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Center for Action and Contemplation

Renewal of Contemplative Christianity

Monday, September 17, 2018

Western Christianity

Renewal of Contemplative Christianity
Monday, September 17, 2018

In the 1950s and 1960s, Thomas Merton brought renewed interest to the contemplative tradition in the West. He became a Trappist monk and “left the world” for the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he learned the lessons of contemplation and action.

Merton was spiritual director to James Finley, one of our CAC faculty members, for five and a half years. Finley recalls that when he voiced a complaint about something, Merton would tell him, “We don’t come to the monastery to get away from suffering; we come to hold the suffering of all the world.” [1] This can only be done by plugging into a larger consciousness through contemplation. No longer focused on our individual private perfection—or what Merton called “our personal salvation project”—we become fully human and usable by opening our hearts to God.

Through contemplation—holding the paradoxes of life—Merton struggled against “the evil [that] is in us all . . . [and] the blindness of a world that wants to end itself.” He fought against violence, war, racism, poverty, and consumerism. He wrote, “Those who continue to struggle are at peace. If God wills, they can pacify the world. For [the person] who accepts the struggle in the name of Christ is delivered from its power by the victory of Christ.” [2]

Many other modern mystics have brought awareness of and tools for contemplative practice to Western Christianity, from Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941), Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), Simone Weil (1909–1943), to current teachers such as Barbara Holmes and Mirabai Starr. Cynthia Bourgeault, who is herself a contemplative leader and a CAC faculty member, describes the origins of Centering Prayer and Christian meditation in the mid-1970s:

Thomas Keating [born 1923] and John Main (1926–1982) responded to Merton’s prophetic call, developing simple meditation methods solidly rooted in the Christian spiritual tradition and suitable for use not only within the cloister walls, but in a world hungry for the recovery of its spiritual roots. All three of these men recognized meditation not as a newfangled innovation, let alone the grafting onto Christianity of an Eastern practice, but rather, as something that had originally been at the very center of Christian practice and had become lost. [3]

[1] James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 4 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download.

[2] Thomas Merton, “First and Last Thoughts: An Author’s Preface,” in A Thomas Merton Reader, ed. Thomas P. McDonnell, rev. ed. (Doubleday Image: 1996), 18.

[3] Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cowley Publications: 2004), 55-58.

Image credit: Country Gate at Dawn (detail), Anton Goncharov.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The word contemplation must press beyond the constraints of religious expectations to reach the potential for spiritual centering in the midst of danger. . . . During slavery, . . . crisis contemplation became a refuge, a wellspring of discernment in a suddenly disordered life space, and a geo-spiritual anvil for forging a new identity. —Barbara Holmes
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