Thomas Merton

Still a contemplative voice in the modern world
Still a call to balance contemplation and action

In our first blog on the subject of contemplation, we began by noting Laurence Freeman and his reminder of the necessary elements of contemplative prayer.

* Interiority: going into “our inner room” (Mt 6:6)
* Silence: prayer is about brevity, simplicity, and trust
* Calmness: freedom from anxiety and obsession with material things
* Mindfulness: focusing on God’s Kingdom before all else
* Presentness: living in present moment, free from fear of the future

With Father James Martin (Jesuit author, editor-at-large American Magazine) and I dare say countless others, I can honestly say that it’s no stretch of the imagination that Thomas Merton changed my life. As a young coed I devoured his books and followed the path of authors and ideas where his books led. I determined to go to meet him in Kentucky after graduating, but just before I left I learned that he had died two years prior (He died 27 years to the day after his entrance into the monastery while on a visit to Thailand to speak at an international meeting of monks). I did go to the monastery anyway. At the time, I was actually angry with him for dying, as if he had died purposely just to frustrate me. Initially I stayed a week and while there I struck up a friendship with one of the monks who was a contemporary of Merton. That friendship was a treasure to me until Brother Cassian died some 30 years later.

Before his conversion, entrance into the Trappists’ Order and while still a young man and rising academic, he established a special relationship with the Servant of God, Dorothy Day. Day encouraged him to dare to act on the deepest urgings of the Spirit. For him, she modeled the contemplative acting in the modern world. But he felt drawn to a radical silence. Ironically, his voice would be heard around the world and, in fact, is still resounding today. That really is the whole point of my comments here today. Merton’s voice, the message of his words and life are more meaningful today than ever. The choice along our various paths to holiness is not essentially between the Active and Contemplative life, but the blending of those elements in the unique manner of our personal response to the Call to Holiness.

“If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives.
Let us not fear the responsibilities and the inevitable distractions of the work
appointed for us by the will of God.”  (Thoughts in Solitude)

Merton knew the struggle of integrating his involvement in and sense of responsibility for the world with his attraction to and need for a solitary, intellectual, contemplative life. Being by nature a man of extremes, at least in his youth, he felt the pull of both and fought both internal and external forces that pulled him toward one and then the other throughout his life. Finding a balance was a theme of his life. In the early years at the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane he wrote of the battle between Brother Louis and Tom Merton; he was, fact, both of them and each represented the antagonism he experienced in his search for the balance.

“A purely mental life may be destructive if it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for actions. The activity proper to man is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.”  (Thoughts in Solitude)

His conviction that solitude is a prerequisite for contemplation and that solitude then gives rise to the expression of goodness in Action was emphatically expressed in these words…

“When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude
it can no longer be held together by love:
and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority.
But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due,
then society in which they live becomes putrid,
it festers with servility, resentment and hate.” (Thoughts in Solitude)

While still at the threshold of this New Year it is well to be reminded of the need for solitude and contemplation in the midst of our busy lives and a world that so needs healing. Let us renew our pursuit of holiness through the integration of Contemplation and Action.

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.

Prayer by Thomas Merton

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.

Works Cited

Freeman, Laurence. “Jesus.” Journey to the Heart: Christian Contemplation through the Centuries,” Edited by Kim Nataraja, Orbis Books, 2011, pp. 1-20.
Merton, Thomas. Thoughts In Solitude. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

Jesus was a Contemplative

This week, we begin a four-part series on the saints and the contemplative nature of spirituality. There is no better place to start than with Jesus Christ.

