Dorothy Day, Peter Marin, the Berrigans, Thomas Merton -- these were the 20th-century Catholics who took a stand for the poor, for the oppressed, and for world peace. They were religious who stepped outside the roles the church assigned them and forged an activist persona that others could emulate. Among them, Merton was the paramount intellect, and arguably the least saintly, the most humble, trying to the last to squeeze ecumenicism into an acceptable Catholic mold and justify activism in purely Catholic terms.
He lived 27 years outside, and 27 years within, the walls of a very restrictive monastery before his death in 1968. Outside he had been a shcolar and prodigious thinker. His conversion to Catholicism and entry into the seclusion of life as a Trappist monk was a shock to his peers in intellectual life, but his writing "career" was not finished. It merely took another turn. This last, posthumous, work, The Inner Experience, is a kind of sequel to an earlier work, New Seeds of Contemplation. By the time Merton compiled it, he had been significantly influenced by Eastern religion.
He considered his Eastern connections to be a dialogue that could help the Church to embrace the knowledge from other quarters. This in itself was not new spiritual ground for Merton, who strove to untangle the old threads between Roman and Greek orthodoxy. Nor was it new in Merton's personal biography. In an encounter as a young man with the great Hindu pundit Bramacharya, he was advised to search within his own religious tradition for the truth. This struck him then as remarkably liberal. In his new convert zeal for the Church he forgot this contribution from the East -- but later allowed it gently to resurface in his meditations.
Merton must have been a great exception to all rules, as he was allowed his own meditation hut on the grounds of the monastery, and was encouraged to keep writing and teaching in his own way. So long as that way bent the Catholic way. In this newly published book, he assiduously maintained that the Christian path is the high path, but gave ample closet space to Zen practice (he had met D.T. Suzuki) and to the writings of Catholics less popular with the Church hierarchy, such as Meister Eckhart.
Testing the subject of what a person might "see" in contemplation, what the saints saw, is mighty tricky stuff. It isn't standard Christian doctrine to consider the possibility of any sort of merging with deity, but great contemplatives describe something very near that. Merton is careful to sidestep that issue. He speaks rather of a "sudden, deep and total acceptance" of man's “invisibility” as the goal of contemplation. He acknowledges that in the life of a Christian religious, within the strict, possibly overbearing, schedule of prayer and work, there may be no time for true solace and meditation. He therefore prefers to advise his readers to develop contemplative practice within the smallest duties of life, and to do so without a trace of ego. "In active contemplation, there is a deliberate and sustained effort to detect the will of God in events and to bring one's whole self into harmony with that will."
Merton meant the book as a how-to for contemplative endeavors. Be warned however, that Merton could sling words like "ascesis" and "nugatory" as though they were common parlance. This is not Meditation 101. But it is one of the few books on the subject worth reading by serious students of the craft of religious living. Merton met the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama declared that it was the first time he had gotten a sense of spirituality from a Christian. So be aware: the author was no featherweight, and this book will not disappoint. But bring your dictionary.