Takeaway: Reading from different traditions really is a very good way to expand your understanding of the Christian faith.
I found years ago, that I could listen to a dense book in ways that I would just not read a dense book. Part of this is that I literally cannot comprehend all of the book when I listen to it in audio form. Yes, I know that I miss parts of the detail. But I get a strong sense of the structure. For many non-fiction books, the basic structure is all that is really needed. If you miss a few details, it really does not matter much. There are often too many details in most non-fiction books anyway. For books that I really want more of, I add the book to my Read Again pile. And I re-purchase the book in paper or kindle format and read it again in six months to a year.
Contemplative Prayer was the last book written by Thomas Merton before his accidental death in 1968 (he was electrocuted while adjusting a fan on an Asian trip.) The book is primarily about the life of prayer for Monks but much of it is applicable for others as well. I am not Catholic and do not have a strong history in philosophy. So I know some of this book went over my head. And a certain amount really does not apply because I am not in a cloistered environment. But there is a strong philosophical and spiritual understanding of prayer in the Catholic church. There are those within the Evangelical world that want to ignore that history because of theological differences. (One prominent reformed blogger discounted two different very good books on prayer solely on the basis of the fact that the authors quoted Catholics in the book. I would ignore it if he had done it once. But when you discount two different books and state right in the review that the books were excellent treatments on prayer but you cannot recommend them because they quote Catholics, I am disturbed.)
There were three sections in Contemplative Prayer that were especially helpful. One was on the division between work and contemplation in prayer in the monastic life. Merton’s thoughts here apply to many divisions in Christian world (social action and evangelism, worship and intercession, etc.). He has a number of thoughts but my summary is always both, always in the control of God, always both within community as arranged by God and under proper spiritual direction.
The second helpful section was on the arts and prayer. Historically the deeper nature of God has been expressed through art and symbols and story and analogy. But because we know the weaknesses of those tools (or the proper users of those tools understand) we are not tempted to mis-use them and create idols of them. But there is a temptation (especially among us Protestants and Evangelicals) to think that because images and art and story are imperfect tools to explain God, they should not be used. But what Merton rightly descerns here is that in the attempt to better explain God through the use of ideas, we fall into the trap of believing that it is possible to fully explain God and we therefore make idols of those ideas in a way similar, if not worse, than what we had intended to prevent with the desire to repress the use of art and story. This fits in with some of Donald Miller’s thoughts about story that is in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (my review).
The third area that I found particularly helpful was his discussion of “the dark night of the soul”. This common phrase is usually used to describe the hard times that most Christians seem to go through after they become a Christian but before they really sense some of the deeper life of joy that is often talked about by the saints. This book had more discussion about the why and wonder and dangers of too free understanding of serious prayer. I think many would benefit from this section. Too many Evangelicals are too free and too casual with God. Merton seems to not only have a good balance between the fear of the Lord and the personal relationship but actually has some good comments about the why.
Overall, I really got something out of Contemplative Prayer, but not everyone will. First, this book is primarily addressed to monks. I think it is helpful for others, but it is still addressed to monks. It is also written by a Roman Catholic monk. If you are resistant to hearing about theology and prayer from a catholic then you should skip it, but you will also miss out on the some the richness of Christian thought. Check back in another six month or so and I will give it another read.