Mulling over Merton

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, theologian, poet, mystic, and the author of more than seventy books. Having lost both parents by the time he was fourteen, his youth from then on was ill directed and sometimes chaotic. He declared himself an agnostic in his late teen years and proudly declared, “I believe in nothing.” However, in college he settled down and became a typical young intellectual of his era. In later years he remarked that Mark Van Doren, one of his professors whom he idolized, may have saved him from his naive fascination with the Marxist promise of a classless society as the key to universal utopia. Then something happened to transform him from a typical student to an atypical adult. At the age of 22 he began his pilgrimage into the Catholic Church and eventually monastic life at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gesthemani in Kentucky. This spiritual journey he documented at the age of thirty-one in his immensely popular autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1946).

By 1949 he was ordained a priest and took the name Father Louis. In his more mature years Merton cultivated an interest in peace movements and Eastern religions. In 1966, while hospitalized for surgery, he had a romantic relationship with a student nurse to whom he wrote poems. Having specialized in the study of Buddhism, Merton died in 1968 at the age of fifty-three while attending a monastic conference in Bangkok. The story given out was that he was electrocuted by a defectively wired fan in his room after taking a shower. Immediately, unsubstantiated rumors spread and have persisted that he was murdered. The strange circumstances surrounding his death are explored in The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton (2018) by Hugh Turley and David Martin.

Merton the Writer

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, an admirer of Merton’s writing, remarked that the quality of Merton’s writing is uneven. This may not indicate anything more than that most authors share the same tendency toward ups-and-downs of creativity. The following randomly selected aphorisms from his writings reveal that Merton’s work typically was informed by a deep-seated search for wisdom clearly and eloquently expressed. “We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves. And we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God” “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” “Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, or it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and selfishness that have chilled his faith.” “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” Any one of these sentences could be the thesis statement for an entire essay.

Hell as Hatred

A Thomas Merton Reader, which is a large volume of Merton’s essays, poems, and excerpts from his autobiography edited by Thomas P. McDonnell, was first published in 1962 and subsequently revised to include later writings. Some of the brief essays are revisited here. To begin, “Hell as Hatred” is a scathing description of evil incarnate. “Hell is where no one has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and from themselves.” Existentialists will note that this reflection sounds reminiscent of Sartre’s play No Exit (1944), in which one of the characters remarks that “Hell is other people.” Sartre was an atheist but he unwittingly described the same hell Merton described, namely the reversal of our purpose for living, which is to love God; for Merton only by wholly loving God can we wholly love one another. When the love of God fails, we come to hate what is left … not only each other, but also ourselves, because nature hates a vacuum. When we choose not to love God, hate rushes in where angels fear to tread.

Moral Confusion

In the essay titled “Moral Confusion” Merton bemoans the absence of a clear and consistent morality among men. It is the condition of an age and people that believe no longer in an objective and universal morality. Without such a morality, trust cannot prevail. People with good intentions, even peacemakers, will be mocked and reviled because of a general cynicism that expects or even demands failure. A vicious cycle sets in. Nobody expects peacemakers to succeed in making peace real; so, when the peacemakers fail they are not only blamed and become victims of distrust, but the whole of humanity is thus reinforced in their belief that peace is not possible; so why not just settle for war after all? If this lack of a general moral compass results in self-hate, why should anyone be surprise that war is in the offing? Some will say that politicians may be believed to have a moral compass that will overcome moral confusion. Merton thinks not. It is not politicians at the top of society who will save society all by themselves. They will need God to help them. Getting God to help them means that all people with a moral compass need to pray as they have never prayed in their lives for a light that will dispel the darkness in the minds of the world’s most culpable rulers. Peace might still not prevail, but at least the true peacemakers will be given strength by the Almighty to avoid the fatal errors that lead to ultimate defeat.

Wisdom of the East

In the essay titled “Christian Culture Needs Oriental Wisdom” Merton remarks that the West was sadly slow in coming to discover the wisdom of the East. If wisdom is paramount in the Orient, Merton observes (it is also the first gift of the Holy Spirit in Catholicism), “The way of the sage [wise one] is the way of not attacking, not charging at his objective, not busying himself too intently about his goals.” Thus we see that in the Orient the wise one is passive and lets wisdom wash over him as opposed to aggressively swimming toward it. The Tao (Way) is in some sense a Christian concept; even early Christians called themselves followers of the Way. “But the way of Tao is just that: the way of supreme spontaneity which is virtuous in a transcendent sense because it ‘does not strive.’” Merton is on to something here. We think of the wisdom and goodness of Jesus as spontaneous, not something he had to strive for. Saints may strive to be virtuous, but the most perfect sainthood is arrived at when the struggle is over and virtue settles in as the most natural thing in the world.

