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The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplationby Thomas Merton
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One A Preliminary Warning
Man in our day, menaced on all sides with ruin, is at the same time beset with illusory promises of happiness. Both threat and promise often come from the same political source. Both hell and heaven have become, so they say , immediate possibilities here on earth. It is true that the emotional hell and the heaven which each one of us carries about within him tend to become more and more public and common property. And as time goes on it seems evident that what we have to share seems to be not so much one another's heaven as one another's hell.
For the desire which we cherish, in the secrecy of our soul, as our "heaven" "sometimes turns, when offered as a solution to common problems, into everybody's hell. This is one of the curious features of twentieth-century civilization, and of its discontents.
Into the midst of this moral and emotional chaos, popular psychologists and religious teachers, men of pathetic optimism and good will, have rushed forward hopefully to announce their message of comfort. Seldom concerned with the afterlife, whether good or evil, as befits men of our time, they want to set things right for us here and now. They want us, at all costs, to be inspired, uplifted. They fret over our distressing tendencies to see the dark side of modern life, because they are able to imagine that it has a light side somewhere. Have we not, after all, made the most remarkable progress? Is the standard of living not rising every day, and is not our lot becoming always better and better, so that soon we will have to work less and less in order to enjoy more and more? With a dash of psychological self-help and a decent minimum of religiousconformity, we can adjust ourselves to the emptiness of lives that are so blissfully devoid of struggle, sacrifice, or effort. These willing counselors want to revive our confidence in all the gestures of bourgeois good feeling which will magically turn pain into pleasure and sorrow into joy because God is in His heaven and all's right with the world.
At such time it would be singularly unfeeling as well as dishonest for me to suggest that peace, joy, and happiness are easily found along that most arid stretch of man's spiritual pilgrimage: the life of contemplation. More often than not, the way of contemplation is not even a way, and if one follows it, what he finds is nothing. Later on in these pages we hope to justify the apparent fruitlessness of the quest. But at present it is important' to make clear that this book has no intention of solving anybody's problems, or of offering anybody an easy way out of his difficulties. At best it may help to bring a little reassurance to those whose difficulties are characteristically spiritual and contemplative — which means that they are barely possible to formulate at all. One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life itself solves them for you. Usually the solution consists in a discovery that they only existed insofar as they were inseparably connected with your own illusory, exterior self The solution of most such problems comes with the dissolution of this false self. And consequently another law of the contemplative life is that if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or worse still,happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced. And again, this means renouncing the illusory self that seeks to be "happy" and to find "fulfillment" (whatever that may mean) in contemplation. For the contemplative and spiritual self, the dormant, mysterious, and hidden self that is always effaced by the activity of our exterior self does not seek fulfillment. It is content to be, and in its being it is fulfilled, because its being is rooted in God.
If, then, you are intent on "becoming a contemplative" you will probably waste your time and do yourself considerable harm by reading this book. But if in some sense you are already a contemplative (whether you know it or not makes little difference), you will perhaps not only read the book with a kind of obscure awareness that it is meant for you, but you may even find yourself having to read the thing whether it fits in with your plans' or not. In that event, just read it. Do not watch for the results, for they will already have been produced long before you will be capable of seeing them. And pray for me, because from now on we are, in some strange way, good friends.
The purpose of this opening is not simply to punish the reader or deliberately to discourage him, but to make clear that this book in no sense aspires to be classified as "inspirational." That is to say, it does not aim at making the reader feel good about certain spiritual opportunities which it claims, at the same time, to open up to him. Nor does it pretend to remind anyone of a duty he has failed to perform or attempt to show him how to perform it better. It does not claim to deliver a new and original messagethat has been hitherto ignored and which will restore true perspectives falsified by the shortsightedness of "other spiritual writers." And, finally, it contains no meretricious promise that one can become a kind of superior being by enrolling himself in an esoteric elite of so-called contemplatives. It does not prescribe any new devout attitudes. It does not encourage a ceremonious and selfrighteous withdrawal from everyday reality. It is not exclusively in favor of passivity and inertia. It prescribes no special psychophysical techniques (although these can certainly have their rightful place in the spiritual life).
Faithfully compiled by Merton scholar William Shannon, Thomas Merton's final book presents both the meaning and the daily practice of contemplation, the heart of monastic and, indeed, religious experience. Merton was not ready to publish this manuscript and was still tinkering with it at the time of his sudden death. But now the Merton Legacy Trust and other experts have determined that The Inner Experience makes an enormously valuable contribution to Merton's works, and have allowed its publication.
Here, Merton links his early work with his later writing, drawing on the great Christian traditions that he knew so well, and particularly on the Eastern traditions — especially Buddhism — with which he had fallen in love in the last decade of his life.
Thomas Merton draws on both Eastern and Western traditions to explore the hot topic of contemplation/meditation in depth and to show how we can practise true contemplation in everyday life.
Never before published except as a series of articles in an academic journal, this book on contemplation was revised by Merton shortly before his death. The material bridges Merton's early work on Catholic monasticism, mysticism, and contemplation with his later writing on Eastern, especially Buddhist, traditions of meditation and spirituality. This book thus provides a comprehensive understanding of contemplation that draws on the best of Western and Eastern traditions.
Thomas Merton's final book explores the meaning and daily practice of contemplation — the heart of monastic and religious experience. This is his most comprehensive work on the subject. And now, the Merton Legacy Trust has decided to produce this expertly edited treatment, which Merton was finishing at the time of his death. The Inner Experience is a major addition to the Merton canon.
Faithfully edited by Merton scholar William H. Shannon, The Inner Experience bridges Merton's early, thoroughly Catholic works on contemplation with his later, wide-ranging writings. This book signals his growing interest in Eastern, especially Buddhist, traditions of meditation and spirituality, which would significantly influence his thinking and writing in the last decade of his life.
The Inner Experience not only provides a far-reaching presentation of the best teaching about contemplation and meditation, but also shows how contemplation can be practiced in everyday life.
About the Author
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, writer, and peace and civil-rights activist.Merton's works have had a profound impact on contemporary religious and philosophical thought. His journals are the last major writings by Merton to appear in print.
Brother Patrick Hart, a monk of Gethsemani and the general editor of the journals, edited volumes one and seven of the Merton Journals.
Jonathan Montaldo, the director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, edited volume two of the Merton journals.
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