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Home » Lives of Spiritual Unfolding » Thomas Merton: Seeds of Contemplation

Thomas Merton: Seeds of Contemplation



In the late 1940s, in the aftermath of a terrible war and as the world struggled to rebuild itself, confident in technology's capacity to help in the task, a surprising thing happened: a young monk's autobiography quickly became a bestseller. Not only did it attract a wide reading audience, it awakened vocations too: the Trappists as well as other religious orders were overwhelmed by the number of postulants to the monastic life who responded to his narrative. Thomas Merton shared his story with the world in The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948. From that time until his death in 1968, he continued to write voluminously.

His writings on the life of the spirit, on prayer, contemplation and inner life, solitude, and humanity's alienation from and possible reconciliation with God, never failed to strike a responsive chord in his diverse reading public. A monk's austere and demanding existence was apparently fertile ground that produced the fruits for which many hungered in the midst of their plenty.

It may be that the primary factor in the appeal of Merton's writings is his characteristic of penetrating in clear language to truth. His works lead the reader to a depth of self-understanding through a sharing of his own inner discoveries.

Merton's diligent studies of Christian saints, mystics, and theologians was never expressed in his writings as a sterile erudition. The reader always gets the impression that "here is something alive, Merton is telling me something real, he is sharing profound discoveries that have significance for my life here in the 20th century." In the same way, his eremitic calling did not separate him from his fellow humans who toil in the world, but in fact united him with them. The body of his published works chronicles a growing contact with the ground of being, and he makes it clear that the inner life of the spirit is the heritage of all humankind.

Although there were many apparent obstacles to walking the path he perceived as being his path-that of a contemplative monk-all elements in his life added up to create in him a fully realized human being. His European beginnings, his wild youth and rebellious college days, his vocational self-doubt, the growing awareness that the mere form of religious dogma was insufficient for his spiritual unfolding, the struggles with the Church censors over his writings, the prolonged delay of being allowed to go into hermitage, the demands placed upon a solitary monk by a world hungry for his words, the physical deprivations he had to suffer as the price of his hermitage, and, finally, the trip to the East and meetings with monks and spiritual leaders from non-Christian traditions-all contributed to the message he felt so naturally compelled to share with his fellow sojourners in the modern age.

He was a monk in a Christian religious order dating from the Middle Ages, yet he was modern. He was a contemplative who treasured solitude, yet he knew this world very well and shared not only his "thoughts in solitude" but also his observations on contemporary times. His purpose among us was to report on the deepest meaning of human existence, and he did it with wit and humor and always with love.

Given the depth of his writings and the response they evoked in hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries, it should serve as a useful purpose to look at some of the factors that were involved in his awakening to the spiritual vocation.

Having arrived at a turning point of his life, Thomas Merton made the decision to become a Trappist monk. This was not done on a whim nor was it an instantaneous conversion. In his autobiography, published when he was thirty-two, he details some of the chance fortuitous events that prepared him for his spiritual vocation. Merton's discovery of his vocation involved a process of self-recollection that was kindled by seemingly unimportant or irrelevant events. Some people consider such ultimately poignant encounters to be miracles, others consider them to be coincidence, while, for most people, these potential turning points in life go largely unnoticed or ignored. Merton himself came to view these fortuitous events as the work of grace.

The first example of these fortunate events is related by Merton as having happened even before his birth: his father had been tempted to join an Antarctic exploring expedition that passed through the town in France where he lived with his wife, but he ended up not going. This "circumstance" resulted in Thomas' birth in 1915. His mother was a devout Quaker, yet was also open-minded in her child's religious upbringing. She consciously tried to keep from molding him according to her own ways. Merton's comment in his autobiography on this is probably accurate: "My guess is that they thought, if I were left to myself, I would grow up into a nice quiet Deist of some sort and never be perverted by superstition." An example of her singular approach to assure that her son thought for himself is the way she used her own death as a teaching for him. Thomas was six years old when she died, and she would not allow the child to see her in the hospital in the last few weeks. Instead, she wrote him a note telling him about what was happening, which he read after her death. He was thus left to contemplate this major event in his life on his own and without the immediate emotional confusion that might have accompanied a closer participation.

