“This is one of the chief contradictions that sin has brought into our souls: we have to do violence to ourselves to keep from laboring uselessly for what is bitter and without joy, and we have to compel ourselves to take what is easy and full of happiness as though it were against our interests, because for us the line of least resistance leads in the way of greatest hardship and sometimes for us to do what is, in itself, most easy, can be the hardest thing in the world.” – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, Chapter 22
New Seeds of Contemplation, a meandering book written by the Catholic monk Thomas Merton, jumped out at me several months ago while I was browsing the ‘Prayer & Devotional’ section of my local library. I had never read anything by Merton before but his story has always piqued my interest and I’ve had The Seven Storey Mountain lying in a pile of ‘to-be-read’ books for the past couple of years (although I still haven’t gotten around to it).
I pulled New Seeds off of the shelf and flipped through the chapter titles, making note of several interesting ones such as ‘The Woman Clothed with the Sun’ and ‘The Moral Theology of the Devil.’ Since it was less than three-hundred pages I figured it would be a quick read and ended up checking it out. It hasn’t turned out to be the quick read I hoped for. I’ve had it for three months and it’s three days past due so I decided I better wrap it up.
As its name implies, this book is one that plants seeds of contemplation within the reader. As a result, it’s not a book that can be reviewed easily outside of the effect it has on the individual. It isn’t a doctrinal book that one might analyze (though there is doctrine in it). Neither is it devotional in the sense that a believer might read a chapter every night and feel better about his relationship with God. Instead, it is like a bag of seeds. As you read through it, some chapters will take root and engender thought, contemplation, and meditation. These seeds will cause you to dig deeper into the presence of God, seeking the Truth that transforms. Other seeds will be more akin to a husk, something that may have a ring of truth to it but not the substance.
Since I’m not Catholic, I found several chapters that I simply couldn’t enter into. The theological distance was too great. On the other hand, there were a number of chapters that set my mind busily whirling. Rather than give a brief fly-over of the things that interested me; I’d like to focus on the thought that began this review.
What an idea Merton shares with the reader in this tenty-second chapter, entitled ‘Life in Christ!’ God has set before us two ways that we can choose from (Deuteronomy 30:19, Matthew 7:13-14). The easy way is that of Life in Christ. The difficult way is the way of the world or the self. And yet, men struggle to keep from taking the way that leads to “greatest hardship.” Men continue in sin even though the consequences are everywhere evident. Why drink to excess? Why pervert our God-given sexuality? Why engage in mind and body-altering drugs? Why continue in bitterness, hatred, and strife? The end-results of sin are apparent! Death, disease, confusion, pain are all that await. And yet truly, they are the paths of ‘least resistance.’ Sin is always easier at the front-end. It’s only once the seed of sin has had time to germinate and bear fruit that we see its true results. Truly, the way of God is the only way that is in our best interests; nevertheless, it requires compulsion and intention and inward-motivation. Fortunately, that’s what books like New Seeds of Contemplation excel at. They remind us of the goal. They help to reorient our focus away from false beliefs and on to Christ. They’re like a good friend, “provok[ing us] unto love and to good works” (Hebrews 10:24).
Like The Imitation of Christ, New Seeds of Contemplation jumps around from thought to thought, never settling on any one theme. And yet, within its pages there lies much fodder for extended meditation. Whether you’re a Catholic or not, you’ll be able to find something “true…honest…just…pure…lovely…[or] of good report” to think on in these pages (Philippians 4:8). Keep the wheat and spit out the husks.