Christ on the Mount of Olives, by Josef Untersberger


Jesus was a contemplative… and the best teacher of contemplation! Jesus is the expert and our very source of contemplation. Western Christianity historically identifies more with action than with contemplation, and though action is important, action cannot reach its full fruition without contemplation. Contemplative prayer involves (Freeman 20):


  • Interiority: going into “our inner room” (Mt 6:6)
  • Silence: prayer is about brevity, simplicity, and trust
  • Calmness: freedom from anxiety and obsession with material things
  • Mindfulness: focusing on God’s Kingdom before all else
  • Presentness: living in present moment, free from fear of the future

Contemplation is “a path, an experience, a lifelong practice, an expansion and deepening of consciousness” (Freeman 9). Recovering the elements of contemplation is crucial to our relationship with Christ, our relationship to others, and to the recognition of the Divine Presence in all of creation. Contemplative orders recognize this reality and that contemplation is not about the solitary but community, not about a fervor to change but a capacity to coexist in search of wisdom – a solidarity with all creation. Turning to Christ as THE teacher of contemplation, we can understand the wisdom imparted for us all to discover.

As evidence of Christ’s contemplative nature, we certainly can point to the various times Jesus goes off to pray either alone or with a few of his disciples (e.g., Lk 6:12, 9:18, 22:39) teaching us that “religion without contemplation lacks an essential part of holiness” (Freeman 6). Just going through the motions of our faith – attending weekly Mass, saying set prayers, volunteering at the token event to help the poor – without a contemplative dimension gets us only so far and misses the target of taking to heart Jesus’ message of love and care for all. Jesus, though, teaches us more than, “go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father in secret” (Mt 6:6), as imperative as that is to our spiritual life.

As good spiritual directors know, asking the right question (without offering answers) opens an individual to fruitful contemplation and reflection. Jesus uses this ‘open question’ technique asking, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29, Mt 16:15). This question, so personal, so direct, carries us into the contemplative dimension, and like Peter we are tempted to give the set, “correct” answer missing Jesus’ point that there is no “correct” or “incorrect” answer. Contemplation helps you find your individual answer. Jesus, the ultimate paradox, helps us hold contradictions and see that the way to God’s Kingdom is through letting go of power and control, through forgiveness, through compassion, through solidarity with others in need, through childlikeness, and through wisdom. Jesus as our contemplative teacher, knows the right question to ask to lead us to the Kingdom. As Laurence Freeman states, “We have to pay attention to the quest in the questioning” (13).

Jesus also shows us, though, how to marry contemplation and action. If we turn to the story of the two sisters Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42), we find Martha and Mary symbolizing action and contemplation respectively – the two halves of our soul (Freeman 3). As Jesus visits, Martha is the one who is scurrying around (like so many of us do daily) stressed over the many tasks at hand to prepare for her guest. Mary on the other hand is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening attentively to his every word. Perhaps more shocking than Martha’s telling Jesus what to do (“Tell her then to help me.”) is Jesus’ calm reply that she is unduly stressing herself and that “Mary has chosen the better part.” (Lk 10:42). What Martha forgets (a mistake made by cultures, religions, as well as individuals) is that Mary is working as well – being still and listening. Here Jesus is teaching us the supremacy of contemplation over action, for our being comes before our doing. Contemplation helps move us beyond our egos and self-importance. Balancing our non-action and action is not easy, but our wholeness depends on it. We must have a deep sense of who we are in Christ before our actions can truly be effective. Like Jesus, the perfect example of the harmony between action and contemplation, we must withdraw at times to pray and contemplate.

Though it is difficult for us to achieve the right equilibrium, Jesus shows us how to balance action and contemplation – how to express non-violence, show compassion, and live in the divine image in which God made us. His delegalization of sin, “associating it with grace and forgiveness, not with exclusion and punishment” (Freeman 17), transforms our inner quest which in turn transforms the outward reality. In teaching us contemplation, Jesus gives us the means of seeing God in each person and throughout creation. He gives us the means to “not be afraid” despite conflict, anxiety, and obsessions. Jesus teaches us how to live in the present moment balancing contemplation and action – living the contemplative life in a hectic world.

Fawn Waranauskas teaches spirituality for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Works Cited

Freeman, Laurence. “Jesus.” Journey to the Heart: Christian Contemplation through the Centuries,” Edited by Kim Nataraja, Orbis Books, 2011, pp. 1-20.