Thomas Merton

Three Days of Thomas Merton – Day 3

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Day 3: A Few of Merton’s “Seeds”

Thomas Merton, the scholar and monk, was at his core a comtemplative- a deep thinker. He produced a massive quantity of written work in his 53 years. If there was a theme to his contribution it was most likely his efforts to communicate how to live a full and meaningful life through contemplation.  In other words, how to connect to God in a way that transforms a person from who they think they are into the person God created them to be. And no one embodies this personal transformation better than Merton himself.  Agnostic to Trappist monk, no one can deny he practiced what he preached. He shared his wisdom less to persuade his readers to believe his beliefs, and more to plant a seed in a person’s thoughts that require that person to tend to and water.  I love Merton because I believe he believed himself to be less the master gardener that the masses should listen to and learn from and more simply the sharer of his personal gardening experiences and gained wisdom for the purpose to motivate others to become their own master gardeners.  Here are a few of his seeds of contemplation…….

“Perhaps I am stronger than I think I am”

“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.”

“The BEGINNING of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not twist them to fit our own image.  Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves in them.”

“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.”

“The least of learning is done in the classrooms.”

“If you want to study the social and political history of modern nations, study hell.”

“When ambition ends, happiness begins.”

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?  This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

“We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.”

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.  The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”

“Our IDEA of God tell us more about ourselves than about Him.”


Three Days on Thomas Merton – Day 2

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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

Three Days of Thomas Merton – Day 1

Day 1: An Introduction

“In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for ‘finding himself’.  If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence.” – Thomas Merton

There are few historical people that I admire more than Thomas Merton. The catholic priest, Trappist monk, social activist, mystic, and scholar is interesting for our purposes here at Whølehearted not only for his body of work on faith, but also for the story of his life.  Merton is unique in that it was his story, his autobiography, that catapulted him into the spotlight to become what he would call with a bit of annoyance, “the famous Thomas Merton”. At 31 he wrote an autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, that put him on the radar.  Hugely successful he would then continue to write 60+ additional books and hundreds of poems and articles before his death 50 years ago today at the age of 53 (December, 10, 1968).  

It’s unusual that a autobiography would proceed a brilliant career instead of conclude it.  So what was it about his beliefs that made him one of the most influential modern spiritual thinker; one of four “great Americans” that Pope Francis singled out in a message to Congress in 2015?  And what was it about his story that made him famous BEFORE anyone knew all that much about his beliefs? This week I’d like 3 days to share a bit about Thomas Merton. Today, this simple introduction.  Tomorrow, his story. The last day, a few of his “seeds of complempation”.