- Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a scholar and a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He was a prolific writer and is best know for his work on the need for silence, solitude, and spiritual contemplation. Eventually, his work in these areas led him to interfaith discussions with Eastern religions.
- Merton writes about contemplation: "Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source."
- Another quote on contemplation: "Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. And yet in a certain sense, we must truly begin to hear God when we have ceased to listen. What is the explanation of this paradox? Perhaps only that there is a higher kind of listening...a general emptiness that waits to realize the fullness of the message of God within its own apparent void. In other words, the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation...He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is 'answered' it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a great word of power, full of the voice of God."
- In the monastic tradition, the purpose of Christian life is very different from that of the evangelical. Rather than a call to "do" something for God - whether it be evangelism, social justice, worship or preaching - the monk believes that the most important thing a person can do is simply experience God's presence and love him deeply. This love for God, evidenced in regular prayer and the community within the abbey, is a witness to the rest of the world of how life could be lived. Also, the prayers of the monks are a powerful spiritual force in the secular world, although they are unseen.
- What is your immediate reaction to the ideas of silence, solitude and contemplation?
- What are your thoughts about the monastic tradition? Where do you see monasticism in postmodern life?
- Merton (and all mystical/contemplatives) spend much time discussing the experience of God's presence and what it means to love God sincerely and deeply in human life. How do you experience God? How do you express love for God? Do you think contemplation could be another path for this?
- Meditation/contemplation is not unique to Christianity. Where else have you experienced/practiced this mystical activity? What do you think about Merton's interfaith dialogs based upon mystical experiences of God?
- What might evangelicals and American Christians in general learn from the monastic tradition?
For some additional reading, you can see some of the blog posts I have written on contemplation here.