Contemplating contemplation

by Celia DeWoody

This morning I picked up a book from my living room bookshelf that I bought several years ago and never read. It’s ended up standing on a shelf with other “spiritual” books, gathering dust. While reading a novel whose theme is spiritual things – Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin – I felt moved to delve into a non-fiction book that deals with the deeper things of the spirit. After flipping through several on my shelf, I chose Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.

First of all, let’s take a look at who Thomas Merton was. I always like to have some idea about the author I’m reading so I’ll know how seriously to take him.

According to Wikipedia:
“Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968), was an Anglo-American Catholic writer and mystic. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, social activist, and student of comparative religion. In 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood and given the name Father Louis.

Merton wrote more than 70 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice and a quiet pacifism, as well as scores of essays and reviews, including his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which sent scores of World War II veterans, students, and even teenagers flocking to monasteries across the US, and was also featured in National Review’s list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century. Merton was a keen proponent of interfaith understanding. He pioneered dialogue with prominent Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Merton has also been the subject of several biographies.”

Merton’s credentials satisfy me – what do you think?

I regret to confess that Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain is also on my shelf, untouched. In my lifetime, I’ve often longed to read more serious spiritual books, but usually don’t find the self-discipline needed to put down my novels and read something that involves a little thought. Maybe immersing myself in graduate studies for my master’s in English has taught me a little more intellectual discipline – and now that I’m between semesters, I have a little time to read something more meaty in addition to my beloved fiction.

Merton starts off New Seeds of Contemplation by saying:
“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith. For contemplation is a kind of spiritual vision to which both reason and faith aspire, by their very nature, because without it they must always remain incomplete….
In other words, then, contemplation reaches out to the knowledge and even to the experience of the transcendent and inexpressible God. It knows God by seeming to touch Him. Or rather it knows Him as if it had been invisibly touched by Him….Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within all that is real.”


At first glance, I didn’t think I’d have much in common with a Trappist monk other than our Catholic faith, but in beginning to read Merton’s book, I find myself thinking, “I kind of get what you’re talking about here.” I think that, for me, losing myself in Nature is a form of contemplation. I seem to be able to deepen that experience best by shooting photos along the way… or by writing about it later. Merton’s given me lots to think about today. I’m going to ponder what I’m supposed to do with it when I’m given “a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within all that is real.” I am pretty sure that I’m supposed to share it somehow. Maybe this blog will become, not only a spiritual discipline for myself, but an avenue for sharing some of the “gift of awareness” that I may be given along the way.

Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions: New York,1972. pp.1-3.