Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thomas Merton: Contemplation and the Contemplative Life

The aspiration for enlightenment - "direct awareness," as Trappist monk, Thomas Merton describes it, below - is, if anything, far stronger today, than it was in the early 1960s when Merton wrote his classic work of comparative contemplative traditions,"Mystics and Zen Masters." Merton's observations about the difficulty of attaining what Christianity would generally describe as "mystic union," and Zen Buddhists would describe as ""satori," points out the helpfulness of grounding one's practice on, if not in, one or another of the many varied religious or contemplative traditions. It also requires, Merton posits, a deep understanding of the world's anguish, a state that has manifestly increased in the past fifty years.

"(D)irect awareness," writes  Merton, "is a gift, but it also presupposes the knowledge and practice of certain traditional disciples. Thus, we can say that contemplation is both a "gift" (a "grace") and an "art." Unfortunately, we must also admit that it can almost be said to be a "lost art." And for this lost art there is certainly in the world today a definite nostalgia, not unmixed with vague hopes for the recovery of this awareness. But the nostalgia and the desire do not of themselves suffice to make the nostalgic one a contemplative."

"Needless to say, the contemplative" Merton points out, "is not simply a person who, by vocation, is juridically isolated and cloistered. The mere fact of breaking off communication with the world and of losing interest in it certainly does not make one ipso facto a "contemplative." On the contrary, it would seem that today a certain openness to the world and a genuine participation in its anguish would normally help to safeguard the sincerity of a commitment to contemplation."

[Thomas Merton, "Mystics and Zen Masters," pp. 203-204.]

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In the attached video, highlighting Merton's writings, this most contemplative of writers has the following to say about contemplation, its source, and its importance to man's psyche:
"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 the vivid realization 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 beyond both 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."

"Yet contemplation is not vision, because it sees without seeing, and knows without knowing. It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images and words, or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows, the contemplative mind takes back what it has said and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by unknowing, or, better, we know beyond all knowing or unknowing."

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