First Impressions of Thomas Merton

Before reading Thomas Merton’s little book Contemplative Prayer, [1] I had anticipated the difficulties in coming to terms with an entirely different system of theology and spirituality–in this case, one kind of Roman Catholic monastic life. I write “one kind” because I discovered that Merton himself would join Protestants in criticizing the stereotyped vices of the monastery. [2] Perhaps it’s best to say that Merton was a very influential Roman Catholic monk, writing compellingly for what he saw as the ideals of Roman Catholic monasticism. At any rate, it takes time to receive an author on his own terms, especially with respect to unfamiliar theological systems, because much of the furniture is the same, only arranged quite differently. [3]

At this point, I need to fill in a gap. Why am I bothering to read Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer? Last winter, I met a Roman Catholic. He and I have met more or less biweekly to read books that have been influential to us, using these books as platforms for discussion. Yes, Merton was his pick. I am now trying to crystallize a few responses to Merton’s biggest ideas therein. I think an acquaintance with these general differences would profit us, and so I share them with you.

The first big difference I found is not what Merton says but what he does not say. When I pick up a book by a Protestant author, I expect a degree of exegetical foundation. Merton’s book is not ascriptural or antiscriptural (in its intent, I mean), but neither is it Scripture-driven. There is no discussion of the salient points in classic prayer passages, no biblical theology of prayer and fellowship with God. He does, however, elaborate on his citations of various monks and saints throughout church history–mostly favorably, sometimes unfavorably. As I said above, Merton writes critically of what he sees as problems within monasticism. However, even amidst the intramural monastic debate, Merton does not employ Bible exegesis to arbitrate among competing views. For example, regarding the integration of private contemplation with public prayer and/or action, Merton rejects those who present a dichotomy and applauds those who unify (pp. 31, 50–66). The example of Mary as the contemplative sister and Martha as the active sister, yet both of them still sisters (Luke 10), is offered as something of a type of the unity between contemplation and action. However, I wonder, was Mary a contemplative or a student? Attention to the details of the passage would help us better define the “better part” Mary chose.

The second big difference, perhaps closely related to the lack of sola scriptura, is the emphasis on non-cognitive knowledge of God. At this point, I should attempt to summarize what Merton teaches about contemplative prayer. In brief: Merton says that monasticism has traditionally abandoned the comforts and crutches of worldly life in order to depend on God more explicitly (p. 27). He takes the common charge against monasticism–that monks escape the distresses of the world–and flips it: it is just these distresses to which monks give undistracted attention. Meditation seeks not comfort but first a “dread,” which Merton defines as “the profound awareness that one is capable of ultimate bad faith with himself and with others: that one is living a lie” (pp. 23–25). Merton compares Christianity’s death-to-life rhythm to prayer’s dread-to-joy pattern (p. 34), saying that we should welcome the distress of realizing our ultimate “nothingness and helplessness” before God (pp. 70–71) because it is only such emptiness that can be filled. Such a profound emptiness needs something profoundly big to fill it. God, who comes to fill our dreadful void, is too big to be known cognitively.

While Merton appreciates the use of Scripture, images, and concepts in meditation and while he rejects Manicheanism (cf. pp. 20–21, 73, 83), ultimately he wants us to know and to love God from the “heart,” which he defines as “the inner sanctuary where self-awareness goes beyond analytical reflection and opens out into metaphysical and theological confrontation with the Abyss of the unknown yet present” (p. 33, emphasis added). On the one hand, he tells us that “meditation has no point and no reality unless it is firmly rooted in life” (p. 38, emphasis Merton’s); but on the other he says, “We seek to know God himself, beyond the level of all the objects which he has made and which confront us as ‘things’ isolated from one another” (p. 79, emphasis added). You can see his emphasis on going beyond, on transcending.

What is such a knowledge like? Merton quotes many mystics’ descriptions, but I confess I’m still somewhat mystified. I suppose it comes with the territory. Do your best to follow here. Merton cites St. John of the Cross, who spoke of the “excessive light” that appears as darkness and that we can receive only with “a deeper and simpler intuitive form of receptivity” (p. 44). According to Evagrius, at times of such illumination, “the [human faculty of] understanding, in ardent love for God, begins bit by bit to go forth from the flesh and casts aside all thoughts that come from the senses, the memory or the temperament” (p. 48). For the mystics, the closer creatures in their nothingness get to God in His fullness, the less they recognize any distinctions either in the unified light of God or in their own psyche. This lack of distinction is almost a kind of destruction; Merton quotes Tauler: “The unitive knowledge of God in love is not a knowledge of an object by a subject, but a far different and transcendent kind of knowledge in which the created ‘self’ which we are seems to disappear in God and to know him alone. In passive purification then the self undergoes a kind of emptying and an apparent destruction, until, reduced to emptiness, it no longer knows itself apart from God” (p. 75, cf. quotation of Ruysbroeck, p. 82). Human longing for God has such a pang of emptiness, but “what seems to be emptiness in this case is pure being. Or at least a philosopher might so describe it. But to the contemplative it is other than that. It is not this, not that [reminiscent of a Hindu maxim]” (p. 94). Merton highlights the paradox that we don’t ever really know God Himself, but rather our relationship to Him. “Our knowledge of God is paradoxically a knowledge not of him as the object of our scrutiny, but of ourselves as utterly dependent on his saving and merciful knowledge of us.” (pp. 83, cf, 67). And so we grow to a point at which we cannot understand our growth (p. 76). Far from being isolated and useless, such a contemplative life is necessary to vitalize and motivate other aspects of ministry, such as the liturgy (p. 27) and daily ethics, keeping religion from degenerating into an opiate (pp. 105–116).

