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The Spiritual Art of Christian Contemplation: Insights from Thomas Merton, and others

Updated: Jul 29

Christian contemplation, a form of prayer that allows us to experience God's presence within us, is an ancient tradition rooted in the scriptures and early Christian communities. It's a practice that encourages silence, stillness, and the purging of self-centered thoughts to encounter the divine mystery. The writings and teachings of Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and James Martin provide profound insights into this spiritual practice.

Thomas Merton: The Art of Silent Surrender

Thomas Merton, a 20th-century Trappist monk, was a prolific writer and a significant figure in the revival of monasticism in the West. He described contemplation as an awakening to the real presence of God and humanity's deep connection with divine reality. For Merton, contemplation was not an isolated act but a way of life that involved the entirety of our being.

In his seminal work, "New Seeds of Contemplation," Merton emphasizes that the art of contemplation is not about mastering a technique but is a gift from God. He argues that it is a transformation of consciousness, a deep awareness of the divine presence in all of life. "Contemplation," Merton wrote, "is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive."

Thomas Keating: The Practice of Centering Prayer

Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk like Merton, also made substantial contributions to Christian contemplation in the 20th century. He developed a method of prayer known as Centering Prayer, which is rooted in the Christian contemplative tradition while being accessible to people of all backgrounds.

In "Open Mind, Open Heart," Keating presents Centering Prayer as a renewal of the ancient Christian practice of contemplative prayer, a method of quieting the mind to prepare for the gift of contemplation. He teaches that by consistently returning our attention to a sacred word during prayer, we can let go of our own thoughts and open ourselves to God's presence and action within us. Through this, we gradually deepen our relationship with the divine and cultivate inner peace.

James Martin: Contemplation in Action

James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, provides a slightly different perspective on Christian contemplation. He emphasizes the Jesuit ideal of finding God in all things, which implies that contemplation should lead to action.

In his book, "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything," Martin describes the contemplative practice as noticing where God is already active in our lives and the world. He proposes the 'Examen' - a daily prayer routine to review and reflect on the day's events - to help in recognizing God’s presence and action. Martin asserts that true contemplation moves beyond mere introspection to impact how we engage with the world, fostering a deep sense of compassion and social responsibility.

All three of these spiritual thinkers agree that Christian contemplation is more than a spiritual exercise—it is a transformative journey that deepens our relationship with the divine, reshapes our consciousness, and enables us to live more compassionately and mindfully. As we strive to practice this art of contemplation, we can draw upon the wisdom of Merton's silent surrender, Keating's centering prayer, and Martin's contemplation in action. Through this, we are invited not only to encounter God but also to allow this encounter to shape our interactions with the world around us.

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