Thomas Merton on Christian meditation and awareness of God:

Meditation is not merely the intellectual effort to master certain ideas about God or even to impress upon our minds the mysteries of our Christian faith. Conceptual knowledge of religious truth has a definite place in our life, and that place is an important one….[But] the knowledge of which we are capable is simple knowledge about Him. It points to Him in analogies which we must transcend in order to reach Him. But we must transcend ourselves as well as our analogies, and in seeking to know him we must forget the familiar subject-object relationship which characterizes our ordinary acts of knowing.

Instead we know Him insofar as we become aware of ourselves as known through and through by Him. We "possess" Him in proportion as we realize ourselves to be possessed by Him in the inmost depths of our being. Meditation or "prayer of the heart" is the active effort we make to keep our hearts open so that we may be enlightened by Him and filled with this realization of our true relationship to Him. Therefore the classic form of "meditation" [among others] is repetitive invocation of the name of Jesus in the heart emptied of images and cares.

Hence the aim of meditation, in the context of Christian faith, is not to arrive at an objective and apparently "scientific" knowledge about God, but to come to know Him through the realization that our very being is penetrated by His knowledge and love for us. Our love of God is paradoxically a knowledge not of Him as the object of our scutiny, but of ourselves as utterly dependent on His saving and merciful knowledge of us….We know Him in and through ourselves insofar as his truth is the source of our being and His merciful love is the very heart of our life and existence. We have no other reason for being, except to be loved by Him as our Creator and Redeemer, and to love Him in return. There is no true knowledge of God that does not imply a profound grasp and an intimate personal acceptance of this profound relationship.

The whole purpose of meditation is to deepen the consciousness of this basic relationship of the creature to the Creator, and of the sinner to his Redeemer.

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6 thoughts on “Thomas Merton on Christian meditation

  1. I wouldn’t distinguish “meditation” from “contemplation”. I use the words interchangeably to a large extent. The phrase “listening prayer” is also one I find useful. Intellectual enquiry, hmmm, some styles incorporate it but even then the practice goes way beyond that. It’s as much a heart enquiry.


  2. What a great quote my Merton! Again Matt, you exercise your gift of collecting and presenting some of the best our faith community has to offer. Thanks.


  3. Hi Matt,
    I was reading ‘The Intellectual Life’ by a French Dominican scholar from the 1930s, and had gained the impression that they understand contemplation very differently from the typical “single focus” vibe of the monastic groups. Following this up tonight…
    The early Dominican Albertus Magnus was, with Thomas Aquinas, one of the intellectual architects of the high middle ages. “[He] wrote that wisdom and understanding enhance one’s faith in God. According to him, these are the tools that God uses to commune with a contemplative. Love in the soul is both the cause and result of true understanding and judgement. It causes not only an intellectual knowledge of God, but a spiritual and emotional knowledge as well. Contemplation is the means whereby one can obtain this goal of understanding. Things that once seemed static and unchanging become full of possibility and perfection. The contemplative then knows that God is, but she does not know what God is. Thus, contemplation forever produces a mystified, imperfect knowledge of God. The soul is exalted beyond the rest of God’s creation but it cannot see God Himself.”
    (Just discovered that a whole bundle of my favourite people were Dominicans… Aquinas, las Casas, Eckhart, Suso, … oh, and… Torquemada. Ack. You can’t have everything, I suppose.)


  4. Classic Merton on Christian meditation. His disdain for any whiff of ‘technique’ sometimes makes his writing a bit circular, but when attempting to describe the impact of meditation/contemplation, it is difficult to avoid. And, it would be difficult to improve upon the last line in this selection.
    Thanks for posting.
    Chris Boozell


  5. Chris, I actually think Merton’s meditaton teaching is more authentically Christian for his downplaying of technique. I actually think this is a key differentiator between Christian, Hindu and Buddhist meditation. The bible focuses far more on the who than the how so I appreciate it that Merton does as well.


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