Entering the School of Your Experience Entering the School of Your Experience
Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton, Volume 1

Jonathan Montaldo and Robert G Toth (Editors)
ISBN 9781594710896 (1594710899)
Ave Maria Press, 2006

Category: Small Group Resources
Reviewed by: Phil Groom

This is the first volume in a new series from the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, where the editors serve as associate director and executive director, respectively. The aim of the series, intended for small group study, is to lead participants "on a journey toward personal spiritual transformation and a more contemplative and peace-filled life."

Each volume offers a brief introduction to the concept of contemplative living as well as to Thomas Merton himself and his thought. The sessions set out to help each member of a group to "explore the strength and balance of the relationships that ultimately determine who they are: relationships with self, God, others and nature" (p.9) via a process of 'contemplative dialogue' — a way of sharing experiences that focuses on listening and reflecting rather than on responding. Participants are invited to hear and reflect upon what others have to say without necessarily having to respond verbally: conversation is slow, periods of silence are expected — "There are no levels of perfection, goals to attain, or measurements of success." (p.10).

The individual sessions follow a common format: an opening reflection from Scripture, in this volume always a Psalm; an introduction to the texts; and the texts themselves, two readings, "Merton's Voice", from Merton, and "Another Voice", an extract from another spiritual writer including, for example, Eckhart Tolle, Wilkie Au and Karen Armstrong. This is followed by questions for reflection and dialogue such as,"Which images, words or phrases in these readings resonate most with your experience?" and "What do they mean for your life?" Finally, a closing session invites use of one of several prayers from Merton, provided at the back of the book, or a period of silent reflection. Bibliographic sources and brief biographical sketches of the "Other Voices" complete the booklet.

In a marketplace flooded with Bible study materials, this series stands out as a radical alternative, a much-needed and valuable opportunity to focus on spiritual formation — not, it must be said, in any disconnected sense of spirituality but firmly rooted in reality. Merton's writings, we're told, "take people into deep places within themselves and offer insights into the paradoxes of life. They wrestle with how to be contemplative in a world of action" (p.8).

For those of us who have become used to life in a consumer driven, outcome oriented and largely non-stop society, where even the church has become "purpose driven", this kind of groupwork promises to be deeply challenging — but also immensely rewarding. Can we break free from the shackles of busyness and find time to restore body and soul, heart, mind and spirit? I dare you to try it: I dare say you will not regret it.

Related Titles
Spirituality and Mysticism
The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia

Spirituality Reviews Index

Phil Groom, June 2007

Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.

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