The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation Paperback – 22 Aug 2003
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"Merton speaks to us even now -- and freshly -- with these perceptive insights into the contemplative life."--Paul Wilkes, author of Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life
About the Author
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is regarded as one of the most influential religious writers of modern times. A Trappist monk, and peace and civil rights activist, his bestselling books include New Seeds of Contemplation and his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which is also part of the SPCK Classics series.
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This is not, Merton warns at the outset, a self-help book. Contemplation, he says, is not a program whereby the false "I" can manipulate the true "I." On the contrary, so long as the false self is busy with its projects, the inner self will remain hidden. And even when the inner self emerges, the final goal has not been attained. While some Eastern religions stop with the awakening of the true self, Christians continue on to know God. Solitude and seclusion may be necessary for long stretches of this journey, but the contemplative vocation finds its ultimate fulfillment in a love that reaches out to others.
Merton has an interesting perspective on active contemplation. He sees it as a progressive letting go of the agendas and plans of the false self in favor of an approach to life where we simply discern the way events are flowing. This flow he sees as God's will. Self-seeking motivations have been abandoned to the point that the contemplative is not even aware that he is contemplating.
Infused contemplation is, of course, beyond the control of the individual. While Merton sketches a few characteristics of infused contemplation -- a passive, intuitive, non-conceptual, and above all loving knowledge of God -- he avoids the fruitless question of exactly where active contemplation ends and infused contemplation begins. Instead he cite passages from five authors that may be helpful in recognizing the beginnings of infused contemplation. These writers are St. John of the Cross, John Ruysbroeck, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. To emphasize the need to abandon the programs and desires of the false self and to replace them with pure love, Merton devotes a further chapter to St. John of the Cross on this point.
Among the dangers for the contemplative to avoid, Merton mentions blanking out, seeking some kind of self-annihilation, a withdrawal from reality, and straining after mystical experiences. Monasteries, with their one-size-fits-all regulation of life, paradoxically present special difficulties. But life outside the monasteries presents other problems. Silence has become an expensive luxury. Most people need group support, and for these Merton proposes something along the lines of contemplative third orders, but without stifling organizational structures. Merton sees these relatively informal lay or priestly-lay groups as offering promise for the future. In particular he admires the Little Brothers of Jesus and the simple Christian ashram of Fr. Jules Monchanin (a co-worker of Fr. Henri Le Saux in India).
The cover photo is by Merton himself, and the introduction is by the book's editor, William H. Shannon.
Merton understood contemplation as central to Christ's teaching, and saw it as the road to crucifixion of the exterior self in order to liberate the inner being. In his words, "To praise the contemplative life is not to reject every other form of life, but to seek a solid foundation for every other human striving. Without the silence and recollection of the interior life, man loses contact with his real sources of energy, clarity, and peace."
Merton acknowledges that it demands discipline to be a contemplative in today's world. One suggestion he makes is to take advantage of the early morning hours which the world does not value. "The dawn is by its very nature a peaceful, mysterious, and contemplative time of day . . . a time of new life, new beginning, and therefore important to the spiritual life: for the spiritual life is nothing else but a perpetual interior renewal."