Merton – On Nonviolence

The most basic principle of the ethic of nonviolence is that all life is sacred.  Such an ethic holds that each person is a son or daughter of God and that all have been created by God to live in peace and love and in harmony with nature.  The ethic of nonviolence, which is an ethic of love, roots itself in such values as care, cooperation, compassion, equality, and forgiveness.

Jesus, the incarnation of the nonviolent God, spent His life teaching and practicing nonviolence.  Jesus called His followers to embrace God’s nonviolent reign of peace by taking on others’ violence in a non-retaliatory way and accepting suffering in order to right wrongs.  Jesus taught: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to that person the other as well.  If a person takes you to law and would have your tunic, let that person have your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:38 – 41)  In a final act of nonviolence immediately before He died, Jesus cried out: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

In the 1960s, by becoming a voice of protest against various forms of violence, Trappist monk and priest Thomas Merton continued Jesus’ mission of proclaiming the gospel of nonviolence.  Merton declared:

 [By] being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world.  To adopt a life that is essentially … nonviolent, a life of humility and peace is itself a statement of one’s position. … It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of and protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny, which threaten to destroy the whole human race and the world with it.[1]

In writing about nonviolence, Merton adopted Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha, soul or love force that always attempts to overcome evil by good, anger by love, and untruth by truth.  Merton agreed with Gandhi that to live nonviolently is to root one’s life in the conviction that love is the deepest human power.

For Merton, nonviolence and contemplation are inherently related. Contemplative awareness of one’s unity with all that exists leads to the realization that one is called to practice nonviolent love for all one’s fellow humans and the rest of creation.  Merton reflects:  “Our deep awareness that we are truly at one with everything and everyone in the Hidden Ground of Love we call God demands of us that we live a nonviolent love.” [2]

As a practitioner of nonviolence, the contemplative person actively resists social evils such as racism, addiction to war, and nuclearism. In his writings on racism, Merton notes that in various periods of American history White Americans conceived of African Americans as subservient and subhuman, i.e., as non-persons.[3] According to Merton, over time the deep-seated sin of racial prejudice ate away at American society like a cancer.[4]  Merton stresses that in Christ there is no racial division; all are equal. For Merton, only by truly becoming brothers and sisters will African and White Americans eliminate racism in America.

As a staunch proponent of the abolition of war,  Merton insisted: “There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere.”[5] With this in mind, Merton advocated the development of a program of multi-national disarmament so that, instead of nations expending annual budgets of billions and billions of dollars to secure more and more armaments, it would become possible to enable the global population to have access to food, medicine, housing, and education needed to live decent human lives.

In the case of nuclear war, Merton maintained that conditions agreed upon for a just war do not apply.  Merton stated: “A war of total annihilation simply cannot be considered a ‘just war’, no matter how good the cause for which it is undertaken.“[6]  Merton believed that nuclear war would lead to the decimation of nations and the wholesale disappearance of culture.  It would be a moral evil second only to the crucifixion.[7]

For Thomas Merton, sowing seeds of nonviolence in our world is the moral imperative of our time. This entails treating each person with reverence and not allowing anger, hatred, or resentment to linger in one’s heart. Commitment to nonviolent living involves a person’s embracing love as the power that refuses to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence.  In doing so, as a follower of Jesus’ nonviolent way of being, one contributes to the development of a world freed of racism, war, and nuclearism so that sisters and brothers in the global community are enabled to join hands in abiding peace.

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, “Preface” to the Japanese Edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, trans. Tadishi Kudo (Tokyo: Chou Shuppanasha, 1966.

[2] Quoted in William H. Shannon, Silence on Fire: Prayer of Awareness  (New York: the Crossroad Publishing Co., 2000) 67.

[3] See Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence  (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968) 16.

[4] See Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace, Ed. William H. Shannon (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1997) 175.

[5] Thomas Merton, The Catholic Worker, October 1961, 1.

[6] Thomas Merton, Peace in a Post-Christian Era, Ed. Patricia A. Burton (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004) 66.

[7] See Merton, Passion for Peace, 46.

A Second Chance

We continue our series on the Mystery of Death reflecting on the physical and spiritual care of persons as they near the end of life.


Thanks, God, for letting me do it right…this time.

