Thomas Merton's Contemplation: Rarefied Emblem of Being Human and Living in Mystery

By Crider, Glenn | Cross Currents, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Thomas Merton's Contemplation: Rarefied Emblem of Being Human and Living in Mystery


Crider, Glenn, Cross Currents


Robust contemplation

With references to Zen Buddhism, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), this examination demonstrates the importance of Thomas Merton's understanding of contemplation which embodies the rare combination of ancient, medieval, modern and post-modern sensibilities. I emphasize sensibilities in order to avoid categorizing Merton strictly as this or that, but also to emphasize his intense desire to integrate life into a single whole and the significance of this fact. Like his monastic life and work, Merton's best contemplative writing reveals his amazing ability to draw from a variety of Christian and non-Christian sources. Further, as he grew and developed within his monastic community, Merton became more and more open to the world itself--as a place of mystery and wonder. That openness stems from his desire and successful ability to implement his monastic identity through the use of countless Christian and non-Christian sources. This characteristic feature underscores Merton's contemplative life as an example of one who "seeks after God" while such seeking allowed the mature Merton to elude a myriad of religious and spiritual pigeonholes and illusions. Consequently, Thomas Merton remains a great awakener for those who choose to attune themselves to his life and work.

Merton's final writings about contemplation portray his struggle to integrate such writing with the contemplative life, that is, with life itself. William H. Shannon notes that The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (1) began as a revision of What Is Contemplation? (2) which was published in 1948--seven years after Merton had entered the Abbey of Gethsemani. In 1959, however, Merton began to rewrite What Is Contemplation? On July 12, 1959, he wrote in his journal that his revisions of What Is Contemplation? were three times as long and a "completely different book." (3) Merton indicates why he made such drastic changes to that text: "A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1948. How poor were all my oversimplified ideas--and how mistaken I was to make contemplation only part of [one's] life. For a contemplative [one's] whole life is contemplation." (4) Following What Is Contemplation?'s metamorphosis into The Inner Experience, Merton wrote four separate drafts of The Inner Experience in 1959. The "final" revisions did not occur, however, until 1968 (the year of Merton's death).

As Shannon indicates, the fourth draft of The Inner Experience was eventually published. In 1968, Merton made a final series of revisions and additions to that draft. A curious event occurred a year earlier, however, when Merton authorized the Merton Legacy Trust to publish his manuscripts that had not been published. (5) He explicitly excluded two manuscripts from this agreement. One was "The Inner Experience." The only way material from this manuscript could be published was if "qualified scholars" wanted to quote from it. (6)

Allowing scholars to quote from The Inner Experience shows that Merton limited its availability to a select few, and he prohibited its publication in any comprehensive format--especially as a book. At least this was the case until 1968 when Daniel Walsh--Merton's philosophy teacher at Columbia--wrote a letter to Gethsemani's abbot, suggesting that Merton had a change of heart about publishing The Inner Experience. Merton had gone to Bellarmine College on May 14, 1968 to give Walsh a gift for his one-year anniversary to the priesthood. The gift was a copy of The Inner Experience. Merton told Walsh: "[This] is something I wrote a long time ago, but [I wonder] what the response to it would be if it were published. I had previously decided against it [in the Merton Legacy Trust]. But recently I reread it and made some corrections and additions which you will note in this copy." (7) Shannon believes that Merton's remark about something he wrote "a long time ago" refers to those drafts of The Inner Experience, written during the summer of 1959.

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