In-Sight: Contemplation–Essence & Vision

Years ago, I read the books Thomas Merton wrote about contemplation. [1]  I came away disappointed.  I was at a stage in my life where I knew I needed to become more contemplative, and I was hoping Merton would help me become so, as he had helped me in other ways. I was hoping he would tell me how to become contemplative.  But he didn’t.  Compared to the many pages he wrote about the contemplative life, there were precious few about contemplative practices.  My disappointment came because I was wanting to know what to “do” in order to “be” contemplative.  And Merton did not tell me.


It has taken me years to appreciate what he wrote because I have had to live into a new understanding of contemplation.  And only as I have done so have Merton’s books about contemplation come alive for me.  I now realize that contemplation is an awareness, not a spiritual state we achieve through particular practices.  It is not “over there” in a given time or place, but rather “in here” in a disposition of the heart.  Contemplation is not reeled in by particular actiobs, it is the magnet into which we are drawn by virtue of being made in the image of God (see Psalm 42:1)

More than anything else, contemplation is puncturing the illusion that we are at the center and entering into the Reality that God is there. Contemplation is summed up in the two words “God alone.” [2]  Contemplation is the dethronement of the egotism (the false self) so that the imago dei (true self) can define and direct us.  

This is the essence of redemption, of transformation.  It is becoming the “new creation” where the old passes away and the new comes (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Contemplation is having eyes to see and ears to hear the Real–the Kingdom of God. It is seeing through and beyond what is unreal (“the kingdoms of this world”) so that we live authentically and not artificially.

Life is the essence of contemplation, not the specific practices we use relative to it.  Merton wrote that contemplation is “life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.” [3]  It is the abundant life Jesus said he came to give us (John 10:10), which is another way of saying it is not something we work up by a particular practice, but rather what God works in us by grace.

Coming to see contemplation in this way enabled me to return to Merton’s books about contemplation and see they are filled with wisdom and insight.  Without actually writing the words, Merton is saying, “There are a host of practices to cultivate contemplation.  Use whichever ones that help you to be liberated from unreality and to live into Reality.”  Merton knew that techniques do not produce the experience (vision of God), but rather the experience inspires us to engage in practices which enrich and sustain it.

The vision/experience is love. Merton emphasized this over and over.  Contemplation is seeing that God is love, that we are God’s beloved, and that everyone else is beloved too. Merton called contemplation an embrace of love in which we become one with God in love. The soul is “in love, and it knows it is in love, and it knows that it is loved in return.” [4]  And from the core of this Lover/beloved relationship, we know (and are called) to be lovers–of God and others.  Contemplation is the living out of the two great commandments (Matthew 22:37-42).

Contemplation is not a practice, a posture, or a place that leads us to the vision, it is the vision. It is not the path to life, it is the life.  Merton’s books are about the vision and the life.  And being the good teacher he was (as are all good guides), he knew that if this is our experience, we will find the means to cultivate it for a lifetime.

[1] His three main books are ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’…’Contemplative Prayer’…and ‘The Inner Experience.’  The second and third books were published after he died, even though both were in process.  He wrote about contemplation in other books, often in relation to mysticism (e.g. ‘The Ascent to Truth’), which was also for him more a life, than a practice.
[2] These two words are etched in stone above the entrance to the guesthouse at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Merton lived for 47 years. They summarize Cistercian spirituality; they capture the desire of the psalmist (62:5). They are an invitation to every retreatant to experience the contemplative life.
[3] Thomas Merton, ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’ (New Directions, 1961), 1.
[4] Thomas Merton, ‘The Ascent to Truth’ (Harcourt Brace, 1951), 277.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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