In August, 1973, my family returned from Puerto Rico to my home in Wisconsin.  My parents took high school students there during that summer to learn about the culture and language.  I was thirteen then; my sister was almost sixteen.  My parents and sister were linguists and absorbed themselves in the culture and Spanish.  All I wanted to do, though, was play basketball…

Life in Wisconsin returned to normal with school fast approaching, except for one anomaly—my father’s skin and eyes turned yellow.  He was diagnosed with hepatitis. Later, his health care providers correctly diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer and he underwent chemotherapy in the fall.  He lost his hair and quite a bit of weight. He would get bruised and cut from falling, and lose control of his bowels.  As an eighth grader concerned—to a fault—with image among my peers, I resented my father’s appearance and frailty.  I treated him unkindly during his time of greatest need.  Instead of being compassionate after he got “cut up” following a fall, I was mean-spirited.

My father was in and out of the hospital.  Even though I was a scrawny little runt in eighth grade, I still played football.  Once, visiting my father in the hospital, he asked me if he could see my next game.  I said, “sure!”  He asked me where to go and where exactly to sit.  I told him where the game was being held and exactly where to sit—far away from where anyone would identify him as my dad!

I do not think my image problem could be reduced simply to diminished or nullified culpability because of the early adolescent “stage” through which I was developing along with its accompanying insecurities.  Sure, maybe that was a part of it, but my pride and unkindness were tangibly real.

The last time my father was in the hospital, he was seemingly unconscious.  In tears, I apologized to him for my shameful, despicable behavior.  Did he hear me?  Sometimes hearing is the last sense to go.  I will never know, at least in this life.  Shortly after, he died.  I failed.

Fast forward: in August of 2008, I moved my mother, residing in Beaver Dam, WI, into an assisted living center in the same city because of her immobility and rapidly declining health.  As a widow, she lived in the same home in which she and my father reared me starting when I was a five-year-old.  My mother was a professional pianist and instructor whose social and professional connections extended well beyond Wisconsin.  Though my wife, children, and I resided in La Crosse, Wisconsin—almost a three-hour drive from my mother—Beaver Dam was her home.

The moving transition was strange, difficult, and necessary.  Her little assisted living apartment—with piano—was actually quite elegant.  My mother’s time there was limited, though.  Her heart was weak, and she suffered from circulatory problems.  She was, in general, weaker than she should have been. (My wife and I think this could have been due in part to an undiagnosed chronic Vitamin D deficiency.)

Then, in late October, she was taken to emergency care to treat pneumonia.  She stayed in the hospital, and was taken to a nursing home to recover.  She had a series of setbacks, and never returned to assisted living.  Her circulatory and respiratory systems further deteriorated, though she remained lucid.  Her health care team asked her if she wanted to be designated “full code”—to resuscitate her if she had a respiratory or cardiac arrest—or “DNR,” meaning “do not resuscitate.”  She could not decide, and left it to me. (My only sibling, Julianne, died in 2002.)  I became her power of attorney.

To discern correctly, I consulted the Church’s teaching on the matter and prayed…and prayed.  I knew that a full code procedure in my mother’s case would be very invasive, painful, and even crushing, literally, i.e., chest compressions could break her ribs.  In consequence of a full code, she would be sedated, unconscious, and dysfunctional with no prospect of improving a seriously declining condition.  Conversely, my mother would soon die in consequence of an arrest accompanied by a DNR designation.  Among other sources, I consulted the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment.  Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (2278).

I discerned that the DNR designation was the correct (though very difficult) choice.  With double pneumonia and accelerating weakness with difficulty breathing, she was taken out of the hospital two more times during Christmas week and placed in a nursing home where my family could visit her more easily. Then, a few days into the new year, she slipped into a dying phase.  The staff noninvasively applied an oxygen mask to support my mother’s breathing.  Their action throughout impressed me and corresponded to Church teaching, e.g., the Catechism, 2279, states “Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted.”

Because of my wife’s support and care for our children, I was able to spend significant time with my mother during the last month of her life.  This included the last few days and nights on a cot at her side, watching and helping my mother die with courage and grace.  These were among the most profound and memorable moments of my life.  I also am grateful my family could play music at her funeral, and I could give the eulogy.  I thank God for this amazing, grace-filled, moving opportunity to show my gratitude and love as a son…and for giving me a second chance.  “I thank you, Lord, with all my heart…Your love endures forever!” (Psalm 138:1, 8)

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology. Programs.

