Nov 19, 2009

Contemplating Merton


I almost can't believe I'm saying this, but I may have found a Christian writer who has supplanted C.S. Lewis as my all-time favorite! (And he's another Thomas, like my patron saint.)

He's Thomas Merton. He was actually a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, though I don't know if either ever wrote about the other. He was a Trappist monk, so his Order makes great beers too!

As with Lewis, I feel a strong connection to him after reading just one of his books - New Seeds of Contemplation. I think 'contemplation' is a vocation I could embrace; fueled by study and knowledge but also by prayer and meditation, but transcending it all. I've recently felt some tension inside myself between my academic studies and my spiritual livelihood. Getting back into a college curriculum has been great for my mind, but has also somewhat reset my attitude towards an (over-?)emphasis on intellectual activity. By contrast,

Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life. ... a kind of spiritual vision to which both reason and faith aspire, by their very nature, because without it they must always remain incomplete. ...
Hence contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract truths about God, more even than affective meditation on the things we believe. It is awakening, enlightenment, and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God's creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life. Hence contemplation does not simply 'find' a clear idea of God and confine Him within the limits of that idea, and hold Him there as a prisoner to Whom it can always return. On the contrary, contemplation is carried away by Him into His own realm, His own mystery and His own freedom. It is a pure and virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able, by its very poverty and purity, to follow the Word 'wherever He may go.'


Reading through this book is like seeing myself better than a reflection in a mirror. It's both familiar and strange - like when you see a picture of yourself and realize the part in your hair is actually on that other side and your smile slants to the right not the left. I'll have to buy my own copy (if the library hasn't already charged me for this one), and I'll probably refer to it more in blog posts like I do with Lewis quotes.

The above quote screams at me. In my RCIA and my academic studies, I notice myself falling into that trap of 'finding a clear idea of God and confining Him within the limits of that idea' - especially because my excellent teachers and academic studies are presenting me with so many good clear ideas! But my conversion started with that 'virginal knowledge' - a dry sponge soaking up anything and everything I saw God revealing. I was letting myself be 'carried away by Him into His own realm' - straight into the Catholic Church.

As I've lived in the Church, I've been developing convert syndrome, and I think it wasn't until I really got into the academics that I started noticing how far advanced I was in the "disease." Merton's writings are helping me restore some of that intellectual and spiritual poverty and purity that led me into my fuller faith in the first place, and for that I consider him every bit as important to me as Lewis.

7 comments:

Saint said...

Merton is an excellent author/theologian. And his monastery was in Kentucky, of all places. But actually, he does mention CS Lewis every now and then. I don't think that goes vice versa though. Mainly because Merton was a little wee bit younger than Lewis and he wrote more raw theology where Lewis often wrote analogies (or what have you).

Lewis's primary influence was GK Chesterton, another fantastic and quotable Catholic author. You should check him as well. Chesterton is cheek full of Brit humor, if I might say.

Caedmon said...

Last summer, I found "A Thomas Merton Reader" which is an edited compilation from Merton's writings. It takes from a number of his writings and places them somewhat chronologically and somewhat categorically. It becomes something of a Merton version of Augustine's "Confessions," mixing autobiography with theology. It's been a great way to get introduced to his writing. Since then, I've picked up copies of a few more of his works to read over the winter break.

luke said...

I read a bit of Chesterton's Orthodoxy and liked it a lot. Yeah, very cheeky.

I can tell Merton is not nearly as allegorical nor analogical nor metaphorical as Lewis. I think Lewis (and Chesterton) is more apologetic as well. When I read too much apologetics, I quickly go from 'defending' the faith into 'offending' the non-faith. Something I'm trying to avoid right now. ;)

Michelle said...

My husband and I have a Thomas Merton Book of Hours (available at Barnes and Noble). We love going through it. Have you read Merton's Seven Story Mountain? That's an awesome (long) read about his journey.

luke said...

I haven't yet decided if I want to read that or read one of his comparative religion books next ...

Saint said...

Actually Seven Storey Mountain was a pretty good read and I'd recommend it. Now that's the one comparative to Augustine's Confessions. And it's a suprisingly quick read despite being five million pages long.

CoffeeMatt said...

This is the comment thread where everyone agrees that Merton is great and tells you what their favorite book of his is, right?

Of all the Merton I've read, I found No Man is an Island to be the best.

Many of the essays are like the ones in New Seeds... only better. :)