Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 1, “What is Contemplation?”
Not too long ago I read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Though I thought it was a beautiful book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, spiritually, it was a sort of young man’s book. It struck me as overly excited about Catholicism and relatively quick to criticize other traditions. (but this may say more about my own concerns than the book’s potential) I had heard a great deal about Merton the spiritual master, so I was somewhat disappointed. At the same time, this is to be forgiven, I think, as Merton really was a very young man when he penned that now classic work. Realizing this, I was eager to get my hands on some of his more mature works.
Just yesterday I received my copy of New Seeds of Contemplation, a much later collection of spiritual reflections. Merton grew up indeed! Here is the figure I was expecting to find. Granted I have only just begun reading it, but all narrowness seems to have vanished and every ounce of passion appears as the passion for God as through yet beyond all concrete being. This is worth spending some time with.
Chapter 1 is a brief meditation on the meaning of “contemplation.” After painting the beautiful image of creation as God asking God’s self a question and contemplation as God’s answer to God’s question he continues…
The life of contemplation implies two levels of awareness: first, awareness of the question, and second awareness of the answer. Though these are two distinct and enormously different levels, yet they are in fact and awareness of the same thing. The question is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both. But we cannot know this until we have moved into the second kind of awareness. We awaken, not to find an answer absolutely distinct form the question, but to realize that the question is its own answer. And all it summed up in the one awareness—not a proposition, but an experience: “I Am.”
Before Paul Tillich opened my eyes to the classical theological tradition, this sort of language would have made no sense to me. It’s not rational in any linear sense. Merton is here speaking the language of paradox. Under usual rational circumstances questions are not, by definition, answers. Questions seek to gain new knowledge about things from which we are separated. But in the classical tradition when when it comes to God, God is not something from which we are separated, at least not in the usual sense. Prepositions and articles become tricky at this point. Here God is not a being, but being-itself. In the language of Aquinas, God is simple. God is God’s own existence in contrast to all creatures whose existence is dependent upon something other than themselves. For us, this means that to the extent that we have being, we participate in God. God is the end of the chain of dependency, though not as the final link in the chain, but rather as the unnameable mystery that grounds the entire chain from the first link to the last. In this way of understanding, to ask the question of God cannot be anything other than an expression of God’s self, for all that is has its source, subsistence, and end there.
This is why “[c]ontemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His.”
Merton thus calls us not to a new argument, demonstration, or proof, for such operations only make sense if God is separate from us. Instead we are called to a new awareness, an awareness of the sacred within both ourselves and all that is. The deep question behind our deep questions is thus an expression of eternal Being within created being. And to this extent there can be no creaturely answer, for only the eternal can answer the eternal. The best we can manage is to be encountered by (made aware of) this mystery while ever remaining the limited creatures that we are. To achieve this form of awareness we must release all efforts to accept anything creaturely as eternal, including and especially our conceptual ideas about God and ourselves (Think of what Jesus did to the concepts of divinity that his disciples nurtured). This is part of the way that the eternal question contains its own keys, for the eternal within us will expose the pretensions of all creaturely contenders for divinity. The moment of awakening occurs once the field has been totally cleared, when every last false security has been unmasked or released, this is the moment of realization that only the eternal can ask the eternal question and that we are its voice. Such is not an entrance into creaturely security, for there is none, rather it is the acceptance of eternal mystery and the curious sort of freedom it brings.