Day 2: Who was Thomas Merton…
“We stumble and fall constantly even when we are most enlightened. But when we are in true spiritual darkness, we do not even know that we have fallen.”
I’ve shared this quote because, to me, it personifies Thomas Merton, the man. He was real. He understood and communicated that a spiritual journey is not one that leads to enlightened perfection but rather leads to a real life well lived. That is the quality that made Merton an overnight “sensation” but then produced a body of work that is still relevant 50 years after his death. His ability to share his deep introspective thoughts in a way that was REAL is interesting and approachable to a broad audience. He was down to Earth yet wrote on topics that are academic and philosophical (way deep). He was clearly brilliant but was so grounded and secure in who he was and what he believed that his writings show no signs of being conceited or inflated. He wasn’t writing to convince or persuade others to believe what he believed. He was simply writing to share his point of view…… to share his “Seeds of Contemplation” –his thoughts on how to live life well.
So who was Thomas Merton? Born in France in 1915 to two artists, Merton’s upbringing did not carve out the path toward the spiritual enlightenment he would experience and share in his writing. Void of religion and stability Merton’s youth resembled that more of a vagabond than a monk. His mother died when he was 6 years old. His father often traveled for long periods of time leaving him with grandparents or friends to raise him. His father died when he was 15 and thus began a season of self indulgence which Merton declared that “I believe in nothing.”
Academically astute, Merton went to Cambridge University but graduated from Columbia in New York. He desired to stay in the world of academia as an English professor, a path which he began walking down not knowing a higher power had another path in the works for him. As Merton tells his story in The Seven Story Mountain what stands out is the way he communicates his total transformation from agnostic to monk as one that called to him instead of one he choose for himself. Throughout his story it is as if an external force was calling him to himself; calling him to the path of becoming “the famous Thomas Merton”. As a teenager he traveled to Rome. He could not shake the beauty of the architecture of the cathedrals and explored many without showing interest in the liturgy. A little later, the interior life of the church began calling and as he explains it, he felt an urge he could not explain to get baptized, but was still firmly secure that his path was in education not religion.
Later Merton was prompted to visit the Abbey of Gethsemane and begrudgingly went. The life within the walls of the monastery could not have contrasted more to Merton’s extroverted life and personality. The Trappist monks he encountered inside vowed to live a life in silence and strict discipline. Merton was not one bit interested in this way of life, until well…. he was. The next visit he made to Gethsemane was a permanent one. After the prompting of a senior monk to share his story, he wrote and later published his autobiography and his life of silence took a sharp turn as his ultimate path proved to be one that combined his earlier love of teaching with his new passion, God. The teaching he had a solid grounding in while the God part, he was quickly learning. The year following the publishing of his autobiography he became an ordained priest and officially began his season of the act, writing and sharing of his contemplation.
The reason that Merton speaks to me so deeply is that he was a “seeker” not a “knower.” He shared his thoughts. He didn’t persuade others to believe his thoughts. I’d guess his goal was to light a fire of contemplation in each of his readers that encouraged them too to seek knowledge and wisdom about what it means to live a life well lived. For it is one thing to be spoon fed information and something entirely more rich to discover it on our own. That is what his words do for me. And his path also deeply speaks to me. It is unexpected, one Merton himself couldn’t dream up. One that called to him as he listened and dared to follow. What is the path God has for us that we can’t ourselves think up. The path that would surprise us just as much as Merton’s surprised him. Maybe when we plan out our life and hold tightly to that vision we miss out all together on another, more epic story that is wanting to be told? Maybe that unknown path begins with some contemplation? And if one wants to learn about contemplation, I know of a man that wrote lots and lots on the subject.
“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.” – Thomas Merton