To illustrate the point, in another essay Merton had remarked on first meeting Jacques Maritain: “I only spoke a few conventional words to Maritain, but the impression you got from this gentle, stooping Frenchman with much gray hair was one of tremendous kindness and simplicity and godliness. And that was enough: you did not need to talk to him. I came away feeling very comforted that there was such a person in the world, and confident that he would include me in some way in his prayers.” From this we can see Merton suggesting that Maritain had discovered the Way (Tao). “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Thus, Merton insists, the centuries long dismissal of oriental wisdom needs to end. Had Christianity been open to that wisdom long before now, the Orient and Christ might have come together long ago. By now, Merton suggests, Catholicism might have accomplished its universal mission to preach the Gospel to all nations to the ends of the earth.

Poetry and Contemplation

It is difficult to label the kind of free-verse poetry that Merton wrote. All his poems are seriously pensive, as you might expect from a monk. A few lines from one titled “A Eulogy for Ernest Hemingway” on the day of the adventure novelist’s suicide by shotgun may suffice to illustrate.

How slowly this bell tolls in a monastery tower for a

whole age, and for the quick death of an unready dynasty,

and for that brave illusion: the adventurous self!

For with one shot the whole hunt is ended.

In “Poetry and Contemplation” Merton explores first the reason why contemplation had taken on a new urgency in his time; namely, because science and technology have so overwhelmed the consciousness of so many that our spiritual needs have intensified without our even knowing it. We become “interiorly empty, spiritually lost…. Contemplation is related to art, to worship, to charity: all these reach out by intuition and self-dedication into the realms that transcend the material conduct of everyday life.”

But what exactly is contemplation? It is to empty ourselves of earthly concerns in order that we might begin to think in such a way as to unite our hearts and minds with the heart and mind of Christ. This is the singular purpose of contemplation, which requires opening up the heart and mind so that Christ can enter and dwell and speak to us while we listen transfixed to his divine wisdom. God will articulate this wisdom in us, not so much in words as in the subterranean movement of grace within us; that grace being a fuel we draw upon for the active life of Christian ministry. Contemplation is not at all opposed to the active life, since action without it again makes us “interiorly empty.”

Christian poetry will be the outward contemplative sign of that interior grace at work. Unlike secular poetry, which may provide aesthetic jolts for the secular spirit, Christian poetry is intended to lift us (jolt us) closer to the experience of Christ in us. It is the same with all Christian art, whether painting, sculpture, or music. Yet the poet does well to be versed in the methods of secular art, since methods of all kinds can be a training ground and later transformed to serve our need for spiritual renewal. It is therefore even useful to be familiar with the poems of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, “who are Christians turned inside-out.” In other words, we can learn about the poems we want to write by reading the kinds of poems we would hope never to write. It would be as if, according to Aquinas, we learn about what God is by discovering what he is not!

Christian poetry is like a prayer. Was it not Augustine who said of psalm-singing that it was a sort of doubling down on the mystical experience? “He who sings, prays twice.” It will not go unnoticed by any thoughtful person that the best Christian poetry is truly a jolt, not only to the senses, but more so to the spirit. A poem expresses in rhythms and images and intuition and brevity what prose cannot. This, no doubt, is because the prosaic power of the intellect, though not absent in poetry, is blunted by the more dynamic vigor of intuition and feeling. We engage with God through a poem more heartily than we engage God in an essay (unless the essay is full of “purple” prose, as we often see in the writings of John Henry Newman).

But the authentic mystical experience of God is so far superior to the creative work of poets and other artists that its powerful breadth and depth can never be duplicated in poem or song. It can perhaps be hinted at, but the hinting itself will only prove that what is hinted at behind the artistic veil is real and not a mere phantom of imagination. Religious art, then, even if it does not participate in the contemplative act, does serve as an open invitation to the art of contemplation, a doorway in which we see through to the One who hides like a shadow … “as through a glass darkly.”

The Time of the End

Speaking of purple prose, I do not think there is so much of it anywhere else in Merton as in the following passage from “The Time of the End.”