Merton – On Nature

For Thomas Merton, nature is an icon, a window into God.  In multifaceted ways, nature mirrors God’s Beauty.  Nature is epiphanic; it comes from God, reflects God, and belongs to God. Nature is a sacrament of the presence and goodness of its Creator.  According to Merton: “All creatures are like syllables in a song which God is singing.  Everything that is is just a little syllable in this song which God is continually singing.”[1]  By listening to the messages that created things convey by simply being themselves, one comes to know God a little better.

Merton, a lover of nature, believed that to awaken to nature is to awaken to God.  Merton wrote: “The world is willed and held in being by God’s love and, therefore, infinitely precious in God’s sight.”[2] The most minuscule of creatures is important to God.  Hence, according to Merton, “If you love God, you will respect God’s creatures.”[3]

Merton, who believed that silence and solitude are requisite for the prayerful consideration of nature, proclaimed: “Let me seek, then, the gift of silence and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.”[4]

In his life as a monk and, in the last few years of his life, as a hermit, Merton celebrated nature. He participated wholeheartedly in the rhythm and cadence of his natural surroundings.   He experienced kinship with birds and deer and the woods and knobs that are all part of the bioregion called Gethsemani.  Merton journaled:  “I want not only to observe but to know living things, and this implies a dimension of primordial familiarity which is simple and primitive and religious and poor.”[5]   Merton enjoyed taking dips in small lakes on the Abbey property and walking barefoot on blankets of pine needles in the woods of Gethsemani.  Merton delighted in the dawn and, in self-forgetfulness, listened closely to choruses of croaking frogs. In a letter to Rosemary Radford Ruether, Merton noted:  “One of the things I love about my life, and, therefore, one of the reasons why I would not change it for anything is the fact that I live in the woods and according to the tempo of the sun and moon and seasons in which it is naturally easy and possible to walk in God’s light, so to speak, in and through God’s creation.”[6]

Merton was an avid proponent of ecological conscience which is centered in an awareness of human beings’ true place as dependent members of the biotic community. Merton viewed sound environmental stewardship as an essential dimension of authentic Christian consciousness and commitment.  He championed the absolute importance of cherishing and reverencing all things in their beingness.  He wrote:  “As we go about the world and everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch, far from defiling, it purifies and plants in us something more of contemplation and heaven.”[7]

In 1968, in an address to a group assembled at Our Lady of the Redwoods Monastery in California, Merton issued a clarion call to his audience to participate in the festival of nature by joining in nature’s cosmic dance.  He encouraged his listeners to “Drink it all in.  Everything, the redwood forests, the sea, the sky, the waves, the birds, the sea-lions.  It is in all this that you will find your answers.”[8]  “Drink it all in” is exactly what Thomas Merton sought to do in the course of his own life.

In his poem “O Sweet Irrational Worship” Merton  testifies to his experience of communion with nature: “I have become light/ Bird and wind/ My leaves sing/ I am earth, earth…”[9] Thomas Merton now plays in the New Eden, God’s Paradise that encompasses and goes beyond planet Earth and the Milky Way galaxy.  Merton, the nature mystic, now dances with God in God’s cosmic universe and delights in joining with all those who celebrate God’s holy creation.

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, Tape 7: Life and Truth: The Merton Tapes located in the Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University, Louisville, Ky.

[2] Thomas Merton, Love and Living, Eds. Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1985) 159.

[3] Thomas Merton, The Secular Journal (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1959) 13.

[4] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: The Noonday Press, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1995) 194.

[5] Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude: The Journals of Thomas Merton Vol. 3 1952 – 1960, Ed. Lawrence C. Cunningham (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) 190.

[6]Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love, Ed. William H. Shannon (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985) 502.

[7]Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1949) 22.

[8]Quoted in “Man of Prayer” by David Stendl Rast in Thomas Merton: A Monastic Tribute, Ed. Brother Patrick Hart (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1974) 80.

[9]Thomas Merton, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1977) 344.

A Different Sort of End of Life Conversation


The season of Lent gives us the opportunity contemplate the suffering and death of Christ, that sacrifice of Himself that opened us to new life in His Resurrection. Today we begin a three-part Lenten series in which we will reflect upon the Mystery of Death by contemplating our mortality, read through the life, death and resurrection of our Savior. 


