THOMAS MERTON (1915-1968) A BRIEF BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

“O my brother, the contemplative is the man not who has fiery visions of the cherubim carrying God on their imagined chariot, but simply he who has risked his mind in the desert beyond language and beyond ideas where God is encountered in the nakedness of pure trust, that is to say in the surrender of our poverty and incompleteness in order no longer to clench our minds in a cramp upon themselves, as if thinking made us exist. The message of hope the contemplative offers you, then, brother, is not that you need to find your way through the jungle of language and problems that today surround God: but that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons. The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and risk the sharing of that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you, then you will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations because it is too close to be explained: it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God’s spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth One Spirit. I love you, in Christ.” (“A message of contemplatives to the world”, August 21, 1967, as requested by Pope Paul VI). Thomas Merton is acclaimed as one of the most influential American spiritual writers of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into twenty-eight languages. Merton wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race. After a rambunctious youth and adolescence, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism. On December 10, 1941, he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), one of the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order. The twenty-seven years he spent in Gethsemani prior to his untimely death in 1968 brought about profound changes in his self-understanding. This ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena, where he became, according to Daniel Berrigan, the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960's. Referring to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time, Merton was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he called "certainly the great example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." For his social activism Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk.

During his last years, he became deeply interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk's trip to the Far east in 1968, the Dalai Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. It was during this trip to a conference on East-West monastic dialogue that Merton died, in Bangkok, on December 10, 1968, the victim of an accidental electrocution. By a sad coincidence the date marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of his entrance into Gethsemani.

MERTON'S MESSAGE AND ITS VALUE TO INDIVIDUALS AND SOCIETY
Thomas Merton's remarkable and enduring popularity indicates that he speaks to the minds and hearts of people searching for answers to life's important questions. For many he is a spiritual guide, for others a place to retreat to in difficult times. He takes people into deep places within themselves and offers insight to the paradoxes of life. He wrestles with how to be contemplative in a world of action, yet offers no quick fix, no ten easy steps to a successful spiritual life. At the core of Thomas Merton's spiritual writings is the search for the " true self " and our need for relationship with God, other people and all of creation. He finds that when we are apart from God we experience alienation and desolation. He concludes that we must discover God as the center of our being to which all things tend and to whom all of our activity must be directed. Merton's interests were prophetic, for they are the major issues that confront society today, and they illustrate the alienation he foresaw. Whether it is war, social and racial injustice, violence, or religious intolerance, the source of the problem is Merton's Hermitage that man "has become alienated from his inner self Photograph by Thomas Merton which is the image of God." The degree of humanity's alienation is reflected in the unrelenting violence of our time. Wars and acts of nations around the globe caused the death of more than 500 million people in the 20th century. Closer to home, schoolchildren kill their fellow students in schools, and incidences of racial and domestic violence and child abuse occur with appalling frequency. The violence is all around us. We must change direction or perish. This requires a social conversion, a turning away from destructive behavior. The first step in this turning is a transformation of consciousness and Thomas Merton is a preeminent guide to us in this first step.

There is in the world today a thirst for God. People are seeking a reversal of the trends toward consumerism and materialism, prejudice and violence. They are discovering that what one does must be a means of both self-fulfillment and service to others. Throughout history, the role of spiritual master has been recognized and valued. Thomas Merton is a spiritual master whose influence crosses generations and religious affiliations. His message offers us bracing and brotherly advice on how we can be conscious and attentive to God, so that we may hear the answers to the difficult questions in our lives. Thomas Merton's message and life can help us build a new paradigm for living, one that integrates the contemplative in each of us with our external activities. His message can become the source of deep change in a world of superficial solutions, a window through which we see the possibilities for a peaceful and just future.

