Contemplation is something that we find or are given – indeed Merton saw it as a gift from God. He thought that it utterly transcends everything and yet at the same time is the only meaning for our existence. This paradox permeates his writings on the subject – contemplation is above our capabilities to achieve but it is our destiny for which we were created. Here’s a definition from Seeds of Contemplation (144):
Contemplation, by which we know and love God as he is in Himself, apprehending Him in a deep and vital experience which is beyond the reach of any natural understanding, is the reason for our creation by God
In this light contemplation could be seen as only to be achieved after death…but Merton whilst seeing this as true also insists that there are some who can ‘breathe this new atmosphere while they are still on earth’. In his definition above Merton understood contemplation as a knowledge and love that are experienced. In the 1940s and 1950s experiential spirituality was seen as ‘out’ and very much the remit of a few extraordinary saints, not models to be imitated, so Merton’s unique contribution to American spirituality was to make personal experience ‘in’ for those who were looking beyond the ritual and institutional.
Merton wrote the contemplative life – ‘means to me the search for truth and for God. It means finding the true significance of my life and my right place in God’s creation’.
Contemplation involves delving beneath the surface level of existence to find our inner world – seeing God and self and creation at a different and deeper level of reality.