I have a number of objections to this idea of higher knowledge. My first objection is, Why is it that the closer I get to God, the less personal He becomes? Why does He become a unified light without distinctions? Why does my confrontation become metaphysical and not personal and/or moral? God has employed any number of personal metaphors in the Bible to describe His relationship to us (e.g., father–Matt. 6:9; 23:9; John 20:17; husband–Jer. 31:31; Eph 5; king–Isa. 44:6; friend–James 2:23) It is my conviction that these metaphors are not merely literary, not afterthoughts, but that the human relationships themselves are preordained replicas of something more deeply personal and relational about God. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of Jesus. His ultimate self-disclosure was an incarnation: we beheld the glory of God in the Person of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).[4]

My second objection to this idea of higher knowledge is, Why is it that the closer I get to God, the less personal I become? Why is it that maturity is defined in terms of subtraction, rather than addition? I get rid of discursive reasoning, senses, memory, temperament … what do I have left with which to worship God? Does not the Bible define maturity in terms of exercised discernment (Heb. 5:14)? Is not the primary goal of biblical maturity–on an individual and corporate level–to grow up into Christ (Eph. 4)? Did not the perfect Man grow in wisdom, stature, and favor with both God and man (Luke 2:52)? Loving God is a full-facultied pursuit, a full-bodied sacrifice (Matt. 22:37; Rom. 12:1–2). We are told to take thoughts captive: how can we captivate wordless thoughts, like tackling ghosts (2 Cor. 10:4–5)? I can agree with Merton that meditation needs to be more than constructing a Weltanschauung, that meditation needs to permeate to my innermost being (p. 69), but it does not follow that the highest meditation is thoughtless.

My third objection to the idea of higher knowledge is, If we are in a Creator-creature relationship, why cannot we be content there? I can fully agree with Merton that only God can really know Himself. I can agree with Merton that God’s creation and even the human language found in the Bible do not describe Him as He is, that it’s all at best an analogy. But my response is, What did you expect? Does God permit or instruct us to try to transcend such limitations? If anything, the Bible describes how God has piled on sufficient–even superabundant–means for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3) in just these “limited” modes. Since we are humans, instead of needing less thought, fewer perceptions, fewer words, to take in God’s glory, we need more. And God delivered. The heavens declare God’s glory; the Hebrew word for “declare” carries the idea of enumeration (Ps. 19), meaning to expand upon, not to pare down. From the very beginning, God’s revelation in the Torah set the pattern: ideal religion is His lordship over every area of life. On top of that are the feasts, the paeans, the celebration of Heilsgeschichte and God’s mighty acts in history, the Incarnation, 66 books of the Bible: we have touched, handled, seen, listened to, the God with whom we have fellowship (1 John 1). A study of prayer would be best informed by a biblical theology of God relating to man in Eden, through the Old and New Testaments, and into the New Jerusalem. It would show that the barriers between man and God are not ontological gaps that need to be jumped but moral antagonisms that need to be reconciled. Prayer itself is an east-of-Eden phenomenon. Some day we will bid farewell to the sweet hour of prayer, and He will be our personal God, and we will be His people evermore.

The third big difference between Merton’s outlook and an evangelical one is the recasting of faith in existential terms. For Merton, faith extends to an “inscrutable God” (pp. 24–25). Merton is an iconoclast when it comes to our own ideas about God–which is commendable. Calvin, too, observed that we can quickly manufacture our own mental idols. But the proper remedy for mental idolatry is not to reject any and every idea of God that comes our way but to seek God as He has revealed Himself. And when we seek God as He has revealed Himself, are we waiting for Him to speak to us in a profound silence turned into an ineffable voice (as Merton would say [p. 90]), or will we conclude, “What more can He say than to you He hath said?” and seek His self-revelation in the objective Scriptures? Merton tells us that God “communicates with us through our own inner truth” (and therefore we ought to be truthful with ourselves), but he frankly admits that in the darkness of contemplation, we might meet the devil rather than God (pp. 89, 92). An unsettling prospect. But for Merton, such risks are essential for true faith. It should be our goal, in such struggles, to purify our own faith. He writes, “It is this testing, this fire of purgation, that burns out the human and accidental [5] elements of faith in order to liberate the deep spiritual power in the center of our being” (p. 78). In fact, Merton continues, in approaching God, the less we seek verification and proof of His presence and love, the more our faith is increased (p. 89).

