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.