Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 2, “What Contemplation Is Not”
It is difficult in our day to understand the God that contemplative prayer encounters. When Merton says things like, “The question [of God] is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both.”, (4) it seems as though Merton is simply assuming the existence of God, then naming our reality as a divine reality. Yet what if one denies such an assumption, as many in our day do? Contemplative prayer then seems to become a sort of refined practice in wishful naval gazing.
It is impossible to escape this charge according to the prevailing categories of the modern mind. This is why Merton says “The only way to get rid of the misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it. One who does not actually know, in his [sic] own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it.” (6) The reason for this lies, at least in part, in the fact that the experience of contemplative prayer breaks open the very heart of the modern mental approach to existence.
In this meditation Merton goes straight to the cognitive heart of modernity. “Nothing could be more alien to contemplation”, he says, “than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. ‘I think, therefore I am.’ This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence(!) based upon the observation that he ‘thinks.'” (8) The very same thing applies to the God that Descartes discovers. To the extent that God is for us the conclusion of an argument, God remains forever an external, ever-dubious thing.
“For the contemplative there is no cogito (“I think”) and no ergo (“therefore”) but only SUM, I Am.” This is not the assumption of God, like a premise assumed in an argument. It is an awakening to the realization that we are are “grasped” before we even attempt to grasp God. Strangely, there is an important sense in which this realization does not bring solace to our lives. In awakening to this reality we realize that, unlike the assumptions in our old arguments, we no longer know what God is.
Here we “…may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because ‘God is not a what,” not a “thing.” That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.” He is the “Thou” before whom our inmost “I” springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo “I am.”(13)