End of life conversations often gravitate toward the aspects of death and dying that frighten us: fear of the unknown, vulnerability to physical suffering, feelings of abandonment, burdens of care, concern for friends and family, division of property and family squabbling, and broken, unreconciled relationships. There is a vexing debate today about physician assisted suicide and euthanasia in order to eliminate unbearable suffering or over treatment or to avoid ongoing medical expenses.

It is spiritually ennobling to lay aside those fears at times  and speak about the end of a life well lived. That conversation shifts our focus from realities that frighten us to those that build confidence.

On February 17, Catholic author Michael Novak died at the age of 83, and many friends and colleagues offered remembrances following his death. (My own appears among several others here. Two other exceptionally good ones are here and here.) Those remembrances offer the portrait of a man who strove earnestly to understand the thinking, problems, and possibilities of our age, who developed friendships across political and cultural divides, and who advanced a practical, well-argued vision of a viable, humane, free society.

Famously, Novak thought his way from a politically liberal youthful idealism to a moderate conservatism through a careful study of how economic, political, and cultural systems actually work. This study crystallized in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in which he showed how communism demolishes the human creativity, spirit of innovation, and development of virtue that drives social life and would ultimately fail for that reason in addition to its flawed economics. He showed that democratic capitalism develops those same human abilities and has the possibility, though not the assurance, of success. After Spirit, he continued to think about how different aspects of social life, especially religion, foster a cultural, political and economic order that gives play to the human hunger for liberty.

I worked as a research assistant for Novak from 2001-2004, and as I read those remembrances, I recognized many of the stories and characteristics.  Yet in their reading, I realized that I came to know the man much better at his death than I did during his life. My thoughts naturally turned to the lessons people drew from the way he lived, especially his generosity with time and attention to others, his respect for those with whom he disagreed, his immovable fidelity to the truths that he had understood, and his willingness to concede his errors.

The end of Michael Novak’s life brought an end of life conversation, but not the sort we typically mean by end of life conversation. During his last weeks, there was the typical worrying over medical treatment, hospitalization, and his family. But there was also a conversation about the lessons of Michael Novak’s life, prepared to confront those final difficulties by confronting many others before, to build something worthwhile for his society. It is not a conversation reserved to well-known public figures, but one that profitably happens, albeit on a smaller scale, within our own families and circles of friends.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Aging, Sick, and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Merton – On the Psalms

The Old Testament Book of Psalms (the Psalter) is a hymn book that was finalized between 500 – 390 BCE.  The Psalms are a collection of religious poems of Israel that were used during liturgical ceremonies originally in the Temple in Jerusalem and in Jewish synagogues.  Thousands of psalms were written but only 150 found their way into the Psalter.  The Psalms represent the work of numerous poets; 83 of these poems bear King David’s name.

The Psalms describe God as the Holy One who dwells in the fullness of life and power.  In Psalm 99, verse 8, for example, the poet declares: “Extol the Lord our God and bow in worship before God’s holy mountain, for the Lord our God is Holy.”   The Psalms also depict God as the Eternal One.  Psalm 90, verse 2, states: “Before the mountains were created or You had formed the earth and its surface, from eternity to eternity You are God.”  God who is eternal is a refuge in times of need..  In Psalm 91, verses 1 and 2, we read: “You who dwell in the shelter of God most High, abide in the shadow of the Almighty, say to the Lord, my refuge, my fortress in whom I trust.”  Additionally, the Psalter claims God as redeemer.  In Psalm 31, verses 2 – 5, the poet prays: “Into your hands I commend my spirit, You who have redeemed me, Lord, faithful God.”

As a Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton chanted his way through the entire Psalter every week of the year.  Merton prayed the Psalms so frequently that their words took up residence in his heart and resounded in his being. The Psalms were Merton’s daily spiritual sustenance.  They were bread for his pilgrimage through life.

Merton wrote several books about the Psalms: Praying the Psalms and Bread in the Wilderness.  In these texts, Merton contends that the Psalms are perhaps the most significant and influential religious collection of poems ever written.  He notes that the Psalms encompass various facets of the human experience of the Divine, including: delight in God’s Law and peace in God’s will (Psalm 1); confidence in God (Psalms 119 – 133); mystical joy (Psalm 41); sorrow for offending God (Psalm 129); and joyful praise and adoration of God (Psalm 117).

