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on 16 April 2012
3.4.13 Edit: When I originally reviewed this, I felt it was not one of Merton's key books and had maybe been produced just to keep his writer's faculties from rusting. Re-reading it now, I still think the first part is true - the place to start with Merton is The Seven Storey Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation, followed maybe by the journals. But the significance of this book struck me differently this time: it read as a statement of how Merton saw his own spirituality late in his life and maybe even an attempt at justification of it.

He had struggled all his monastic life, after all, for acceptance of his vocation as a Solitary and contemplative - a role which seemingly had almost died out. The first half of this book is almost a polemic, citing authorities from the entire history of monasticism, to the effect that contemplation - not community life or liturgy - is the highest potential achievement of the monk's life. The second part is, surely, a description of his own spiritual state at the time of writing:

'The contemplative', he says, 'is one who would rather not know than know. Rather not enjoy than enjoy. Rather not have proof that God loves him...he intuitively seeks the dark and unknown path of aridity in preference to every other way.'

Hard words, they are followed by a searing analysis of existential 'dread' and condemnation of those who think they can achieve contemplation by their own efforts as a sort of spiritual self-help. The message is that God continues working throughout this dark night of the soul, and that hope and trust in him are the only solution to its problems.

For me, seen as Merton's attempt to wrestle with his own difficulties (and who else can he really be talking about?), this book takes on a new interest - and, almost inadvertently, a new usefulness. Merton is at his most helpful when he avoids generalities and simply presents us with himself.
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on 11 May 2010
Merton's writings (1915-1968) inspire us to understand more about the depths of early Christian life. This prolific writer could take a lifetime to read and his insights into the spiritual life (not only in the Christian tradition) are profound. This book on contemplative prayer is not a 'how to' book on how to pray in a contemplative way - for that you will need to seek elsewhere among the bookshelves. This book explores the history of monastic prayer and contemplation and provides a comprehensive background for anyone who wishes to gain an insight into what prayer and meditation means. The first half of the book (up to chapter XI) is more about the history of contemplation and has an academic flavour.

The second half of the book from page 82 onwards (Chapter XI) is perhaps the core of the work. As it states on the back cover Merton stresses we shouldn't look for a 'method' or a 'system' in meditation but cultivate an 'attitude' or 'outlook'. Chapter XI (page 82) begins 'What is the purpose of meditation in the sense of "the prayer of the heart"?' and from this moment on Merton unfolds to the reader what contemplation should really be about. Some key words and phrases are 'purity of heart', 'surrender', 'listening in silence', 'the incomprehensibility of God'. There is so much more for each reader to mine from this short but deep work (144pp). The second half of this book requires short bursts of reading and contemplation on each concept in order to fully appreciate what Merton is saying to the hopeful contemplative in this modern day. It is not an easy path and a lonely one but one worth following and one that is sorely needed at this time. A worthwhile read particularly the second half of the book.
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on 20 July 2014
Quite interesting, but rather more dour than I expected. Not very inspiring, and to be honest I found it a bit depressing and have put it aside without finishing it. It's probably not for me at where I'm at.
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“Contemplative Prayer” is Thomas Merton’s guide to its subject. Laced with numerous quotations from saints and others who have addressed the topic it is thought provoking and profound. Although clearly written for monks, it is of benefit to the laity and others outside the monatery.

I listened to the audio CD version. I think that this work requires reflection and the ability to review what has been read to really appreciate its meaning. I feel that I have a better appreciation of the Dark Night of the Soul than I had before listening to this, but I recommend a written version and time for anyone desiring to derive the maximum benefit from this book.
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HALL OF FAMEon 4 January 2006
This book, 'Contemplative Prayer', was Thomas Merton's last book. A prolific writing on spiritual topics, Merton was perhaps in an ideal setting to be able to write about the ideas and methods of contemplative prayer, being a Trappist. Trappists devote themselves to prayer, adding the disciplines of silence and solitude, things that are needed for the contemplative side of things to emerge.
In the introduction by Merton's friend, Thich Nhat Hanh, there is a nine-fold prayer that relates to many of Merton's ideas about contemplative prayer. However, it is a mistake (and both Hanh in the introduction and Merton in the text mention this) to think that prayer is something in and of itself - Christians and Buddhists tend to have the understanding that prayer without practice lacks efficacy.
Merton traces a strong history of contemplative prayer, from the earliest Christians (particularly the Desert Fathers and early monastics) to the latest theologians (Hahn relates Merton's ideas to Paul Tillich, and without mentioning him by name, Merton also seems to strive for that same purity that was the pursuit of Kierkegaard). Merton concentrates especially on various 'via negativa' methods and theologies - St. John of the Cross is but the most powerful example, but Merton draws on Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Catherine of Siena, Meister Eckhart and others.
This is not a how-to manual for contemplative prayer. This was a subject that was beginning to interesting Merton more and more near the time of his death, and we can but wonder if he would have gone on to produce more practical writing on the topic after this piece. However, Merton, being a person with a good grasp for the authority and power of tradition and history, understood that the first task would be to understand what people have done before and how things have worked or not worked, before embarking upon a new subject for oneself. This is that product, and we are the poorer for not having a follow-up to the book.
Reading Merton is never wasted time. This is perhaps less 'spiritual' and more 'academic' than much of his writing, but it still has characteristic Merton sensitivity to subject, and is worthwhile for any looking for a deeper understanding of comtemplative practices.
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on 20 November 2010
Some earlier review said:
..."Merton, being a person with a good grasp for the authority and power of tradition and history, understood that the first task would be to understand what people have done before and how things have worked or not worked, before embarking upon a new subject for oneself. This is that product, and we are the poorer for not having a follow-up to the book."

I'm compelled to write and disagree, and perhaps doubt Thomas Mertaon would have necessarily wrote a follow up book. ...maybe he was quite aware of his next step anyway, leaving his body as he did, as so many a wise and aware person does... I don't know. What I do know is that prayer is personal and unique to each of us...and though it is fundamentally helpful to understand what people have done before us, we have our own journey to embark upon...and so our practice of contemplative prayer is the follow-up....and perhaps that was his purpose, like so much of his work,...a final invitation to join the Will of God, whatever that may be for us.
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on 24 December 2015
An amazing book- a fantastic resource particularly for those who practice contemplative or centering prayer. Merton's insights about the process of contemplative practice is both informative and capable of occasioning new developments in one's practice itself. His explanation of the history and development of contemplation places the practice in its theological and liturgical context, and allows one to relate contemplation to the wider experience of the faith.
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on 4 January 2016
A classic by the most prolific spiritual writer of the 20th century
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on 4 February 2015
The wonderful Merton, always necessary, always good.
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on 28 October 2015
Excellent. Exactly what I was looking for.
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