His father was an artist and an independent man, and his work meant a meager existence for his family. He taught Thomas that art was not for entertainment nor for the pleasure of the senses but that it was a means of contemplating the wholeness of creation. At age eleven, Tom attended school at the Lycée Ingres at Mountauban, France. Among the rough children there, he assumed the fashion of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. But, characteristic of his quick intelligence, he shed those biases readily when he met Catholic and Jewish youngsters who were much more refined than his classmates. He was already writing by this time, having written three romance novels with some of his schoolmates.

In the summer of 1927, he met Monsieur and Madame Privat, who were the people with whom he and his father boarded in Murat, France. Merton's description of them from The Seven Storey Mountain is that "they were saints in that most effective and telling way: sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner, sanctified by obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine-but skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form from grace within, and from the habitual union of their souls with God in deep faith and charity." The Privats were deeply concerned at young Merton's lack of faith. Although he was only 12, he argued with them that it was a matter of individual conscience, and they did not contend with him. Later, he wrote that he owed much to them because of their silent and patient prayers for him.

Thomas, with his father and his brother, went to England in 1929. His father got very sick and had to be hospitalized, seeing little of his boys in the months which preceded his death in 1931. Thomas suffered very much those years and it was hard for him to recover from such a loss. He was then quite alone in the world, a young man left on his own. As a result, his freshman year, spent at Cambridge, was a dizzy and boisterous one. He felt the only thing of value that he got out of Cambridge was an acquaintance with Dante's works.

He returned to his maternal grandparents in Long Island and went to Columbia in the winter of 1935. Merton had been attracted at this time by the Socialists who were on campus. He relished the idea of a classless society. His course selection the next year reflected this intellectual social-political concern. One day, thinking he was in the room where the first meeting of his history course was to be held, he found that it was actually a course on Shakespeare and he started to leave. But, just by chance, he reconsidered, and ended up taking the course. It was this "coincidence" that led to his friendship with Professor Van Doren. Merton was immediately impressed with the "heroic humility" of his English professor. Van Doren was one of several people at Columbia who influenced him in the direction of using the mind to penetrate the meaning of things through perfect honesty and objectivity. From Van Doren, Merton was weaned from the narrow perspective of philosophy and economics through studying Shakespeare, which dealt with human drama in the fundamental realms of life, death, sorrow and eternity. It was also in this class that Merton became acquainted with Bob Lax, who became his good friend and was to have a pivotal influence on his life.

Merton describes Lax as being born a great contemplative. He had a deep spirituality but, lacking practicality, he followed Merton's lead in activities. It was Bob Lax who inspired Merton with the desire to read Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means. In the entry for November 27, 1941, The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, Merton declares, "until I read this book, Ends and Means, four years ago, I had never much heard of the word mysticism. The part he played in my conversion, by that book, was very great." The main thrust of the book was that evil means will not accomplish good ends. One needs detachment in order to act with conscious will rather than be subject to the inferior material and animal forces of one's nature. Asceticism and prayer are the means to freedom.

For Merton this was revolutionary. Yet he was not ready to end his wild, playboy ways. Indeed, as a result of being so busy with his various forms of socializing, he became seriously ill.

It was also through his friendship with Bob Lax that he encountered a shy little man with a huge smile, a yellow turban with Hindu prayers written all over it in red, and on his feet, sneakers. Bramachari was his name, and he earned Merton's respect quickly by his good humor and his inability to criticize in a judgmental way, even when making statements about the hypocrisy of most western sects. When Merton told Bramachari of his difficulty in relating to the eastern mysticism he had studied as a result of Huxley's book, Bramachari referred him to the beautiful Christian mystical tradition. He specifically told Merton he should read St. Augustine's Confessions and The Imitation of Christ by St. Ignatius. Aside from putting Merton in touch with the western mystical tradition, Bramachari left an impression on him that contributed to Merton's openness to all kinds of spirituality, resulting in his later works bridging eastern and western mysticism.

