New Seeds of Contemplation
I OPENED New Seeds of Contemplation for the first time during the winter of 1988 while visiting Thomas Merton’s hermitage in the Kentucky woods about a mile from the Abbey of Gethsemani. I’d made several trips to the monastery, but this was my first to the small, cinder-block house where Merton lived for the last few years of his life. I doubt there could be a more ideal location in which to read Merton’s masterpiece on the contemplative life, but I’m pretty sure I could have read the book on a bench in a shopping mall and it would have affected me similarly— as an occasion of awe and awakening. As an event that changed me…
When I made my pilgrimage to the hermitage, I was thirty -nine years old, flailing about in a profusion of busyness, struggling to balance my roles as mother, wife and writer, and keep pace with what seemed like a preposterous assortment of demands. People were often surprised by my gravitation to monasteries. I joked to them that my maiden name was, after all, Monk, and they joked that I was just tired and wanted to go off somewhere and lie down. My guide that day was a thin, amiable monk with horn-rimmed glasses. As we set off from the monastery through the empty trees, he inquired how I’d become interested in Merton.
“Reading The Seven Storey Mountain,” I told him. When he smiled, I added: “That’s practically a religious cliche, isn’t it?”
I’d read the autobiographical account of Merton becoming a Trappist monk ten years earlier at the age of twenty-nine. The book fairly stunned me. Having grown up in a Baptist family in a small town in the South, I’d had no religious orientation to the contemplative life, no idea about monasteries or what sort of infectious mystery might compel someone to actually go to one. Merton, himself, wrote about literature that “initiates” the reader into “the ultimate cause of things,” calling it “wisdom literature,” and applying the term to the work of Faulkner, for one.
It was easy for me to apply the term to The Seven Storey Mountain. My experience of reading it initiated me into my first real awareness of the interior life, igniting an impulse toward being that I still felt a decade later.
I’d gone on to read other of Merton’s books, mostly his journals, but somehow, inexplicably, I hadn’t yet read New Seeds of Contemplation, which was tucked in my purse, along with a small journal.
“So, for you, Merton was essentially a contemplative?” the monk said.
I nodded, startled slightly by the notion that Merton might be viewed as anything else. (Later I would wonder if that wasn’t what my guide had in mind.) I’d understood Merton almost exclusively as a man drawn by prayer, solitude and silence, the real essence of his life and work rooted in his pull toward being.
As I would discover, however , the light of Merton can be both wave and particle, one’s vision of him highly influenced by one’s own experience, need and initiation. Merton was, in fact, multi-faceted, complex, even self-contradictory, meaning he was able to hold within his extravagant personality a wide range of ambiguities, paradoxes and selves . Out of the great fertility and imagination of his soul rose a contemplative, monk, hermit, writer, poet, artist, intellectual, cultural critic, dissident, peace activist, ecumenical seeker, lover of nature and ordinary guy. A kind of Everysoul, he possessed an extraordinary ability to connect with deep, universal places inside of people. His life became a remarkably clear lens through which others glimpse their own self, especially the self their soul most demands. So, even before we reached the hermitage, it occurred to me I may have sculpted a personal image of Merton that had as much to do with my own longing to be, as it did with his.
The hermitage was enclosed by drifting floes of brown leaves, its cement-slab porch laden with firewood. I walked slowly through each room: a small kitchen; a bedroom with a quilt-draped bed pushed against the wall; a tiny room used for a chapel, its altar adorned with origami-shaped seed pods; a living room with a fireplace, a shelf of books, a wooden rocker (was this where Jacques sat on his visit here?), walking sticks propped in a corner, and an oil lamp on a desk before the front window. It smelled heavily of wood smoke.
With a stretch of time to myself, I settled at the desk and pulled New Seeds of Contemplation from my bag. In its pages I discovered Merton’s powerful evocations on the true self.
Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny.… To work out our identity in God.
I’ve never attempted to describe the experience I had upon reading that passage. Even now, so many years later, I don’t know what to say about it except that it caused something hidden at the core of me to flare up and become known. If my reading of The Seven Storey Mountain inducted me into the mysteries of the interior life, waking an urge to be, New Seeds of Contemplation initiated me into the secrets of my true identity and woke in me an urge toward realness.
While seated at the desk, I copied a number of sentences from the book into the journal, which I recently dug out of its long obscurity in the back of a closet in order to read again. The lines I chose to write down reveal my own subjective experience with the book. They seem to me now like tiny panes through which I can glimpse the intimate yearnings of an earlier self.
I copied this rather telling passage:
Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self … We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.
And this one:
Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of this external self. There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular.
And this, which is written on a page by itself, surrounded by astonished, blank space:
Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness … We can rise above this unreality and recover our hidden identity…. God Himself begins to live in me not only as my Creator but as my other and true self.
My last excerpt captured the polarity I felt inside.
We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real … and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.
As I read, my understanding of Merton and the spiritual life began to pivot. Who am I? Who is my real self? How shall I become that self? The questions suddenly seemed to form the nucleus of Merton, and somehow, the nucleus of me, too. The shift that occurred in me had to do with discovering an intention of contemplation previously unknown to me— the process of confronting the false self, the illusions and tenacity of the ego, and finding and surrendering to the true self. Merton poetically referred to it as a movement from opaqueness to transparency.
Again Merton’s wisdom literature had taken me into the ultimate cause of things. The encounter has impacted my spirituality and my writing to this day.
Not long ago, as I recovered the little journal containing the passages I’d inscribed, a photograph tumbled from inside the cover. It was a picture of me standing on the hermitage porch, burrowed in a white coat, looking young and noviciate. Gazing at it nearly twenty years later, I was struck by the realization that I’d read New Seeds of Contemplation several times since then, experiencing the book differently each time: as a classical, theological work on the nature of contemplation, as a collection of personal meditations that tend the soul, as a mystical vision of what Merton called the “cosmic dance.” Yet, I savor most that reading in 1988 when my first awareness of the true self appeared in the portal of a winter afternoon.
— Sue Monk Kidd