Book Review: New Seeds of Contemplation
Author: Thomas Merton
Publisher: Shambhala Publications ISBN: 9781590300497
I am a big fan of Thomas Merton; let me get this out of the way early in this review. I own nine of his books in my personal library and have enjoyed them greatly as I have grown to know Thomas Merton as one of my most influential “mentors from afar.” With regard to this particular volume and Merton in general, his writing style is not for everyone and this specific volume might narrow his audience even more. In other words, this book is not for everyone.
Having experience with Merton’s writing style, I would characterize it as somewhat abrupt, perhaps even calling it brusque at times. While I think his writing is very deep and contemplative (in the theological and philosophical senses), it can often seem very no nonsense and lacking sensitivity… although I find the content of his writing very sensitive even if the style of writing is lacking the same. These observations are not criticisms, just reinforcement to the point that Merton’s writing might not appeal to a large audience. I was talking to a friend recently about this very subject and I made a comparison of Merton to Henri Nouwen. In my opinion, I rank them both as “tens” (on the one to ten scale) in the area and subject of spiritual formation writers. Their style of deep meditation and reflection on the spiritual journey and their ability to communicate those thoughts in written form rivals or exceeds that of most contemporary writers that I have read. What sets them apart are their styles. Nouwen is very gentle and seems to consider the journey of his reader when he writes, almost as if he is sensitive to every emotion and experience of his reader. Merton seems to me, to be at the other end of that sensitivity level, almost as if he does not have time for the pleasantries of emotional sensitivity. This is not to say that he isn’t sensitive, but he gets right to the point and distills all the anecdotal storylines to the pure syrup of contemplative truth. As much as I love Nouwen for how he writes, I love Merton’s deep truth, no nonsense approach equally as much, if not more.
New Seeds of Contemplation (in my opinion) is one his best works, at least of the books I have read by Merton. The preface and the author’s note preceding the actual content of the book should be prerequisite before beginning chapter one. The preface makes explicit mention that the book “is not intended for everybody. It is not intended for all religious people. …There are very many religious people who have no need for a book like this, because theirs is a different kind of spirituality. If to them this book is without meaning, they should not feel concerned.” The author’s notes shares similar sentiments with these words; “The book does not claim, either, to be a work of art. Practically anybody else with the same interests might possibly have written it much better…” To clarify once more, if it is not clear, this book is not for everyone and is not intended to be a literary work of art… although I consider it a masterpiece.
If, after the aforementioned qualifiers, you are still interested in this book, I would recommend it as one of the best on Christian contemplation that I have ever read. The thoughts are deep and prompt deep, prayerful, reflection. The thoughts in New Seeds have turned my own ideas about God and my relationship with Him to deep self-examination, repentance and desire to surrender more to the transformative work of God the Holy Spirit so I might be remade more into His image…the image of Christ. The book is segmented into thirty-nine chapters, most of them between five and seven pages long. My habit has been to read a chapter (sometimes two) and allow it to steep in my brain until it settles into my heart. I have been reading New Seeds for almost two months now and will probably be reading it for another two months. It is that good and has had that much impact on me. If you think you might be one of the persons that this book might appeal to, you shouldn’t waste any time before you get it. I am thankful that I have it…and it has me.