New Seeds of Contemplation (1961)
By Thomas Merton
Like “Making Peace,” the Denise Levertov poem that inspired this site, Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation is concerned with the destructive influences of greed, superficiality, and passivity on our hectic, disjointed lives. Levertov’s poem is a call to both the poet/artist — whose duty, she argues, is to inspire an “imagination of peace” — and to us, her readers. For making peace is active, a deliberate decision that each of us must make in order for us to affect change, first in our lives, then in the world. Although Levertov never explicitly identifies whose “voice from the dark” calls out, the humanist, the aesthete, and the Christian in me are all in perfect agreement: if that voice is not divine, then why should I listen?
For Merton, a 20th century American monk, making peace is a lifelong project through which we find perfect communion with God. Sanctification — or, “contemplation,” as he calls it — is the only source of genuine peace, for it is the only means by which we may escape our natural state of alienation. Merton actually sounds a bit like Lacan at times, critiquing Man for his futile attempts to “clothe his false self” in power and pleasures. The obvious difference, of course, is that Merton posits a solution, selfless submission to God’s will, where Lacan and other Post-Modern seekers of meaning can find only nihilism. “The real purpose of meditation,” Merton writes, “is this: to teach a man how to work himself free of created things and temporal concerns, in which he finds only confusion and sorrow, and enter into a conscious and loving contact with God” (217).
New Seeds of Contemplation is an impressive book, and one that has effected me more profoundly than any other contemporary theological study. In an age when “Christian literature” is sold in bulk at Sam’s Clubs, Merton’s book is refreshingly intelligent and devoid of the empty rhetoric that plagues so much of the dialogue in Christian America (and its churches) today. This deliberate move away from “old worn-out words, clichés, slogans, rationalizations . . . hackneyed analogies and metaphors that are so feeble that they make you think there is something the matter with religion” is actually an important stage in every contemplative’s life, Merton claims, a step that can be quite unnerving. “The worst of it,” he writes:
is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply “is.” In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is.
I can picture the Christians who would recoil at such a suggestion, as they would at many of his other claims, including his equating of the work of the Church with an ideal communism and his belief that God may have blessed us with wealth in order that we “might find joy and perfection by giving it all away.” (I’ll be sure to look for that plank in the platform of the next politician who claims to be representing my Christian interests.) I would label Merton a radical if he weren’t simply reflecting the mission of the early Church as described in Acts.
But we’re Americans, and Americans don’t care for selflessness. To aid in this radical reordering of our priorities, Merton, like Levertov, points to our need for solitude (meditation or long pauses) as a temporary but necessary escape from the “social machine” in which we’re trapped. I love his description of this trap — it would have made a perfect epigraph for Don DeLillo’s White Noise:
The constant din of empty words and machine noises, the endless booming of loudspeakers end by making true communication and true communion almost impossible. Each individual in the mass is insulated by thick layers of insensibility. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t hear, he doesn’t think. He does not act, he is pushed. He does not talk, he produces conventional sounds when stimulated by appropriate noises. He does not think, he secretes clichés. . . . But to live in the midst of others, sharing nothing with them but the common noise and the general distraction, isolates a man in the worst way, separates him from reality in a way that is almost painless.
Every time I read that, I think of Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite, a film that erodes, quite uncomfortably at times, those layers of insulation and forces us to patiently experience the pain of another’s life. (Unfortunately, very few Christians in America will see L’Humanite, both because it is French and because of its explicit sexual content.) Of course, when I read Merton’s description, I am also struck by my own pain-free isolation. But that is precisely the point of this web site. I am learning, as Merton suggests, to “meditate on paper . . . to contemplate works of art.” I am trying to “keep still, and let Him do some work.”
This response has been a bit erratic, little more than a steady stream of quotations. As this is a site dedicated largely to the arts, I’ll finish with one more, then do my best to refrain from adding sarcastic comment:
A Catholic poet should be an apostle by being first of all a poet, not try to be a poet by being first of all an apostle. For if he presents himself to people as a poet, he is going to be judged by people as a poet and if he is not a good one his apostolate will be ridiculed.
Good advice. I wish I could name more Christian artists who follow it.