New Seeds of Contemplation
By Thomas Merton
Publisher: New York: New Directions Publishing, 2007
New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton’s collection of essays on the pursuit of the interior life, is worth reading over and over again. In these essays one encounters a traveller on the spiritual path with rare powers of observation, honesty and trust in God. He writes with breathtaking candour about the deceitfulness and trickeries of the mind. He has an unsentimental understanding of the rigours of spiritual practice. And he has an inspiring capacity to accept from God a wide range of gifts, including absolute poverty, silence and apparent lack of progress.
Thomas Merton was a Roman Catholic Trappist monk. He spent most of his life in a monastery in Kentucky. A poet and author of more than seventy books, he wrote on diverse topics ranging from contemplative prayer and monastic life to peace, nonviolence and racial tolerance. Some of his books, like The Sign of Jonah, lyrically describe the experience of God in nature. Others, like Zen and the Birds of Appetite or The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton, offer his insights on Zen, enlightenment and the human condition. Merton recognized throughout his life that there were many paths to God, and that God calls us in many ways to return.
The essays about meditation and contemplation in New Seeds of Contemplation are neither linear nor systematic. Rather, they are a mix of notes from his own efforts in contemplation: confessions, observations, warnings and words of encouragement. Merton had a firm grasp on the nature of the mind and ego, and well understood that he was just a struggling soul like everyone else. His essays often read like letters from a close friend on the spiritual path.
He has no hesitation in speaking of our profound shortcomings as we attempt God realization, especially when we experience times of discouragement.
Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.… Because our own resources inevitably fail us, we are all more or less subject to discouragement and to despair. Despair is the development of a pride so great and stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God.
On the other hand, he writes, “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the soul.… Humility alone can destroy the self-centredness that makes joy impossible.” He asks, “How can you be humble, if you are always paying attention to yourself?”
Merton describes many of the unsavoury aspects of our minds with unsettling accuracy.
People who know nothing of God, and whose lives are centred on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world … thus emphasizing the difference between themselves and other men, who have less than they do.… [But] the man who lives in division is living in death.
Merton’s extensive meditation practice allows him to describe the actual experience of prayer in stark and revealing language.
Prayer and love are really learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and your heart turns to stone.… It is useless to get upset when you cannot shake off distractions. In the first place you must realize that they are almost unavoidable in the life of prayer. The necessity of kneeling and suffering submersion under a tidal wave of wild and inane images is one of the standard trials of the contemplative life.… You would profit much … by patiently resisting distractions, and learning something of your own helplessness and incapacity.
Merton writes that “it is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and desire to find God, to see Him and to love Him, is the only thing that matters”.
No matter how distracted you may be, pray by peaceful, even perhaps inarticulate efforts to centre your heart upon God, who is present to you in spite of all that is going on in your mind. His presence does not depend on your thoughts of Him. He is unfailingly there; if He were not, you could not even exist. The memory of His unfailing presence is the surest anchor for our minds and hearts in the storms of distraction and temptation by which we are purified.
Merton beautifully describes the blessings of being in the company of a saint, one who models what it means to be humble and to have fully submitted to the will of God.
His gentleness and sweetness are not pressed through his pores by the crushing restraint of a spiritual strait jacket. They come from his direct docility to the light of truth and to the will of God. Hence a saint is capable of talking about the world, without any explicit reference to God, in such a way that his statements give greater glory to God and arouse a greater love of God, than the observations of someone less holy.
Therefore, whatever a saint says or does becomes a spiritual lesson, a sermon, in itself.
For the saint preaches sermons by the way he walks and the way he stands and the way he sits down and the way he picks things up and holds them in his hand. The perfect do not have to reflect on the details of their actions.… They finally cease to be aware of themselves doing things, and gradually God begins to do all that they do, in them and for them.
For all of our limitations and delusions, Merton knows there is only one solution, and that is the power of God. Our role is to trust and have faith in the One who brought us into being and who has promised to take us home.
Unless God utters Himself in you, speaks His own name in the centre of your soul, you will no more know him than a stone knows the ground.… He comes down from heaven and finds us. He looks at us from the depths of his own infinite actuality, which is everywhere, and His seeing us gives us a new mind in which we also discover Him. We only know Him in so far as we are known by Him.
Ultimately, Merton concludes:
What you most need … is an unfaltering trust in the Divine guidance, as well as the courage to risk everything for Him. In many ways, the journey seems to be a foolish gamble. And you may well make many mistakes.… What matters is for you to be heroically faithful to grace and love. If God calls you to Him, then he implicitly promises you all the graces that you need to reach Him. You must be blindly faithful to that promise.
New Seeds of Contemplation will give great encouragement to anyone striving, as Merton did, to “love God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul”.
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