When praying the Psalms, one raises one’s mind and heart to God and brings the substance of his or her life to the experience. Merton notes:  “We bring to the Psalms the raw material of our poor, isolated persons, with our own individual conflicts, sufferings and trials.”[i] Merton recommends that one read or recite the Psalms slowly, savoring them, meditating on their meaning, and allowing their life lessons to penetrate one’s being.  Additionally, Merton reflects that “There is … no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need of a person that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms.”[ii] Merton adds that “God will give Godself to us through the Psalter if we give ourselves to God without reserve in our recitation of the Psalms.”[iii]

The Psalter is canticum novum, the song of those reborn as new creation.  Those who pray these poems glorify God.  The Psalms build a bridge between earth and heaven, for, as Merton declares:  “To chant the Psalms … is to join in the Liturgy of heaven.  It is to praise God with something of the same love with which God is praised by the blessed spirits.” [iv] who are enjoying life in eternity with God who is Love.

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

[i] Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness (New York: New Directions, 2014) 118.

[ii] Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1956) 44.

[iii] Merton, Bread in the Wilderness, 64.

[iv] Merton, Bread in the Wilderness, 136.

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.



With Age Comes Wisdom…

As I enter the “Winter of My Life” this coming Wednesday (I turn the big 6-0!), I find myself grasping not for the riches of this world, but the riches of the world beyond; a treasure that seems to elude the young – Wisdom!

With age comes Wisdom.   -Oscar Wilde

Now that I am getting older, I can look back on my life and state unequivocally that there is truth to this statement. When I was young, I made lots of mistakes. Yet, somehow, God always redirected me back onto the straight and narrow path. For example, during my college years, I didn’t always go to Mass EVERY Sunday. There were weeks/months, when I drifted away. However, God had plans for me; “Plans for my welfare, not for woe! Plans to give me a future full of hope” (Jer. 29:11). He introduced me to a wonderful young man, who would become my husband. Our Saturday night dates started with attendance at Mass. Love got me back onto the straight and narrow path, and God is Love.

As I reached middle age I began to question my purpose for existence. I started to pay closer attention to the plan God had in mind for me. I sought understanding and direction for my life. As a result, I gained confidence in God’s plan for me. Twenty years ago, that confidence resulted in my husband and I taking a “leap of faith” by moving from the east coast to the mountain west. That leap of faith allowed me to realize what is hoped for with evidence of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Trusting in God to lead the way eventually helped me to understand the purpose of my existence: to love and be loved.

Now as I enter my “winter,” I realize that I have a few more chapters to write in the story of my life. I have found that I love sharing the wisdom I have gained over the years. Therefore, it’s time for me to share some of that “wisdom” with those coming after me on this journey we call life. So, for all you youngsters, (and that’s everyone under the age of 60), take it from me:

  1. Never stray too far from God. He has great things in store for you. Stick close to Him.
  2. Love your family and friends like there is no tomorrow, because for some, there is no tomorrow.
  3. Always trust in God to provide, even when the outcome looks impossible; for with God all things are possible (Matt 19:26). Believe in miracles. They do happen.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at

Merton – On Contemplation

In addition to our regular Sunday posts, Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, offers a weekly Lenten Reflection on the thought and spirituality of Thomas Merton, to be posted mid-week during Lent.

Thomas Merton wrote voluminously about contemplation, which he stresses is part of normal development in the spiritual life.  According to Merton, contemplation is the rendezvous between God and a person in which one gazes on God in silent adoration and tastes the very goodness of God. Merton writes:  “Contemplation, by which we know and love God as He is in Himself, apprehending Him in a deep and vital experience, which is beyond the reach of natural understanding, is the reason for our creation by God.”[i]

In his writings, Merton emphasizes that silence and solitude are integral to the development of the life of contemplation.  The contemplative person belongs to silence and lets it soak into his or her being.  In the solitude of silence, the contemplative listens expectantly for and to God and experiences the “presence of the Three Divine Persons: the Father, the source and giver of Love; the Son, the image and glory of Love; and the Spirit who is the communication of the Father and the Son in Love.”[ii]

