For Merton, contemplation is a kind of spiritual vision to which both reason and faith aspire by their very nature because, without it, they must always remain incomplete. Yet contemplation is not vision because it sees “without seeing” and knows “without knowing.” It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to grasp in images, words, or even clear concepts. For in contemplation, we know by “unknowing.” Or, better, we know beyond all-knowing or “unknowing.”
Contemplation is always beyond our own knowledge, beyond our own light, beyond systems, beyond explanations, beyond discourse, beyond dialogue, and beyond our own self.
To enter into the realm of contemplation, one must, in a certain sense, die: but this death is, in fact, the entrance into a higher life. It is a death for the sake of life, which leaves behind all that we can know or treasure as life, as thought, as experience, as joy, as being.
And so contemplation seems to supersede and discard every other form of intuition and experience — whether in art, philosophy, theology, liturgy, or in ordinary levels of love and belief. This rejection is, of course, only apparent. Contemplation must be compatible with all these things, for it is their highest fulfillment. But in the experience of contemplation, all other experiences are momentarily lost.