If you have some acquaintance with Thomas Merton, famous 20th century monk, and his writings, you might recognize the title of this inspirational piece to be a play on a title of one of his most famous books, New Seeds of Contemplation. That book might be my favorite from Merton’s extensive writings. It was originally published in 1961, some seven years before Merton tragically died in his mid-50s. What many people---even those who might know some things about Merton---do not know is this book actually was a reworking of a previous book. Merton’s first book was simple called, Seeds of Contemplation.
I come back to this book by an interesting happenstance. A friend asked me if I had a copy of Merton’s book. Apparently she is in a book club or some group that has chosen to use it. Since she knows I like Merton, she figured I would have it. Indeed, I do have it; in fact, I probably have three copies. There is my original copy with all the underlining and notes in the margin. I did not give her that one! Instead, I have somehow accumulated a couple other copies along the way, so it was easy to hand one of these to her.
However, between the time I pulled the book off my shelf, brought it home and then handed it to her, I had time to thumb through the volume again. Because I teach a seminar on Merton’s spirituality, I have read the book a few times. It never gets boring to me. And when I began thumbing through the pages, it was like I had encountered a good friend on the street. Many of the words and phrases were familiar.
But with Merton, even this familiarity is never a problem. It is always refreshing. I can read passages again that I know pretty well and they seem true all over again. I realized that just because something was once true and meaningful, that does not mean it ceases to be over time. In fact, it seems the truth and meaning has seeped deeper into my soul. Let me share a few of these with you.
I randomly opened the book near the middle. I hit a page that was ending a particular chapter. I read these words: “Ultimately faith is the only key to the universe. The final meaning of human existence, and the answers to questions on which all our happiness depends cannot be reached in any other way.” Once again, that made perfect sense to me. I began to think about Merton’s words.
Of course, we can think about our faith in religious terms---even Christian terms. But I know in its root form, faith is not necessarily a religious word. Sometimes, I prefer the synonym, trust. To have faith is to trust someone or something. Certainly my faith in God is a form of trust. But I trust my children, my friends and my students. I think Merton is correct. Ultimately trust is the only key to the universe. Notice he does not say “a” key or, even, “the” key. He says it is the “only.”
Faith is the way to the meaning of human existence. That does not mean little things along the way cannot be meaningful; clearly they can. But ultimate meaning is more faith and less an issue of fact. In my case that means faith in a loving God who somehow is graciously working in the world---although sometimes it is difficult to see how and where that grace is at work.
I tried Merton again. I closed the book and then opened it near the end of the volume. Once more, my eyes landed on a sentence that seemed important and true. It was a long sentence, but because it is on contemplation, I quote it entirely. “Contemplative prayer is a deep and simplified spiritual activity in which the mind and will rest in a unified and simple concentration upon God, turned to Him, intent upon Him and absorbed in His own light, with a simple gaze which is perfect adoration because it silently tells God that we have left everything else and desire even to leave our own selves for His sake, and that He alone is important to us, He alone is our desire and our life, and nothing else can give us any joy.”
On one level, this seems monastic and out of reach for most normally engaged people in the world. People who have jobs, families, etc. are tempted to see this as the bailiwick of monks and nuns who have nothing else to do but prayer and adore. This is simply not true for me. I contend that we all can be contemplatives. Contemplation is not just a monastic privilege. It is a human privilege.
I can learn and practice contemplative prayer in such a way that it becomes a simplified spiritual activity. It is an activity I can do while I am teaching or grading papers. While times of silence and meditation are helpful to nourish this spiritual activity, silence and meditation are not required to practice it. Each of us will learn how to tailor our contemplative practice and living to fit our schedule and way of life.
To live contemplatively is to live in the Presence of the Holy One. It is to have our life grounded in the Spirit in order that we might live spiritually. It is less a thing we do and more a way we live. That is what Merton keeps teaching me. Finding the book again was a renewing of contemplation for me.