Contemplative Living

A great reflection by Robert Toth at the Merton Insitute

“Do you consider yourself a contemplative person? Would you say that you live contemplatively?”

Having asked these questions of hundreds of people, we find that most people do not see themselves as contemplative or feel they are living contemplatively. Most defined contemplative living as leading a less busy, more quiet life or engaging in certain practices such as meditation, centering prayer or yoga. In the popular imagination contemplative living is still influenced by the close connection between contemplation and monks and nuns who leave “the world” and live in monasteries.

When asked, however, whether they had a desire or felt a need to live more contemplatively, 95% of those surveyed responded positively. This response may reflect a desire to escape the distressing and hectic pace of life, but it may also express a sincere desire for a closer relationship with God.

Throughout his writings Thomas Merton characterizes contemplative living as living in true relationships with oneself, God, others and nature. Our relationships become true when we free ourselves of the illusion of being a separate self, existing apart from God, others and nature.

Living contemplatively leads to seeing the interconnectedness of these four relationships and how important they are to each other. Through contemplative living we balance and integrate them and begin to see them as four dimensions of a single relationship with love as their connecting force.

Contemplation employs silence, solitude, reflection, meditation, prayer and other spiritual practices, but these represent only half of what we mean by contemplative living. The other half is a deepening awareness of and attention to these relationships and the responsibility and action they ultimately require of us.

There are some profoundly important characteristics in Merton’s interpretation of contemplative living that distinguish it from popular notions of spirituality. First, it is specific in its focus on our four essential relationships. Secondly, it asserts that our contemplative/spiritual practices lead us to a clearer understanding of our responsibility in these relationships. Thirdly, it emphasizes that our everyday, active life is our spiritual life and that our contemplation should guide our actions; and fourthly, it provides direction to our actions that deepens and transforms our relationships in ways that are visible and measurable. These distinctive characteristics of contemplative living make it tangible and easy to adopt as a way of life.

Thomas Merton turns many popular notions of contemplative living on their heads. For our part, we can begin by expanding our understanding of what it means to live contemplatively and by seeing that our everyday life is our spiritual/contemplative life. Our inner work will generate the personal and societal transformations we desire.

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