluded to and cited throughout the pages of this book; the idea of an "existentialist dread" of death and the darkness within the human self serve, at different times, as points of departure for Merton's teachings. Given the teachings of the urgency of the moment that both Existentialism and Christianity espouse and the unrest that was a part of life in both the United States and in the international community, such a coupling of Existentialism and Christian spirituality makes a lot of sense.
Secondly, Merton mentions at points the ground that the soul meets God on. Such an idea seems to recall the teaching of Meister Eckhart, the controversial Dominican monk and mystic of the 13th century . Merton never cites Eckhart and given the controversy surrounding the condemnation of Eckhart's, if Eckhart is a source for Merton's thought, Merton's apprehension of citing Eckhart makes sense. The parallels are worth noting, though. Yet, unlike Eckhart, Merton does not view union with God as an experience of the self dissolving into the Godhead. In fact, Merton does not at any point actually mention "union with God", but describes instead "the creative and healing work of the monk [by God]" as being "a participation in the saving death and resurrection of Christ" (26). Such language about "participation" certainly recalls the language used by the Greek Fathers when discussing union with God, a union where the Creator and the creature remain distinct but in a full, intimate communion.
Contemplative Prayer, although short, is not a light read. It calls one to look within before looking without; it is a call for self-confrontation. Each chapter - and even parts of chapters - could be read and meditated upon for days on end. This is a good thing, though, as it makes this book helpful guide for the spiritual journey.
on August 19, 1999
Thomas Merton's final book, this slim volume in many ways concludes the spiritual journey begun in The Seven Story Mountain. It is a guide for young monks in the aspirations and discipline of contemplative prayer, but it is also a deeply felt meditation on the condition of (especially modern) mankind and its apartness from God. The general reader will find profound wisdom of a rigorous and mature intellect which compliments and sums Merton's earlier work.
on March 24, 2002
Thomas Merton, a great teacher of spiritual principles above and beyond religion and institutionalized group consciousness.
Merton became a Buddhist at the end of his journey. Not the Buddhist of religious philosophy but the Zen experience far beyond explanation,structure and preconceived verbal formulas with absolutely no objectification, including that of God.
Notice this quote and ask yourself, "Is this a description of the Christian contemplative or a Zen Master? Then again, the Zen ontological experience of say D.T. Suzuki can no doubt be likened to the Christian mystic, Meister Eckart.
"Comtemplative prayer comes only when we are able to "let go" of everything within us, to enter into "emptiness," that is to let go of all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God. It is only then when we truly become able to experience his presence. It is neither the desire nor the refusal of desire that counts, but only that "desire" which is a form of "emptiness." Not the false emptiness of simply "blacking out" our thoughts in systematic methods and techniques, where emptiness becomes a thing, but rather the true emptiness that is a no-thing, a nothing, which is total inclusivenss, able to trancend all things, and yet is immanent in all. For what seems to be emptiness in this case is pure being. Or at least a philosopher might so describe it, but to the Christian contemplative is it other than that. It is not this, not that. Whatever you say of it,it is other than what you say. The character of emptiness, at least for a Christian contemplative, is pure love, pure freedom, free of everything, not determined by any thing, or held down by any special relationship, but a pure unconditional, nonparitial, nonjudgemental, inclusive love. 5 stars do not do this book any justice."
on November 4, 1998
In this book, Merton has given us a view of the contemplative prayer as practiced by the order in which he was a member. He then goes on to explain why the practice is done and the meaning that it holds. Even more effective though, is how Merton then takes the lay person who has an interest into the role of a contemplative. He opens the door for the lay person to begin a life of contemplative prayer ahile learnign to understand it as the monks do. It is also phenomenal how well it relates to the Bhuddist prayer life as related in the introduction. this book is highly recommended by this reader for those who are searching for a start, or an explanation of why, there is a contemplative prayer life.
on January 3, 2008
Thomas Merton's thoughtful work on Contemplative Prayer is worthy of careful contemplation by Christians of all traditions. The chapters are brief as is the book but it contains many powerful ideas. Merton is careful to not separate contemplation from either corporate worship or service. He will have none of the false dichotomy of "spiritual" life and "earthly" life. He also avoids pointing to contemplation as a gimmick or a method for true spirituality. The highlight of the book for me came on page 112. There Merton writes, "Prayer does not blind us to the world, but it transforms our vision of the world, and makes us see it, all men and all the history of mankind, in the light of God."
I come from a different Christian tradition than Thomas Merton, but I value his insights as I seek to walk the sometimes fearful, sometimes exhilirating, sometimes inscrutable path of prayer.