But I do not find faith to be a leap. Faith versus sight, yes; but faith versus all reason? Faith is the confident response to God’s authoritative Word (Rom. 10:7; Heb. 11). It does not deny the phenomena in life but interprets the phenomena under the authority of the One who orders the phenomena. Must we talk about “submission to the unknown mystery of God’s will” (pp. 39–40, cf. 68) when God has revealed at least the broad outline of His will and told us that what He has revealed belongs to us (Deut. 29:29)? God’s permission merges with our obligation; He has offered a generous revelation; it belongs to us to trust and obey. “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:9). Psalm 119 describes the Word of God in all its sufficiency. God has started the conversation; let us join it in His terms. And while faith might have us doubt everything but God, it would not have us cultivate doubt in general; we are commanded to ask God for wisdom, nothing wavering (James 1:5–6). While God sometimes leads us through wilderness trials with few signs of His presence, we do not develop better faith by eschewing any verification of His love. We are always to put ourselves in remembrance of what God has done (1 Pet. 1).

The fourth big difference is soteriological. Contemplative Prayer is not about Roman Catholic soteriology, but obviously it is informed by Roman Catholic soteriology. Man’s encounter with God is cast in very metaphysical terms but not to the exclusion of the moral element. Merton speaks of the dread of depravity: when we realize that our problem is more than sins, but sin through and through us, we experience “naked dread that is indefinite because it seems to be coextensive” with ourselves (p. 98). How do we deal with the creeping dread of our own infidelity? Merton describes the young monk who becomes insanely frustrated with his own real guilt and inability, and all I can think is Martin Luther. What advice would Merton have given to the young Luther? He advises that such temptations are aimed “not as punishment, but as purification and as grace… . Dread is an expression of our insecurity in this earthly life, a realization that we are never and can never be completely ‘sure’ in the sense of possessing a definitive and established spiritual status.” Instead, Merton says we must hope entirely upon God (p. 100). While Merton will speak of the Spirit given to us fully in Christ and of the cross and the church and the sacraments given on our behalf, behind it all is the assumption that these are given only to those who cling to them and that they may be lost. The idea that justification by faith is a legal standing based on Christ’s reward, the idea that nothing can separate us from the sovereign and efficacious grace that proceeds from God’s electing and steadfast love, is not there. That Christ is our propitiation, that we may have boldness to approach God through Christ’s work, that we may boast in Christ our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, is not there (1 John 2:2; Heb. 4–10; 1 Cor. 1:30–31). I would agree that understanding our condemnation under the law is essential to understanding grace and justification by faith and that the law-gospel pair must be kept in remembrance throughout a Christian life; however, Romans 8:1–2 triumphs over any previous struggles with the law: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”

Contemplative Prayer is not without some good insights into human psychology and our own propensities to kid ourselves. Nor is it a tit-for-tat contrast to Protestant doctrine. Nevertheless, the basic differences between Catholic mysticism and Protestantism are visible throughout: Scripture is not the driving or arbitrating authority, life and religion are divided into a lower and higher plane of experience, faith is more of an existential leap than a confidence in God who has spoken and acted on our behalf, and grace is no longer grace.


1. All page references are from Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
2. Examples include the undue attention to method, “techniques and expedients” (pp. 34, 40–41), naïve self-deception in using “natural gifts” to pull off “tricks” in prayer (pp. 35–36), the “infantile narcissism” of quietism that ends up in self-contemplation (pp. 39–40, 90), an exterior outlook that turns “imitation of Christ” into “mere impersonation” (p. 69), and martyr complexes (p. 74).
3. I have tried to follow John Frame’s advice in an appendix to his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. When you come to something ambiguous, read it in the best possible light, the worst possible light, and the most probable light. It’s more charitable toward the author and more profitable for oneself As an aside, such a method is helpful with SharperIron posts, too!
4. This mystical de-personalizing of God perhaps explains why Merton can appreciate Zen Buddhism (which is more or less atheistic) and Hinduism (more or less pantheistic) (pp. 37, 85). God becomes the great swallow-upper, rather than the infinite-personal, triune God. Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh contributed an appreciative introduction to Contemplative Prayer!
5. Accidental juxtaposed against essential.

Mike Osborne received a B.A. in Bible and an M.A. in Church History from Bob Jones University. He co-authored the teacher’s editions of two BJU Press high school Bible comparative religions textbooks What Is Truth? and Who Is This Jesus?; and contributed essays to the appendix of The Dark Side of the Internet. He lives with his wife, Becky, and his infant daughter, Felicity, in Omaha, Nebraska, where they are active members at Good Shepherd Baptist Church. Mike plans to pursue a further degree in apologetics.

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