Contemplation; Continued

This is the second part of defining contemplation by Rod des Cotes from a recent newsletter.

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When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.   Gen. 3:6


We remain in sensitive union with God only in so far as we receive our relationship with Him as pure gift.   To try to grasp this gift, or to manipulate it with our will is to fall from such grace.   But mercifully, God will not allow us to do so for long.   Thomas Merton, in his Seeds of Contemplation,describes this “jealous” wisdom of God that prayer helps us appreciate, especially as it applies to the intimacy of His presence with us.  Merton writes,

As soon as you try to grasp the simplicity of this undivided interior peace it loses its savour.   You must not touch it, or try to seize it.   You must not try to make it sweeter or try to keep it from wasting away.  


In a beautiful insight of theology Merton recognizes the primal impulse that our propensity for grasping spiritual experience represents.   He writes,

The situation of the soul in contemplation is something like the situation of Adam and Eve in Paradise.   Everything is yours, but on one infinitely important condition—that you not take it, but that you allow it all to be given to you. There is nothing that you can claim, nothing that you can demand.   For, as soon as you try to take something as if it were your own, you lose your Eden.


This ongoing process of losing and re-discovering our subtle receptivity of being is what purifies the heart in relationship to its desires.   Such purity demands the utmost humility of self.   Merton recognizes this virtue as the essential key to right relationship in prayer when he writes,

Only the greatest humility can give us the caution that will prevent us from reaching out to claim for ourselves the satisfactions of God’s presence.   The moment we demand anything for ourselves or even trust in any action of our own to procure a deeper intensification of this pure and serene rest in God, we defile and dissipate the perfect gift that he desires to communicate to us.


Echoing the insight of John the Baptist who recognized that “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30), Merton adds,

There is nothing we can do directly either to procure it, to preserve it, or to increase it.   Our own activity is, for the most part, an obstacle to the infusion of this free gift of God.   We must realize to the very depths of our being that this is a pure gift of God which no effort and no heroism of ours can do anything to deserve or obtain.


The closer we come to rest in God, the more the intensity of our desire will naturally increase.  But we must resist the urge to satisfy that desire ourselves.   As the Song of Songs counsels, we must not “arouse or awaken love before it so desires” (SS 8:4).   Rather, we must allow God to purify His love in us until it truly reflects the free gift that it is.   As we mature in this, our part becomes increasingly passive.   We simply remain still in the cleft of the rock as the Lord passes over us.   Merton describes something of this passivity by which we are to receive the Lord’s initiative.

We can dispose ourselves for the reception of this great gift best by resting in the heart of our own poverty, keeping our soul as far as possible empty of desires for all the things that please and preoccupy our nature, no matter how pure or sublime they may be in themselves. And when God reveals Himself to us in contemplation we must accept Him as He comes to us, in His own terms, in His own silence.


Our ultimate disposition must simply be one of pure gratitude in recognition of the goodness and grace of God’s love for us.   Even now, the Lord’s gift is most honoured the purer we are in our receiving.  And the beauty of His grace is most recognized the less we presume to coerce it.  

We thank Him less by words than by the serene happiness of silent acceptance.   It is our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.

-Thomas Merton

Copyright Lynda Chalmers