Merton – On the Desert Experience

The desert is a recurrent theme in the writings of Thomas Merton. Interesting is the fact that Merton probably saw a real desert in his life only when he visited the Benedictine monastery of Christ in the Desert in Chama canyon in New Mexico immediately before departing on his final journey – his pilgrimage to Asia.

The word “desert” conjures up images such as sparse life, hunger and thirst, heat and cold, temptation and testing, and failure and triumph.  Metaphorically, life is a kind of desert experience wherein encounters with both godly and diabolical reality constantly occur and offer opportunities for spiritual growth and purification.

In the 4th century C.E., early Christian Fathers fled to the deserts of Egypt and Syria to learn how to trust God alone. Merton reflects:

What the Desert Fathers sought when they believed they could find ‘paradise’ in the desert was the lost innocence, the emptiness and purity of heart which belonged to Adam and Eve in Eden.  Evidently they could not have expected to find beautiful trees and gardens in the waterless desert, burned by the sun.  Obviously they did not expect to find a place, among the fiery rocks and caves, where they could recline at ease in shady groves, by cool running water.  What they sought was paradise within themselves, or rather above and beyond themselves.  They sought paradise in the recovery of that ‘unity’ which had been shattered by the ‘knowledge of good and evil.’[1]

In the desert wilderness, the hermit Fathers wrestled with their inner demons.  They responded to God’s grace to unmask their false, self-centered selves in order to find their true identity in Christ, their Divine Lover.

The life of the early Desert Fathers required inner stamina, psychological and spiritual maturity, and the renunciation of their ego-selves.  According to Merton, the sayings and stories of these men stress that the desert experience requires an experienced guide; simplicity of life; the integration of contemplation and labor; unreserved commitment to gospel living; and a radical willingness to strike out into the unknown.

For Merton, rather than being an experience of alienation and isolation, the desert experience is a school of compassion.  In the inner ground of one’s desert being, one embraces one’s true self and, consequently, profoundly identifies and empathizes with others in their struggles and sufferings. Regarding this, Merton reflects:

What is my new desert?  The name of it is compassion.  There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion.  It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily.  It shall become a pool; it shall bud forth and blossom and rejoice with joy.  It is in the desert of compassion that the thirsty land turns into springs of water and the poor possess all things. [2]

One does not need to make his or her way to a particular place to experience the essence of the desert experience.  Merton stresses that the world one inhabits, with all its issues and complexities, is the locale wherein one encounters  God and wages battle with evil forces within and without oneself.  Merton encourages contemporary spiritual seekers to embrace the desert in their lives and, in so doing, journey along the pathway that leads to shedding their false ego-selves in order to discover their true, compassionate selves in God!

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[1] Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, (New York: New Directions, 1968) 117.

[2] Thomas Merton, Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer, Ed.  Jonathan Montaldo (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995) 463.



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