Merton felt the call to a spiritual vocation with increasing intensity in his last year as an undergraduate. He was drawn to the Catholic Mass and had an intimate feeling for the mystical body of the Church. He had just suffered a personal life crisis, and all his activities drained him to the point of exhaustion. At one point in his reading of Lahey's Gerard Manley Hopkins, the questions in the text asking the reason for Hopkins' hesitation about converting to Catholicism seemed to be a movement within himself. Merton felt a voice moving him to take the decision he knew he must. He went to the church where he had obtained some books and told the priest he wanted to become a Catholic. Yet a few months after his baptism, he realized that he was living in the same manner as he had before. He pleased himself before all else, all his acts interfering with the work of grace in his soul. His "conversion" consisted in an intellectual change only.

The state of the world at the end of the 1930s, no less than the state of his own soul, led Merton to a vocational crisis. As he and Lax were walking down the street arguing about something, Lax asked Tom what he wanted to be anyway. Thomas responded not that he wanted to be a well-known book reviewer for the New York Times, or a successful businessman, or some such profession, but he said that he wanted to be a good Catholic. Unable to explain what he meant by that, he was told by Lax that what he should say is that he wanted to be a saint. Merton protested, asking how it would be possible for him to be a saint. Lax, who was not a Catholic, remarked that all that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one.

By September of that year, Merton was thinking, "I am going to be a priest." One evening, he went to a church service, feeling that he was called there to answer a question and that his whole life depended on his decision. Thus, he answered in prayer: "Yes, I want to be a priest, with all my heart I want it. If it is Your will, make me a priest." He wrote about these prayers in his autobiography: "When I had said them, I realized in some measure what I had done with those last four words, what power I had put into motion on my behalf, and what union had been sealed between me and that power by my decision."

However, it was a few years before his decision was actualized. He talked to people about his vocation and investigated several religious orders in the Catholic Church. He decided upon the Franciscan Order, for he did not believe he was capable enough to follow the rules of a strict order like the Cistercian. Within a few weeks of entering the novitiate, he was beset with many anguished doubts. He spoke with the superior, expressing his concern that his past life made him unworthy. His superior suggested that he withdraw his application. Confused and feeling miserable, he went to a church for confession. He wasn't able to explain himself and the priest got his story all mixed up. The priest was very hard with Merton, telling him in very strong terms that he certainly did not belong in the monastery, still less in the priesthood. When Thomas went out of that church, he felt completely broken in pieces. The only thing he knew was that he shouldn't consider the vocation to the cloister as a possibility.

Yet, as happens so often in life, what seems a tragic moment ends by redirecting one's life for the better. When reading his autobiography, one has the impression that a black curtain closes before him at this moment of his life. Yet, after that everything was a step forward to the discovering of his true vocation. The first thing he did was to buy the breviaries and decide: "I am going to live like a religious." And he did.

Not long afterwards, Merton went to the Cistercian monastery at Kentucky for a couple of retreats. After that he knew what his vocation was. Not without fear of not being accepted, he asked to enter the monastery. This time he was accepted. At last, in December, 1941, he entered the Cistercian Trappist monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky, taking vows of Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life; thus, undertaking a life in the strictest of the monastic orders in the Catholic Church.

He submerged himself in spiritual life with all his love. He penetrated into the path of contemplation with the security and happiness of the ones who know what their vocation is, of the ones who know where they are called. He demonstrated how much he loved his vocation during the next twenty-seven years of his life.

He continued to have a weak constitution and was sick for long periods, yet he never left the strict routine of the monastery or complained. And he had to wait many years before he was allowed to follow his yearning of solitude in hermitage. He was faithful to his vow of obedience by accepting the function of Master of Novices at Gethsemani and fulfilling the responsibilities of that office for ten years, all the while his soul yearning for complete solitude. He joked about this situation but never complained about it. He finally was allowed his hermitage if he would build it himself. Community life was the norm at Gethsemani and the Abbot did not want Merton's eremeticism to be too appealing. So his cabin had only a small fireplace for heat against the harsh Kentucky winters. Even though sickly, Merton did not complain during the three years he spent in hermitage there. He found his solitude.

It is more than interesting to note that the succeeding Abbot himself made use of the hermitage and that the eremitic is once again a respected vocation among the Cistercians.

