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Seeds of Contemplation – Thomas Merton

April 28, 2015

SOCI read small sections of this on retreat and then the rest during the week following. It was a good book to have on retreat and I ensured that it was the only book I had with me and was the only book I opened during the week following.

I warmed to his talk of our lives being cluttered with so many concerns that the tangled undergrowth did not make it possible for good seeds to grow. Most of us cherish our slavery and don’t really want to change things. It is less challenging to live in a mental muddle and to put off repentence to ‘one day’. As we clear away the choking clutter, we are able to discern what God is saying in a slightly clearer way and to review our lives and see where he has been at work. Too much of our time is spent on eating stodgy foods which satiate us but do little to nourish us. This image is good because it does not just refer to the spiritu­al flab which hangs around our ‘souls’ but to the literal flab which a Western, workaholic lifestyle leads to.

Merton describes the saints as those who love the sinful and the ‘secular’ and see goodness and God in everything and everybody but who do not need to resort to borrowed clichés to articulate it. They know. They do not have to look over their shoulder to see if other people agree with them, in an endless quest for affirmation. God affirms them and that is al that is needed. When we stop trying to find God, we find him.

Merton’s warning about having a ’cause’ which we fight for which leads us to seeing our opponents as enemies of the truth out to persecute us rings true to the paranoid. I am finding it less easy to attribute unworthy motives to those with whom I disagree in every fundamental point about politics and social justice. It is only by withdrawal and reflection that I can start to tune in to the God who is love and use that resource to love enemies. Like Ellul, writing on violence, I have to learn that, after the revolution, the oppressors have to be loved and not oppressed. Where people disagree with me, I have to remember that the Body of Christ has many members performing many functions and, if I am the man who is anxious for social justice on a big scale, the seemingly racist or sexist or capitalist person is the one to whom people go for a cup of tea and a chat and offer help where my reserves are bankrupt because I have been drained out of business for some big cause.

I got rather angry when Merton counselled the contemplative to ‘shun their radios and their newspapers’ as if the world were unimportant, but then I reflected that he wrote this back in 1948 and he moved on from that to contemplate the world later on. Instant comment on current affairs might well be shunned, so that our reflection is not carried to and fro like every blast of vain doctrine. Comment is best at a distance – the Christian might be better to read periodicals than to read newspapers which are published daily.

His bit on trying on modes of spirituality like different hats and then trying to make one’s head fit a particular hat, learning all the gestures to make oneself an ‘in-person’ rings true for many an anglo-catholic. The true catholic has to be himself and to find God there in the person he made, discarding the masks.

His romantic stuff about the burning presence of the host within the soul after receiving holy communion was written before he was priested and he hope he cooled down a bit after that and realised that worship and the reception of the sacraments was an ordinary event, like cleaning your teeth, which occasionally made you feel nice but normally was just a routine which fed you and kept you alive. He writes later of what I describe as a grey feeling and which others describe as aridity or ‘light off’ spirituality so I suppose his thought did move on. The problem is knowing how to discern aridity which is really God at work and which is a deadness due to clutter and emotional and spiritual bankruptcy. As yet I know more about the latter than the former. The same problem of discernment is mentioned later on in relation to those who flit from book to book and amongst various methods of prayer and meditation. As a ‘flitter’ I try to calm down but wonder how much of the flitting is due to insecurity and how much is due to being one who tries to keen ‘an open mind.’

Merton says that the desire to reform others is a bad sign and that we should leave this to God. I wonder, if this is the case, how reforms would ever have come about. The move to abolish slavery, for women’s rights, for gay rights &c. would never have come about simply letting God get on with it. Surely, we have to see ourselves as channels through which God may work and that, as long as we love our enemies and don’t try to browbeat them into change, we can challenge them and get change.


“If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men–you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.”

“Hurry ruins saints as well as artists.”

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