A Brief Biography
In his classic autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), Thomas Merton told the story of his life up to his entry into the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani. He was born in France in 1915, but his parents moved to Long Island in 1916. From his grandfather, young Thomas was imbued with hostility toward Catholicism. He was sent to boarding schools in France and England. His father died of a brain tumor while Thomas was still young. Reading Blake enkindled an interest in religion, which was fortified by a trip to Rome. After a year at Cambridge, Merton matriculated at Columbia. There he was influenced by Professor Mark Van Doren, and by some of his fellow students such as Robert Lax. After completing a master's thesis on Blake, Merton was finally moved to embrace Catholicism by reading the letters of Cardinal Newman to Gerard Manly Hopkins. After teaching for a brief period at St. Bonaventure's In New York, Merton entered the Trappists at Gethsemani. Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions, 1949) was one of Merton's most influential spiritual works. It resembles Pascal's Pensées and Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ by being a collection of brief but telling thoughts on the spiritual life. The work pivots on the three terms: human being, God, and creatures. In it the fervent young monk teaches that Christian life culminates in contemplation, provided one becomes detached from things (which are good in themselves) and accomplishments and finds in solitude a oneness with all humanity (whom one must love in self-forgetfulness). Even when one has advanced along the road to holiness, there are obstacles; in particular: pride and acedia. Absorption in God, forgetfulness of all else is the goal. Ascent to Truth (1951) is Merton's presentation of the spiritual teaching of John of the Cross. In 1962 Merton published New Seeds of Contemplation. This book contained almost everything in the original book, but with many additions. By that time Merton had spent fifteen more years at Gethsemani, and he was much more acquainted with the spiritual struggles of others within and outside the monastery. In an introductory note he is careful to reject the idea that contemplation is something one person can teach another, much as one would teach another how to play tennis. He also acknowledges that his way to God is not everyone's, and that his book will appeal to some who have no religious affiliation. If so, he will be glad since he owes a great debt to such people.

In the 1960's Merton's thoughts turned more and more to the state of the world. He was active in anti-war movements and in the front-line of social criticism. He eventually received permission to live as a hermit at Gethsemani. He also thought of living at Camaldoli or in Alaska, but nothing came of these plans. Another of his interests was inter-religious dialogue. Although his superiors were reluctant to let him travel (the idea of Fr. Louis stopping in a tavern to enjoy a beer -- something he claimed to like to do -was as unthinkable to them as it was to the Merton of Seeds of Contemplation), he traveled to Bangkok to attend an East-West religious dialogue. The story of his travels on this occasion is to be found in A Vow of Conversation, a wonderful window into the soul of the mature Merton. There, in 1968, he was accidentally electrocuted by the fan in his room.

Quotations
Thomas Merton's Prayer 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.

Our real journey in life is interior; It is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary to respond to that action.

Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time.This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God, and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it

maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It's impossible. The only thing is that we don't see it. Thomas Merton

Hell is alienation from the true self, which is of God.

If you do not know your own identity, who is going to identify you?

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many good projects, to want to help everyone and everything, is itself to succumb to the violence of our time.

The contemplative waits in silence and when he is “answered”, it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by this silence itself, suddenly, inexplicably, revealing itself to him as a word of great power.

If you love truth, Be a lover of Silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God And will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God…

Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and your heart has turned to stone.

To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us -- and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.

The truth I must love in my brother is God himself, living in him. I must seek the life of the Spirit of God breathing in him.

The Christ we seek is within us, In our inmost self, Is our inmost self, And yet infinitely transcends ourselves. Christ himself is in us as unknown and unseen. We follow Him, We find Him, And then He must vanish, And we must go along without Him at our side. Why? Because He is even closer than that. He is ourself.

...Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths where neither sin nor desire can reach, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way there would be no reason for war, for hatred, for cruelty… we would fall down and worship each other.

Our knowledge of God is perfected by gratitude: We are thankful and rejoice in the experience Of the truth that He is Love.

Looking for God is like seeking a path in a field of snow; if there is no path and you are looking for one, walk across it and there is your path.

Our discovery of God is, in a way, God’s discovery of us. We know Him in so far as we are known by Him, And our contemplation of Him is a participation of his contemplation of Himself. We become contemplatives when God discovers Himself in us. At that moment, the point of our contact with Him opens out and we pass through the center of our souls and enter eternity.

The monastery is a school – a school in which we learn from God how to be happy. Our happiness consists in sharing the happiness of God, the perfection of His unlimited freedom, the perfection of His Love. What is to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning is the same thing, for at the very core of our essence we are constituted in God's likeness by our freedom, and the exercise of disinterested love – the love of God for His own sake, because He is God.

Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which people can take refuge.... Houses of God filled with his silent presence. There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily.

I wonder if there are twenty people alive in the world now who see things as they really are. That would mean that there were twenty people who were not dominated or even influenced by any attachment to any created thing or to their own selves or to any gift of God, even to the highest, the most supernaturally pure of His graces. I don't believe that there are twenty such people alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart.