During those three years, Merton deepened his spiritual search, especially his studies in Zen which he had begun seriously in the late 1950s. He continued to write, and much of his correspondence was extensive and worldwide. One of those with whom he corresponded was Dr. D. T. Suzuki, the Zen authority. Merton desired to learn Chinese, but the pressure of his other work made him give it up. He read voraciously all the books supplied to him by various sources-librarian friends, Dr. Paul K. T. Sih (who supplied him with the Legge translation of Chinese Classics), and other scholars. One of his close brothers at Gethsemani, Patrick Hart, comments that Merton's growing knowledge and interest in the East was clearly "providential preparation for his Asian trip." As with Merton's other realizations and understandings, he had shared his discoveries about Eastern thought with the reading public through numerous books on various topics: The Way of Chuang Tzu, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Mystics and Zen Masters, The Significance of the Bhagavad Gita. According to Dr. Suzuki, Merton had become one of the few Westerners who really understood Zen.

Merton was drawn to his studies in Eastern mysticism and religion and understood them so well because of his intimate affinity for, understanding, and personal experience of the mystical tradition of his own Christian heritage. At any rate, by August of 1968, he was engaged in planning for his trip to Asia. He had received permission to travel away from Gethsemani (a dispensation from the rule that a monk does not leave his monastery because of his vow of stability) to attend a fall conference in Bangkok organized by a Benedictine group aiming for monastic renewal. The conference was to be a gathering of all Asian monastic leaders, and Merton had been invited to deliver one of the principal addresses. This trip was the culmination and fulfillment of his studies of the Eastern traditions. His itinerary included visits to many Buddhist monasteries as well as Christian missions. He accepted another invitation to speak at an interfaith Spiritual Summit Conference in Calcutta shortly before the Bangkok meeting and also hoped to be able to meet with the Dalai Lama and other Eastern religious leaders.

The publication of his journal kept while he traveled throughout Asia on that occasion, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, reveals his excited enthusiasm in encountering not only the leaders but the monks, the countryside, the hermits, and the teachings. It is evident that he continued reading during the trip; there are numerous entries in the journal summarizing thoughts and quoting from texts of various different religious approaches to the spiritual life. In it we also learn firsthand the insights he gained from the people and places he encountered along the way. This material reveals why his ecumenicism was so comprehensive of all religious traditions.

Immediately after delivering his talk entitled "Marxism and Monastic Perspectives" in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton died of an accidental electrocution in his hotel room. Thus, his life had begun in Europe and ended in Asia. The first twenty-six years of his life were spent in gathering experiences, many of which were painful, and from which he learned disattachment and came to the renouncement of his outmoded ways of relating to the world and his own life. The last twenty-seven years of his life were spent in applying that same renouncement in fulfilling the vows he had made as a member of the Trappists and in realizing his unique individual way of knowing the divine. He died in the East that he had come to know through its mysticism, his last actions involving efforts to bridge the East-West chasm that his own understanding had transcended.

Merton's life and written work rings with authenticity, almost continuously, like a bell: clear, precise, unadorned. His words announce again and again that inner call that all human beings receive to unite with the divine. The radiance of his work emanates from the essential message of his life: in a continuous process of perfecting his relationship with life and with God, Merton disappears. His life was a work which transformed the man into the message.

Merton yearned for solitude, he loved souls, he loved the divine. All he really wanted in life was to fulfill his contemplative vocation. Yet, he was told to write and, faithful to his vow of obedience, he shared his experiences and the fruits of his contemplative life with the world. This was his great sacrifice, which he happily accepted out of love for souls. His clear revelations about the spiritual and mystical life answered and continually answer a need of us all in this century: to make contact with the divine through our own means.

But the full extent of his practical self-effacement is not readily noticed in his writing. He removes himself so effectively that even in his numerous journals, it is the voice of all humankind that speaks from them. We learn remarkably little about his personal life.

Perhaps our best understanding of Merton comes from the way he related to his vows. As a Cistercian monk, his vows are probably summed up in the vow of Conversion of Life. Merton made of this vow a living reality-disappearing as a separate personality and transforming his life into a testament for humankind.

Through the fidelity to his vocation and the humility that nourished his spiritual insight, his writing continues today to answer the great spiritual needs of our modern age.



Reprinted from Walking with Contemplation.


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