Merton and Contemplative Prayer: How it applies to yoga
Updated: Apr 29
This post is the second of a three-part series formatted from my writing sample written in the fall of 2019. This post was originally published on Christians Practicing Yoga. You can view the citations for this piece here.
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Because of its spiritual nature, yoga has helped many Christians either create or further their relationship with God. Mystical experiences have often been defined as the goal of yoga, which translates to “union” or “to yoke.” A complete surrender of self to God may seem only available for great spiritual teachers like priests and gurus, Thomas Merton found a more accessible way for lay Christians to achieve these experiences by way of contemplative prayer practices. Merton developed this religious activity and went as far as saying the method most likely to produce mystical experiences was contemplative prayer.
Contemplative prayer taps into a long tradition of monastic meditation with a goal of mystical union with God, much like the origins of yoga. Merton formulates his important ideas on the topic in Seeds of Contemplation (1949) and later in New Seeds of Contemplation (1962). He originally defined contemplative prayer as “a deep and simplified spiritual activity in which the mind and will are fused into one.” Note his mention of deep and simplified. Merton focused on the final step of union with God. His early definition of contemplative life as “a life arranged in such a way that a person can more easily and more simply and more naturally live in an awareness of direct dependence on God” proved constant throughout his life. This dependence on God correlates with Merton’s asceticism, or self-discipline avoiding indulgence: “true mystical experience of God and supreme renunciation of everything outside of God coincide.”
While separated from the world of lay Christians, Merton understood contemplative prayer to be a practice uniquely accessible to them because of contemplative prayer’s relation to love rather than intellect. The transcendent love generated by contemplative prayer allows anyone who devotes themselves to God to gaze upon God. Contemplation offered Christians a special opportunity to affirm their relationship with God.
Even though Merton himself did not link contemplation and yoga, his thought on the power of contemplative prayer continues to deeply influence later Christians and their embrace of yogic practice. Jane Ferguson, a researcher in pastoral psychology, conducted a study focusing on meditative centering prayer in Roman Catholicism. Her research includes practices grounded in Contemplative Outreach, an organization that defines itself as “a spiritual network of individuals and small faith communities committed to living the contemplative dimension of the Gospel.” Contemplative Outreach characterizes contemplative prayer as “appealing and accessible to laypeople” much like Merton’s work in simplifying contemplative prayer. The goal of centering prayer benefits a Christian by reducing stress while building a relationship with God, similar to a yoga practice. Many have achieved a contemplative practice solely through yoga. Contemplative Outreach has even gone as far as including yoga in its Centering Prayer Retreats. Studies analyzing the effects of meditation and mindfulness for stress reduction are usually based in the Asian traditions even though the presence of meditation in the Catholic tradition is ongoing.
Merton’s idea of contemplative prayer corresponds to yoga in definition, practice, and spiritual effect. One example is “union with God” as the goal of both Merton’s contemplative prayer and yoga practiced by Christians. Merton utilizes contemplative prayer just as Christians who practice yoga do. Contemplative prayer practices and Christian yoga fine-tune the mind and body to be used in adoration to God. In contemplative prayer, the body positions are still, passive, and small in number. In yoga, the body positions are larger in number but are enacted slowly and with great intention. When engaging in both contemplative prayer and Christian yoga, a practitioner experiences spiritual effects by praying with the entire mind and body.
Have you tried contemplative prayer? You can visit the Contemplative Outreach website (https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/) to learn how to integrate contemplative prayer into your prayer life and your yoga practice.