Reviewed in the United States on December 31, 2020
I am a Catholic in his late thirties, and this is the first book that I read by Thomas Merton. I have no idea how this happened, and a part of me wishes I had encountered this great author and spiritual guide earlier in my life. On the other hand, I believe certain books come into your life at the right moment, and for me, _New Seeds of Contemplation_ (1961) has been one of them.
A couple of years ago I asked a very good friend of mine to recommend books that tackled the complex reality of meditation or contemplative prayer from a Catholic perspective. There are plenty of Eastern philosophy books on the topic, many of which I have read and whose teachings have helped me to grow in faith. It always seemed to me, however, that Catholicism did not particularly emphasize this aspect of spirituality. This prejudice on my part probably resulted from the fact that meditation as such is generally not promoted as a parish activity. The word “meditation” itself is problematic to some Catholics, as it is associated with Eastern religions. Many American Catholics believe practicing yoga constitutes a form of idolatry and thus a violation the first commandment… One of the things that attract me to Merton is his dialogue with Eastern philosophy and forms of prayer.
_New Seeds of Contemplation_ belongs to the Christian tradition that includes the anonymous _The Cloud of Unknowing_, St. Teresa of Ávila’s _The Interior Castle_ (also known as _The Mansions_), and St. John of the Cross’ _Dark Night of the Soul_ and _Ascent of Mount Carmel_. In another sense, as the author points out in the introductory note, Merton is following the footsteps of Pascal, Thomas à Kempis and Guigo, and the thoughts on contemplation that we find in this book--as the title indicates--are in themselves points of departure for our own meditations. _New Seeds of Contemplation_, then, did not come out of nowhere (no book does), but it is without a doubt the first book I would recommend to anyone (Catholic or otherwise) who is interested in developing a closer relationship with God.
I like to underline and/or take notes as I do my spiritual reading. In this aspect, few books have been as frustrating to me as _New Seeds of Contemplation_. I mean this is a positive sense: it seemed to me that almost every word was worthy of being underlined or written down in my journal. (G. K. Chesterton’s _Orthodoxy_ had the same effect on me.) There is no filler in this book, and it is a work to reread throughout one’s life and to consult often. I filled 13 pages of my notebook with notes as I read, and I am amazed at the variety of subjects Merton covers, always within the main topic of contemplative prayer. Meditation is a multifaceted reality, and Merton seems to consider every possible aspect of it.
Talking about meditation is in itself paradoxical, as the experience of God the contemplative desires must necessarily transcend words. No other author has been able to reduce the contemplative experience to words with the lucidity that Merton displays. One of the central ideas of his worldview is that we are divided beings: our inner and outer selves are in conflict with each other, and we must try to identify with our true self, which is the inner, transcendent one. This division, Merton clarifies, does not refer to body and soul. Catholicism does not teach that the soul is good and the body is evil; this notion was, as a matter of fact, declared a heresy centuries ago. The body has an inclination to evil as a result of original sin. Merton describes hell as “a perpetual alienation from our true self, which is in God.” The problem with us, to put it simplistically, is that we are not ourselves. Part of contemplation involves realizing our true selves so that we can be in God. We cannot define ourselves in this world because we are not of this world. Here’s an interesting experiment: try answering the question, “Who are you?” Most people will answer by stating their name, or their profession, or their relationship to someone else, or they’ll describe themselves in terms of race, color, nationality, creed, gender, etc. And this is, indeed, how other people define you: you are John, you are a doctor, you are my brother, you are a Caucasian, Christian male from England, etc. But, really, who *are* you?
I’m glad that Merton emphasizes constantly that the contemplative life does not consist in merely isolating oneself. It is not an escape, in other words. I am not a particularly sociable person. Going on a silent retreat is the easiest thing for me. I don’t miss my phone, because I rarely use it. I don’t miss talking, because outside of my family, students, and the few friends I have, I rarely talk to people. I don’t miss TV because I never watch it. I rarely listen to music these days, as I spend most of my free time reading or watching films. I enjoy spiritual reading immensely, so instead of giving up reading during a retreat, I try to “sanctify” this activity. Regarding films, because I watch too many of them, I welcome the opportunity to give my eyes a rest during a retreat. I sometimes wish I could retire from the “world” and dedicate myself to contemplation. Merton has cautioned me against this superficial approach to the contemplative life. After reading _New Seeds of Contemplation_, I have come to realize why I must develop a better relationship with my brothers and sisters. We spend most of our lives identifying ourselves with our false self, Merton says; separating ourselves from others, when true strength is in unity, not in isolation and individualism.
Another point Merton makes that I found to be of particular importance has to do with the emotional effect contemplative prayer may have on us. If I pray because praying makes me feel good, I am attached to prayer for the wrong reason. It is very easy to fall into this trap when it comes to meditation. Feeling good during prayer is a good sign, but it shouldn’t be an end in itself. “Not feeling anything” during prayer does not in itself indicate lack of progress, as St. John of the Cross discusses in _Dark Night of the Soul_. Prayer is not about me: it is about God.
_New Seeds of Contemplation_ is a difficult book to review; it must be experienced, read, and reread. If I weren’t such a recluse, I would do my best to start a Catholic book club, and we would spend at least four meetings discussing this great work, the masterpiece, if you ask me, about Catholic meditation. Our hearts are restless until we rest in God, and _New Seeds of Contemplation_ points the way. You’ll have to do the walking yourself, of course, but this book will help you, guide you, encourage you, and give you hope. It is my hope that _New Seeds of Contemplation_ will have on you the renewing, uplifting effect it has had on me.
I will continue my reading of Merton with _The Wisdom of the Desert_ or _Zen and the Birds of Appetite_.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the book!