living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘New Seeds of Contemplation

Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 3, “Seeds of Contemplation”

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This post is part of a series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation


If the elemental question, “Who am I?”, is one that resonates with you, this chapter is a gold mine. Here Merton begins to unfold the heart of, not only this particular book, but his life-long intellectual and spiritual obsession: the contrast between authentic and inauthentic human being, what he often calls the “false self” and the “true self.”

The Truth of Self and God via the Death of Self and the Gods

In talking about the self, Merton is talking about God. His God is framed by his quest for identity, and his quest for identity is framed by God. What is especially interesting is the way he connects these terms. It is often heard that we will find our true identity in God, but Merton recognizes that this is dangerous talk. How can we know that what claims to be the will of God really is God and not merely the egoism of yet another impostor, another false self?

Merton’s way of addressing this begins with the idea that God is a reality that we are both separated from and inescapably united with. In the same way our true self is a reality with which we are both separated and inescapably united. When we live out our lives in the realm of our false self we live under the dominion of false gods, false powers that make false promises and false demands. “Live here and you will be happy and safe.” “Work here and you will be respected.” “Make enough money, then you will know freedom.” When, however, we are reunited with our true self we simultaneously live out of the truth of ourself as well as God. Merton here calls this “a union of deep wills” in contrast to the superficial separation of our routine life. Merton’s trope of choice to describe the transition from this state of estrangement to reunion is “death.”

We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His incurable love seeks our awakening. True, since this awakening implies a kind of death to our exterior self, we will dread His coming in proportion as we are identified with this exterior self and attached to it. But when we understand the dialectic of life and death we will learn to take the risks implied by faith, to make the choices that deliver us from the routine self and open to us the door of a new being, a new reality (15-16).

The Contrary is Not the Truth

This talk of our “exterior self,” “routine self,” and “false self” that must be died to, however, easily misleads us. It conjures up the idea that the only true way of being is somehow removing ourselves from the limits of spatio-temporally determined being and flouting all routine. This is not likely what Merton meant given the fact that when he wrote these words he was living as a Trappist monk—a life of routine if there ever was one—which included the vow of stability that committed him to living out the rest of his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Merton evidently thought that living a life constituted by an intensification of routine and external limitations had something to do with connecting with his true identity, with God. He was convinced that the truth of both God and ourselves can only be received in freedom, spontaneity, and love. It is a tantalizing paradox, then, that to connect with this truth he committed himself to what looks like the very opposite of these qualities: obligation, routine, and isolation.

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Salvific Death by Normalizing the Abnormal

The genius of monastic life is the way it both recognizes that conventional life is founded upon the determined quest for freedom, spontaneity and love, and upon recognizing this, it systematically frustrates this quest. But why? Outside the monastery we are living every moment of our lives trying to attain these qualities. We are working hard. We are praying. And yet each moment we think that we have grasped satisfaction, it fades away. We are left unhappy, frustrated, tired, empty. What the monastic life does is remove the illusion that we will ever attain true satisfaction via our attempts to possess true satisfaction. The monastic life is arranged from the inside out to render the very quest impossible.*

Does it seem depressing to you? Your days of being off on a whim to travel the world are forever over. Your clothes are the same every day… and the same as what everyone around you wears. The routine is unrelenting. Do you see why the idea of “death” comes naturally to mind in describing this way to the truth of self and God? Listen now to his words:

The mind that is the prisoner of conventional ideas, and the will that is the captive of its own desire cannot accept the seeds of an unfamiliar truth and a supernatural desire. For how can I receive the seeds of freedom if I am in love with slavery and how can I cherish the desire of God if I am filled with another and an opposite desire?… I must learn therefore to let go of the familiar and the usual and consent to what is new and unknown to me. I must learn to ‘leave myself’ in order to find myself by yielding to the love of God. If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of His life that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest (16).

Can you begin to hear what he is after? The answer to the question “who am I?”, the answer to the question “Who is God?”, is received in every moment as new life. It is unknown to us. It is like the joy of an unexpected present that doesn’t fade upon opening it, for we never stop opening it. Our sin is that we grab at it; we strive to make it known, make it ours to control, a possession. The gift of our life becomes like a small holiday bonus put toward paying off already incurred credit card debts.

The Dead and the Living

It’s a strange thing that the dead should be most fully alive. But Merton and those few like him certainly give that impression. It makes a certain kind of sense, for who is the most free to be spontaneously present to the moment in love but the one who has nothing to lose by being there.

May we be open the the courage that sheds all these false-securities and so awakens us to the gift that is ourself, fully present in the center of God’s love.


Click here for more in this series of reflections.

*As an aside, that monasticism cultivates detachment by means of ascetic practices might well be simply an accident of history. In a culture dominated by ascetic practices it might be imagined that salvific detachment might better come via a hedonistic practices that risk tarnishing the carefully crafted ascetic image. If the reigning metaphor was death, salvation would come by way of life. The point is that neither asceticism nor hedonism are ends in themselves; rather, each of them, under the right circumstances, might serve to open one to the ever abundant love in which we live.

Written by Alex

April 23, 2014 at 11:07 am

Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 2, “What Contemplation Is Not”

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Friedrich David CasperThis post is part of a series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation


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)


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Written by Alex

July 25, 2013 at 9:19 am

Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 1, “What is Contemplation?”

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This post is part of a series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s book New Seeds of 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.”

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 10.13.43 AMBefore 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.


Click here for more in this series of reflections.

Written by Alex

July 19, 2013 at 10:13 am