Writings
Merton's Prayer The True Self Merton's Prayer 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. Thomas Merton, "Thoughts in Solitude" The True Self "It is not humility to insist on being someone that you are not. It is as much as saying that you know better than God who you are and who you ought to be. How do you expect to arrive at the end of your own journey if you take the road to another man's city? How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading somebody else's life:? His sanctity will never be yours; you must have the humility to work out your own salvation in a darkness where you are absolutely alone... And so it takes heroic humility to be yourself and to be nobody but the man, or the artist, that God intended you to be. You will be made to feel that your honesty is only pride. This is a serious temptation because you can never be sure whether you are being true to your true self or only building up a defense for the false personality that is the creature of your own appetite for esteem. But the greatest humility can be learned from the anguish of keeping

your balance in such a position: of continuing to be yourself without getting tough about it and asserting your false self against the false selves of other people." Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which people can take refuge.... Houses of God filled with his silent presence. There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily. Thomas Merton, The New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions Publishing Co. 1961, p. 100-101 The Seven Storey Mountain "I had come very far to find myself in this blind alley: but the very anguish and helplessness of my position was something to which I rapidly succumbed. And it was my defeat that was to be the occasion of my rescue."...It was the end of November. All the days were short and dark. Finally on the Thursday of that week, in the evening, I suddenly found myself filled with a vivid conviction: "The time has come for me to go and be a Trappist." It was a strange thing. Mile after mile my desire to be in the monastery increased beyond belief. I was altogether absorbed in that one idea. And yet, paradoxically, mile after mile my indifference increased, and my interior peace. What if they did not receive me? Then I would go to the Army. But surely that would be a disaster? Not at all. If, after all this, I was rejected by the monastery and had to be drafted, it would be quite clear that it was God's will. I had done everything that was in my power, the rest was in His hands. And for all the tremendous and increasing intensity of my desire to be in the cloister, the thought that I might find myself, instead, in an army camp no longer troubled me in the least. I was free. I had recovered my liberty. I belonged to God, not to myself; and to belong to Him is to be free, free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this earth, and the love of things that are in it. What was the difference between one place and the other, one habit or another, if your life belonged to God, and if you placed yourself completely in His hands? The only thing that mattered was the fact of the sacrifice, the essential dedication of one's self, one's will. The rest was only accidental. That did not prevent me from praying harder and harder to Christ and the Immaculate Virgin and to my whole private litany, St. Bernard, St. Gregory, St. Joseph, St. John of the Cross, St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, the Little Flower and all the rest to get me by hook or crook into that monastery. And yet I knew that if God wanted me to go to the army, that would be the better and happier thing. Because there is happiness only where there is coordination with the Truth, the Reality, the Act that underlies and directs all things to their essential and accidental perfections; and that is the will of God. There is only one happiness; to please Him. Only one sorrow, to be displeasing to Him, to refuse Him, to turn away from Him, even in the slightest thing, even in thought, in a half-willed movement in appetite: in

these things, and these alone, is sorrow, in so far as they imply separation from Him Who is our life and all our joy. And since God is a Spirit, and infinitely above all matter and all creation, the only complete union possible, between ourselves and Him, is in the order of intention: a union of wills and intellects, in love, charity. (406-407) THE SWEET SAVOR OF LIBERTY The monastery is a school – a school in which we learn from God how to be happy. Our happiness consists in sharing the happiness of God, the perfection of His unlimited freedom, the perfection of His Love. What is to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning is the same thing, for at the very core of our essence we are constituted in God's likeness by our freedom, and the exercise of disinterested love – the love of God for His own sake, because He is God. The beginning of love is truth, and before He will give us His Love, God must cleanse our souls of the lies that are in them. And the most effective way of detaching us from ourselves is to make us detest ourselves as we have made ourselves by sin, in order that we may love Him reflected in our souls as He has re-made them by His love. That is the meaning of the contemplative life, and the sense of all the apparently meaningless little rules and observances and fasts and obediences and penances and humiliations and labors that go to make up the routine of existence in a contemplative monastery; they all serve to remind us of what we are and Who God is – that we may get sick of the sight of ourselves and turn to Him; and in the end we will find Him in ourselves, in our own purified natures which have become the mirror of His tremendous Goodness and of His endless love. . . (409-410) From Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain THE END

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