Hear our voice, O Lord, according to your faithful love.
Mariia Loniuk, Kyiv. “Tree of Life” 2022.
V. Cast Thy Burden.
VI. Other Refuge Have I None.
from: Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Boston: Shambala, 2003 (First published, 1961).
Chapter 2. "What Contemplation is Not".
THE ONLY WAY to get rid of misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it. One who does not actually know, in their own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it. For contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized. The more objectively and scientifically one tries to analyze it, the more one empties it of its real content, for this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization. Nothing is more repellent than a pseudo-scientific definition of the contemplative experience. One reason for this is that whoever attempts such a definition is tempted to proceed psychologically, and there is really no adequate psychology of contemplation. To describe "reactions" and "feelings" is to situate contemplation where it is not to be found, in the superficial consciousness where it can be observed by reflection. But this reflection and this consciousness are precisely part of that external self which "dies" and is cast aside like a soiled garment in the genuine awakening of the contemplative.
Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of this external self. There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. We must remember that this superficial "I" is not our real self. It is our "individuality" and our "empirical self" but it is not truly the hidden and mysterious person in whom we subsist before the eyes of God. The "I" that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes its own reactions and talks about itself is not the true "I" that has been united to God in Christ. It is at best the vesture, the mask, the disguise of that mysterious and unknown "self" whom most of us never discover until we are dead.* Our external, superficial self is not eternal, not spiritual. Far from it. This self is doomed to disappear as completely as smoke from a chimney. It is utterly frail and evanescent. Contemplation is precisely the awareness that this "I" is really "not I" and the awak-ening of the unknown "I" that is beyond observation and reflection and is incapable of commenting upon itself. It cannot even say "I" with the assurance and the impertinence of the other one, for its very nature is to be hidden, unnamed, unidentified in the society where people talk about themselves and about one another. In such a world the true "I" remains both inarticulate and invisible, because it has altogether too much to say—not one word of which is about itself.
Nothing could be more alien to contemplation than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. "I think, therefore I am." This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence based on the observation that he "thinks." If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence, then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being. He is reducing himself to a concept. He is making it impossible for himself to experience, directly and immediately, the mystery of his own being. At the same time, by also reducing God to a concept, he makes it impossible for himself to have any intuition of the divine reality which is inexpressible. He arrives at his own being as if it were an objective reality, that is to say he strives to become aware of himself as he would of some "thing" alien to himself.
*"Hell" can be described as a perpetual alienation from our true being, our true self, which is in God.
And he proves that the "thing" exists. He convinces himself: "I am therefore some thing." And then he goes on to convince himself that God, the infinite, the transcendent, is also a "thing," an "object," like other finite and limited objects of our thought!
Contemplation, on the contrary, is the experiential grasp of reality as subjective, not so much "mine" (which would signify "belonging to the external self") but "myself" in existential mystery. Contemplation does not arrive at reality after a process of deduction, but by an intuitive awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive to its own existential depths, which open out into the mystery of God.
For the contemplative there is no cogito ("I think") and no ergo ("therefore") but only SUM, I Am. Not in the sense of a futile assertion of our individuality as ultimately real, but in the humble realization of our mysterious being as persons in whom God dwells, with infinite sweetness and inalienable power.
Obviously contemplation is not just the affair of a passive and quiet temperament. It is not mere inertia, a tendency to inactivity, to psychic peace. The contemplative is not merely a someone who likes to sit and think, still less someone who sits around with a vacant stare. Contemplation is much more than thoughtfulness or a taste for reflection. Certainly, a thoughtful and reflective disposition is nothing to be despised in our world of inanity and automatism—and it can very well dispose a person for contemplation.
(Continues on Day 14, tomorrow.)
May God our Redeemer show us compassion and love. Amen.