Thomas Merton: A Life of Contemplation and Meditation
Thomas Merton Part One
This paper investigates the life of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, mystic, and prolific author renowned for his introspective exploration of contemplative practices. The examination involves a biographical overview, followed by an in-depth exploration of Merton's contemplation and meditation training and practices.
Born on January 31, 1915, in Prades, France, Thomas Merton led an extraordinary life that would influence millions worldwide. His profound spiritual journey culminated in his ordination as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he spent the majority of his adult life. Merton became a central figure in the rise of contemplative spirituality, both within and outside the Catholic tradition.
2. Biographical Overview
Merton's early years were characterized by tumult and turmoil, marked by the loss of both parents by the age of sixteen. Despite a period of agnosticism during his education at Columbia University, he would later convert to Catholicism in 1938. His spiritual journey led him to join the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941.
Merton's literary gift surfaced during his monastic life. His autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," published in 1948, was a bestseller, introducing the world to his unique blend of deep contemplative insight and eloquent prose. As a prolific writer, he penned more than 70 books and hundreds of poems and articles, covering themes of spirituality, social justice, and interfaith understanding.
3. Contemplation and Meditation Training
Merton's contemplative practices incorporated elements of Christian mysticism, Zen Buddhism, and other spiritual traditions, rendering his approach to meditation as eclectic and expansive. His writings demonstrate his belief in the power of contemplative prayer as a means of transcending the self and experiencing the divine.
Merton emphasized the concept of "contemplative prayer," a silent, imageless form of prayer focused on developing a deeper relationship with God. He believed contemplation to be a grace or gift from God rather than a technique to be achieved, a transformative process requiring humility and surrender.
4. Actual Practices
Thomas Merton's practices were centered on contemplative prayer, a tradition deeply rooted in Christian monasticism. He described contemplation as the highest form of prayer, a place of silent, intimate communion with God. He was particularly interested in the concept of "centering prayer," a term that would be popularized in later years by contemplative teachers like Father Thomas Keating.
A. Centering Prayer
Centering prayer is a contemplative practice that encourages silence and simplicity. It requires the practitioner to sit quietly, typically in a comfortable, upright posture, and choose a sacred word or phrase. This word or phrase, often referred to as a "prayer word," serves as a point of focus for the mind. When engaged in centering prayer, the practitioner gently introduces the prayer word into their silent awareness, repeating it softly, either silently or aloud.
When the practitioner's attention drifts away, as it inevitably will, they are instructed to gently return to the prayer word without judgment or distress. In this way, centering prayer is not unlike many mindfulness practices, which similarly encourage a gentle return to the focus of attention when the mind wanders.
This practice was profoundly influential for Merton. He viewed it as a pathway to deeper communion with God, a means of silencing the internal chatter that often distracts us from our spiritual center.
His work significantly influenced the Centering Prayer movement, a contemporary effort within Christianity to reclaim the contemplative and mystical aspects of the faith. His writings have guided many practitioners, and his impact is seen in the ongoing popularity of retreats and workshops based on his teachings.
B. Zen Buddhism and Eastern Traditions
In addition to his Christian contemplative practices, Merton was profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism and other Eastern religious traditions. He had a great respect for Zen's emphasis on direct, intuitive insight and its practices designed to disrupt ordinary patterns of thinking and perceiving.
His writings often suggest a reconciliation of the intuitive wisdom of Eastern traditions with the faith-based mysticism of his Catholic heritage. Merton integrated these influences into his own non-dual approach to contemplation. In this approach, the practitioner seeks a direct, experiential understanding of reality, one that transcends the ordinary dichotomies we draw between self and other, sacred and secular, and even between the contemplative practitioner and God.
C. Non-dual Contemplation
Merton's non-dual approach to contemplation can be seen in his teachings on the "true self," a concept that he often contrasts with the "false self" or "ego self." For Merton, the false self is the identity we construct out of our social roles, our self-images, and our desires for security, approval, and control. The true self, by contrast, is our deepest identity, grounded in our divine origin and destiny. This is a process of transformation that requires not only self-awareness but also a profound trust in God's grace.
Thomas Merton Part Two
Merton's Fusion of Christian and Eastern Contemplative Practices
Thomas Merton's integration of Christian and Eastern contemplative practices was not just pioneering but revolutionary in its time. It marked a new direction in interfaith dialogue and spiritual practice, one that acknowledged and valued the wisdom found in diverse religious traditions.
In a time when Eastern religions were largely misunderstood or exoticized in the West, Merton sought genuine understanding and dialogue. He was deeply respectful of the spiritual traditions he studied, recognizing their value and seeking to learn from them without appropriating or diluting their teachings. His approach was marked by a deep humility and a recognition of the universal human search for truth.
His spiritual journey led him to explore a range of Eastern practices, including Zen meditation, Hindu philosophy, and Sufi mysticism. He found in these traditions practices and perspectives that resonated with and enriched his own Christian contemplative practice.