The contemplative enjoys the first-hand experience of God’s abiding presence in, to, and for all that exists.  Regarding this, Merton declares:  “There is no awareness like the awareness of the contemplative who suddenly wakes up to the fact that … all of reality is full of God, and that the universe is swimming in meaning.”[iii]

Since God is ineffable Mystery, no quantity or quality of words can ever adequately communicate the fullness of God’s Reality.  In Figures for an Apocalypse, Merton insightfully asserts:

Not in the streets, not in the white streets
Nor in the crowded porticoes
Shall we catch You in our words,
Or lock you in the lenses of our cameras,
You Who escaped the subtle Aristotle,
Blinding us by Your evidence,
Your too clear evidence, Your everywhere.[iv]

In and through the intimate experience of God in contemplation, a person  comes to know his or her true self.  In the following way, Merton articulates the profundity of this truth:

Contemplation is a mystery in which God reveals Himself to us as the very center of our most intimate self – interior intimo me, as St. Augustine said.  When the realization of His presence bursts upon us, our own self disappears in Him, and we pass mystically through the Red Sea of separation to … find our true selves in Him.[v]

In his writings, Merton points to experiences of music, art, literature, and nature as possible contemplative entryways.  Gardening, gazing at paintings, walking in the woods or by the sea, savoring poetry, and meditative listening to a concert can be ways to become aware of God’s presence. Highlighting the contemplative solitude one can find at dawn, Merton reflects:

Besides, the dawn is by its very nature a peaceful, mysterious and contemplative time of day – a time when one naturally pauses and looks with awe at the eastern sky. It is a time of new life, new beginning and, therefore, important to the spiritual life: for the spiritual life is nothing else but a perpetual interior renewal.[vi]

Merton’s writings offer insights into the nature of both active and passive (infused) contemplation.  Active contemplation involves the experience of God’s presence in the ordinary activities of life. This kind of contemplation entails the “deliberate and sustained effort to detect the will of God in events and to bring one’s whole self into harmony with that will.”[vii] Merton notes that vocal prayer, meditation, and the sacraments (especially celebration of the liturgy) nourish the life of active contemplation.

Merton describes passive contemplation as a person’s groping in darkness toward God and God’s seeming darkness becoming brilliant light. During this experience that is beyond thoughts, words, or concepts, the contemplative is conscious that she or he is at-one with God in the embrace of intimate love.  Merton suggests that one can prepare to receive the gift of this type of contemplation by seeking solitude, not being anxious about the progress of one’s prayer, and accepting trials and crosses in life.

The contemplative seeks to integrate experiences of contemplation and action.  Love is the hinge that unites action and contemplation. Regarding this, Merton reflects:  “Action is charity looking outward to others and contemplation is charity drawn inward to its own divine source.”[viii] Contemplative persons who embrace God’s love in faith understand that they are responsible for sharing their faith in God by loving others.

Aware of the interdependence of all that exists, the contemplative seeks to  respond to the needs of others and the concerns of the world.  Merton stresses that the socially responsible contemplative prayerfully critiques the “war machine, bombs, violence, racism, materialism, and physical and spiritual poverty in contemporary Western life.”[ix]

To conclude, according to Thomas Merton, through contemplation one who journeys in faith experiences the freedom that comes from becoming more and more centered in God.  Life simplifies; one’s focus becomes God alone.  The most important thing in the life of contemplation is desire to receive God’s gifts. Those who enjoy experiences of contemplative communion with God need to offer their utmost gratitude for the grace of tasting the truth that the universe indeed swims.

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

[i] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1949) 144.

[ii] Merton, “The Inner Experience: Kinds of Contemplation (IV),” Cistercian Studies 18.4 (1983) 54.

[iii] Thomas Merton, “The Gift of Understanding,” The Tiger’s Eye 6 (December, 1948) 41.

[iv] Merton, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1977) 179.

[v] Thomas Merton, The New Man (New York: The Noonday Press, 1996) 19.

[vi] Ibid. 

[vii] Merton, “The Inner Experience (IV),” 45.

[viii] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1978) 70.

[ix] Anne E. Carr, A Search for Wisdom and Spirit: Thomas Merton’s Theology of Self (Notre Dame, In.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) 6.