The Evangelists, preparing us for the announcement of the birth of the Lord, remind us that the fullness of time has come. Now is the time of final decision, the time of mercy, the ‘acceptable time,’ the time of settlement, the time of the end. It is the time of repentance, the time for the fulfillment of all promises, for the Promised One has come. But with the coming of the end, a great bustle and business begins to shake the nations of the world. The time of the end is the time of massed armies, ‘wars and rumors of wars,’ of huge crowds moving this way and that, of ‘men withering away for fear,’ of flaming cities and sinking fleets, of smoking lands laid waste, of technicians planning grandiose acts of destruction. The time of the end is the time of the Crowd: and the eschatological message is spoken in a world where, precisely because of the vast indefinite roar of armies on the move and the restlessness of turbulent mobs, the message can be heard only with difficulty. Yet it is to be heard by those who are aware ….That which is to be judged announces itself, introduces itself by its sinister and arrogant claim to absolute power. Thus it is identified, and those who decide in favor of this claim are numbered, marked with the sign of power, and destroyed with it.

For Merton, it was symbolic of the end time that there was no room in the inn for baby Jesus. He came in glorious quiet and calm to be worshiped by the shepherds and three solitary kings because the crowd of humanity had no room to even notice that he was born. Great joy will precede the great sadness yet to come, as the sadness to come precedes the great judgment. The great cities harboring millions of souls are also a sign of the end time. Even the cities are crowding nature as, in our time, billions upon billions are born to plunder the land and the lakes, the oceans and the continents, the sky and earth itself. If the birth of Jesus was the Great Joy, now is the Great Tribulation. Just as then there was no room in the inn, now there is no room in our hearts and minds so crowded are they by cynicism and despair. “In the time of the end there is no longer room for the desire to go on living. The time of the end is the time when men call upon the mountains to fall upon them, because they wish they did not exist.”

But the Remnant (the few who remain after a great catastrophe) know all this is not so. The Remnant know rather that the time of the end is really the time of the beginning. For the Remnant “It is the time to ‘lift up your heads for your redemption is at hand.’ It is the time when the promise will be manifestly fulfilled, and no longer kept secret from anyone. It is the time for the joy that is given not as the world gives, and that no man can take away.”

Seeds of Contemplation

In this selection from his book by the same title, Merton talks about how God plants ever so gently in us the seeds by which we may grow our contemplation of the mysterious Being we cannot really know in the fullness of who He is. Merton points out first that we err to suppose that we can communicate with God much as we communicate with each other, or that God can and will communicate with us as a man might communicate with an animal, by mere commands. It is this terrible mistake that turns so many naive minds away from God; because, not hearing directly and immediately God’s answer to their prayers, they suppose there is no one there to answer.

God loves us and we were created to learn that love and return it. This cannot be done without our first yielding ourselves to be receptive to the seeds God plants in us, without our freely nurturing those seeds so that they are not overcome by the weeds of sin. All things we get in life are gifts of God, and not to acknowledge the gifts is to live the life of a thankless ingrate. We delude ourselves by imagining that wealth, success, even wisdom are the great goals of life. The great goal of life is the simplest one: love. Love is freely given and freely received. That love is expressed and proven in how we attend to the needs of others. The heart’s impulse, the great seed planted in us, is to attend to those needs. Refusing such is the profoundest of sins by which we prove, no matter how adamantly we insist otherwise, that we have not let that seed of contemplation grow, and we have not harvested God’s golden wheat. All this is encapsulated in the words He taught us to speak to him: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If we speak these words, they are answered. The seeds will be planted and we will hear His voice.


This selection about silence is from Merton’s book, No Man Is an Island. He begins by pointing out that God gives us language by which we may speak to each other and to ourselves about God. But as to speaking to God and hearing from God, language is useless. The reason is that the subterranean part of our souls is where God visits, and it is that part which is silent and requires silence for God to be heard. We communicate with God “in the silence of our whole being…. if you go into solitude with a silent heart, the silence of creation will speak louder than the tongues of men or angels.”

There are those who love noise, especially their own. And the louder the noise, the better to distract themselves from the shallowness within. One only has to remember that hate is loud, and love is silent. That loud Hate strikes and hurts, but silent Love embraces and heals. It is in the midst of violent noise that we find the relentless jackhammer of despair. Noise confuses, silence clarifies. “Our whole life should be a meditation of our last and most important decision: the choice between life and death.” How do we make that decision when we are surrounded by noise that distracts us from making it? People fear death because they have not made the choice for life; they have not made the choice for life (and life everlasting) because they have not dwelt in the silence that must surround such a choice. “If, at the moment of our death, death comes to us as an unwelcome stranger, it will be because Christ has also has been to us an unwelcome stranger. For when death comes, Christ comes also, bringing us the everlasting life which He has bought for us by His own death. Those who love true life, therefore, frequently think about their death.” But those who die chattering against death do so because they fear the unwelcome stranger; they have not learned the great and wonderful silence of the door that opens to eternity.