For example, Merton found in Zen a practice of direct, immediate experience that resonated with his own understanding of contemplation. He was particularly intrigued by Zen's emphasis on the "suchness" or "thusness" of reality, which pointed to a way of seeing the world in its naked, unmediated reality, free from the distortions of ego and concept.
Similarly, Merton found in the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta a non-dual understanding of reality that deeply resonated with his own mystical experiences. He recognized in Advaita's teaching of the oneness of Atman (the individual self) and Brahman (the ultimate reality) a profound truth that transcended religious boundaries.
In Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, Merton found a deeply devotional and poetic expression of the divine love that is at the heart of Christian mysticism. The Sufi practice of dhikr, the remembrance of God, echoed for Merton the Christian practice of contemplative prayer.
Merton's approach was not to create a syncretistic blend of different religions but to find points of resonance and mutual enrichment. His writings reflect his conviction that all religions, at their mystical core, point to the same ultimate reality, albeit through different languages and symbols.
His approach was not without controversy. Some critics accused him of diluting Christian doctrine or of being a "cafeteria-style" spiritual seeker. But Merton was not seeking a new religion. Rather, he sought to deepen his own Christian faith by engaging in dialogue with other faith traditions.
Merton's exploration of Eastern contemplative practices continues to influence contemporary spirituality. His writings offer a model of respectful interfaith dialogue and mutual learning. They encourage spiritual seekers to remain rooted in their own traditions while being open to the wisdom found in other traditions.
His approach to contemplation, with its emphasis on direct, experiential understanding and its openness to the wisdom of the East, offers a rich resource for those seeking to deepen their own contemplative practice. Whether one is a Christian looking to enrich their prayer life, a Buddhist seeking to understand the Christian mystical tradition, or a spiritual seeker without a specific religious affiliation, Merton's writings offer a wealth of insight and inspiration.
Merton's Influence and Legacy
Merton's fusion of Christian and Eastern contemplative practices has had a profound influence on contemporary spirituality. His explorations into Eastern religions have paved the way for a more integrated, pluralistic approach to spiritual practice, encouraging the exploration and incorporation of wisdom from various religious traditions. Merton's influence can be seen in the growing popularity of interfaith dialogue, contemplative retreats, and spiritual practices like mindfulness meditation that have roots in Eastern spirituality but have been embraced by many in the West.
His work continues to guide and inspire spiritual seekers from diverse religious backgrounds. His writings offer a profound exploration of the contemplative journey, providing guidance and insight for those navigating their own spiritual paths. Merton's teachings on contemplation and meditation are applicable to anyone seeking inner peace, self-understanding, and a deeper connection with the divine, regardless of religious affiliation.
Merton's approach was deeply grounded in practice, emphasizing that contemplation and meditation are not merely intellectual or theoretical pursuits but lived experiences. He encouraged seekers to fully engage in their practice, to be present, and to cultivate a sense of radical openness to the divine mystery.
Merton's fusion of Christian and Eastern contemplative practices, therefore, is not just a theoretical construct but a practical guide for spiritual practice. His writings offer concrete advice on meditation, contemplative prayer, and living a contemplative life, making them a valuable resource for those seeking to deepen their own spiritual practice.
In conclusion, Thomas Merton's pioneering integration of Christian and Eastern contemplative practices continues to serve as a rich resource for spiritual seekers. His approach, grounded in respect for diverse spiritual traditions and a deep commitment to the contemplative path, offers a valuable guide for anyone seeking to deepen their spiritual practice and experience. His influence and legacy continue to be felt in the field of spiritual practice and interfaith dialogue, attesting to the depth and relevance of his work.
Thomas Merton's life and work are a testament to the transformative power of contemplation and meditation. His teachings, rooted in Christian mysticism but enriched by Eastern spiritual practices, offer a timeless guide for those seeking spiritual depth. His legacy continues to illuminate the path for countless spiritual seekers, reminding us of the profound potential for inner transformation inherent in contemplative practices.
As a spiritual pioneer, Merton was instrumental in promoting monasticism's relevancy in the modern world. His teachings on contemplation and his holistic approach to spirituality — embracing silence, solitude, simplicity, and social justice — remain a beacon for many in the ongoing quest for spiritual fulfillment.
1. Merton, T. (1948). The Seven Storey Mountain. Harcourt, Brace.
2. Merton, T. (1961). New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions.
3. Merton, T. (1967). Mystics and Zen Masters. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
4. Merton, T. (1968). Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New Directions.
5. Cunningham, L. (1996). Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision. Eerdmans.
6. Shannon, W. H. (1987). Silent Lamp: The Thomas Merton Story. Crossroad.
7. Labrie, R. (2005). The Art of Thomas Merton. New Directions.
Keywords: Thomas Merton, biography, contemplation, meditation, Christian mysticism, Zen Buddhism, interfaith dialogue, Centering Prayer.
Acknowledgments: The author acknowledges the contribution of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University for their continued preservation and promotion of Thomas Merton's works.
Christian Contemplation Introduction