Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (known as “Fr. Louis” in the Trappist monastery, Bardstown, KY) a popular and influential 20th century American, Roman Catholic author and mystical theologian, was born on 31 January 1915 in Prades, southern France. The young Merton attended schools in France, England, and the United States. He attended Columbia University in New York City (1935-38) and entered the Catholic Church in 1938 following a dramatic conversion experience. Merton entered the monastic community of the Abbey of Gethsemani on December 10, 1941. The abbot urged Merton to write his autobiography (The Seven Storey Mountain), published in 1948, which became a best-seller.
In 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood and during the next 20 years, Merton wrote prolifically (more than 70 books) on the contemplative life, prayer, and religious biographies. These works often included controversial issues such as race relations, violence, nuclear war, and economic injustice. Merton was a leading figure in ecumenical relations following Vatican II and was one of the first Catholics to enter into serious dialog with eastern religions, including the Dalai Lama, D.T. Suzuki, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Merton died by accidental electrocution in Bangkok, Thailand, while attending an interfaith meeting of religious leaders on December 10, 1968.
In “New Seeds of Contemplation” (a 1962 revision of his 1948 “Seeds of Contemplation”) Merton presents 39 chapters on various aspects of Christian contemplation. The individual chapters are short and terse in style, without the syrupy and ornate prose characteristic of many of the mystics. The author writes from the monastic enclosure to an outside audience which knows him well (as the author of the New York Times best seller “The Seven Storey Mountain” among many other works) but has questions about the inner life. Merton uses the Gospel parable of the sower as a metaphor for his task of sowing “seeds” that one day may lead to a wonderful harvest in the spiritual life of his readers. He understands the most profound task for the reader is not to engage in a desperate struggle to “achieve” union with God, but simply to recognize the union which has already happened (what he calls the “true self”) and step away from the selfishness and egoism which makes up one’s “false self” that resist and obscure that realization. This physical layout of this edition of the work includes large typeface and introduction by Sue Monk Kidd.
This book springs from a series of revisions to three previous works generated by Merton as a response to a letter from a college reviewer who had asked: “What is contemplation?” The title draws upon the metaphor used by the synoptic evangelists in the parable of the seeds, where the point of the parable is not just about seeds, it is also about the different kinds of soil that receive the seeds. Merton uses this idea to challenge the reader in considering what kind of soil one is for the growth of the seeds of contemplation that God has sown in the person.
While at the time of its publication, “Seeds” received highly favorable reviews, even being called a “twentieth century Imitation of Christ,” Merton was displeased with the work and began revising it. He produced a slightly revised edition in 1949 and explained that from this point forward that he will write “about spiritual thing from the point of view of experience rather than in the concise terms of dogmatic theology or metaphysics.”
However, the major reworking of the text does not come about until 1961. By this time, Merton was a radically different person from the young monk who in The Seven Storey Mountain had gloried in the fact that he had “left the world.” Now he has come to realize that a true contemplative cannot shut out the world. “If you go into the desert merely to get away from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils. . .Go into the desert not to escape other men but in order to find them in God” (53).
Merton explains that this new book “is not merely a new edition of an old book” (xv) but is in many ways completely new. There is a new preface and an author’s note. Nine new chapters have been added (1,2,12,15,19,33,39). Most of the chapters that remained from the earlier work have been expanded (one has been divided into three chapters). “Seeds” had twenty-seven chapters. “New Seeds” has thirty nine. The book focuses much more on contemplative experience but is not really a systematic study of mysticism. Each chapter stands on its own and has no real connection with the chapter it follows or precedes. For people who like flow and systematic development of a theological grid, this work will be difficult as it reads more like a series of brief meditations.
Chapters 1 (“What is Contemplation?”) and 2 (“What Contemplation is Not”) are foundational for understanding the remainder. Contemplation is described as “awareness” (a word that appears nine times in chapter one). Merton opens with “contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual spiritual life. It is that life itself fully awake, fully active, fully aware that is alive” (1). “Contemplation reaches out to the knowledge and even the experience of the transcendent and inexpressible God” (2) On the other hand, contemplative experience is beyond explanation. “Contemplation does not simply ‘find’ a clear idea of God and hold Him there as a prisoner to Whom it can always return. On the contrary, contemplation is carried away by Him into His own realm, His own mystery, His own freedom” (5).
In chapter 2 Merton develops more fully the distinction between the true self and false self which he had merely hinted at in “Seeds.” “There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcend self that awakens only in contemplation and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular” (7). The self that appears on the surface is not the hidden mysterious self that alone is real in the eyes of God. It is rather a prison from which we must escape. “The only true joy in life is to escape form the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature an di the core of our own souls” (25).
In Chapter 6, Merton writes that “the person must be rescued from the individual” (38). This contrast of person and individual is another way to describe the difference between the true self and the false self. This, in turn, leads to a further contrast: between the community and the collective. Merton understands that while we all live in some kind of society, it can either develop into authentic community where each person is respected for who they are and in which freedom and responsibility are valued. On the other hand, society made decline into merely a group of individuals motivated by selfishness. The individual “does not think, he secrets clichés” (55).
A criticism of “Seeds” was the sharp dichotomy which the young Merton drew between the sacred and the secular. The older and more mature Merton of “New Seeds” revises his thinking, saying: “Reality is to be sought not in division but in unity, for we are ‘members of one another’” (47-48). “In the depths of contemplative prayer there seems to be no division between subject and object, and there is no reason to make any statement either about God or about oneself. He IS and this reality absorbs everything else” (267). “What happens is that the separate entity that is you apparently disappears and nothing seems to be left but a pure freedom indistinguishable from infinite Freedom, love identified with Love. Not two loves, on writing for the other, striving for the other, seeking of the other, but Love Loving in Freedom. . .” (283). So it is with one who has vanished into God by pure contemplation god alone is left. He is the "I" who acts there. He is the one Who loves and knows and rejoices” (286-287).
This reviewer began reading Merton in 1987-88, shortly after his conversion experience. While stationed at Ft. Knox, KY, he was taking instruction from the chaplain assigned to the 194th Armor Brigade, who suggested exploring centering prayer through the writings of M. Basil Pennington, a contemporary of Merton and also a Trappist. Following this advice and the en-dorsement of Pennington, this reviewer first read “New Seeds” around 1991 while on a transatlantic flight to Germany. Immediately, he recognized the profound nature of this work and it has survived numerous culling’s of his personal library since then.
In re-reading the book many years later, this reviewer was reminded of the personal im-pact upon his life which these words engendered: “I wonder if there are twenty men alive in the world now who see things as they really are. That would mean that there were twenty men who were free, who were not dominated or even influenced by any attachment to any created thing or to their own selves or to any gift of God, even to the highest, the most supernaturally pure of His graces. I don't believe there are twenty such men alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from fall-ing apart” (203).
This reviewer remembers his youthful passion and desire (perhaps his Enneagram 3-ness) to be one of these people described in the passage who can increasingly detach one’s focus away from the false self/kingdom of the world and increasingly seek instead the invisible, yet more real, kingdom of God. This book had a significant impact on this reviewer’s decision to enter seminary and Merton continues to speak to him at a deep level today.
 “What is Contemplation” (1948), “The Inner Way” (1949), and “Seeds of Contemplation” (1948).
 Sign of Jonas, xii