Heraclitus the Obscure

Heraclitus the Obscure was among the most revered of ancient of philosophers. He left no books to record his thoughts, but later generations persistently represented him with “fragments,” aphorisms that caught hold with such force that even Plato and Aristotle honored them as authentic. Here is the most famous of these insights into nature: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” In other words, motion and change rule the universe. According to tradition, Heraclitus named fire as the primordial element of the universe, a notion derided by Aristotle, but perhaps rescued from absurdity by the modern discovery of the Big Bang that scientists say began the universe. The followers of Heraclitus also stress the nearly mystical nature of his thoughts (of which the surviving ones barely fill up three pages), but especially the notion that opposites are not really opposite so much as two sides of the same coin. Or as Heraclitus put it, “… to God all things are good and right and just, but men hold some things wrong and some things right.”

For Heraclitus all reality is not Multiple, but really One. Thus science itself, absorbed as it is in observing so many particulars, cannot grasp the universal which transcends science; indeed, only Wisdom (the eternal Logos or Word) can do this, which is why we find no wisdom at all in science per se. Nor, if truth be known, do we find much wisdom in people; for, as Heraclitus notes, each individual is content to fall away from the fire back into the cold and sleepy world of his subjective self. There is a certain arrogance in Heraclitus, for he finally chooses to escape to the mountains to eat grass and plants. He withholds his wisdom from the people, who repay him by calling him a cynic and a crank. He is named the “weeping philosopher” because he refuses to rejoice in the mediocrity of the herd. Moreover, he despises most the science of politics, which divides people from, rather than uniting them to, each other. For all his vaunted wisdom, there was not in Heraclitus what there was in Jesus: the humble willingness to live among his sheep and teach them how to rise above themselves; the awesome plan to die for the sins of others, and by that dying to raise them up out of their subjective and persistent ignorance into the Light that would shine over and dispel their darkness. But to be fair to Heraclitus, Merton concludes: “The aristocracy in which Heraclitus believed was then not an aristocracy of class, of power, of learning (all these are illusory). It is an aristocracy of the spirit, of wisdom: one might almost say of mysticism and sanctity.” Or one might almost say, to prod Merton closer to a more personal conclusion … an aristocracy of monks.

The Waters of Siloe

There is perhaps no call for recruits to monasticism more eloquent than the plea written by Merton in The Waters of Siloe, a history of the Cistercian Order.

Is it any wonder that Trappist monasteries are places full of peace and contentment and joy? These men, who have none of the pleasures of the world, have all the happiness that the world is unable to find. Their silence is more eloquent than all the speeches of politicians and the noise of all the radios in America. Their smiles have more joy in them than has the laughter of thousands. When they raise their eyes to the hills or to the sky, they see a beauty which other people do not know how to find. When they work in the fields and the forests, they seem to be tired and alone, but their hearts are at rest, and they are absorbed in a companionship that is tremendous, because it is three Persons in one infinite Nature, the One who spoke the universe and draws it all back into Himself by His love; the One from Whom all things came and to Whom all things return: and in Whom are all the beauty and substance and actuality of everything in the world that is real.

A short excerpt from Merton’s last talk, filmed hours before his death, is available at YouTube by typing in “Thomas Merton’s Last Talk.” In this excerpt Merton asserts that communism as an economic system is not fit for anything other than the monastic life, where all monks are bound together by voluntarily embracing vows of poverty and obedience. The world at large would never submit to such vows. History shows that Merton was right. In countries where communism has been tried on a large scale, obedience has been forced, and poverty (physical and/or spiritual) has truly prevailed even though it was never embraced.

Bishop Robert Barron’s remarks during the 100th anniversary of Merton’s birthday in 2015 typify the ambivalence of many toward Merton. “He was a flawed person, he probably wasn’t a saint, but he was a great spiritual master and a great spiritual writer and someone who had a decisive effect on me and my generation.” Consistent with Merton’s view that “pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real,” it is appropriate in closing to cite a prayer by Merton, a prayer that treats of ambivalence countered by a humble, hopeful, and sacred certainty.

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Amen to all that.