Merton – On Simplicity of Life

In the 19th century, such notables as Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bronson Alcott conducted experiments in simple living.  In the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi lived simply in order that others might simply live.  During the same century, Thomas Merton sought to embrace and live out the Cistercian monastic charism of simplicity of life, which is rooted in the Rule of Saint Benedict.  According to Merton, “The very essence of Cistercian simplicity is the practice of charity and loving obedience and mutual patience and forbearance in the common life which should be on earth an image of the simplicity of heaven.”[1]

As a Cistercian monk, Merton studied, wrote about, and sought to live out Saint Bernard’s understanding of simplicity.  According to Merton, Saint Bernard’s teaching on simplicity of life is valid for all Christians, not simply for Cistercians.  Reflecting on Saint Bernard’s teaching, Merton notes that when Adam and Eve fell from grace their pride was the birth of sin and the immediate ruin of human simplicity.  Duplicity (doubleness in self) then concealed each person’s natural simplicity.

Merton explains that, for Saint Bernard, in order to reach the desired return to one’s original, natural simplicity, one must first develop simplicity in the sense of sincerity that includes the awareness of one’s shortcomings.  Next is simplicity in terms of humility, which involves self-acceptance as one dependent upon God for all things, especially one’s very existence.  For Saint Bernard, a further form of simplicity is that of the intellect.  Regarding intellectual simplicity, Saint Bernard stresses that the one thing necessary in life is knowledge and love of God and that the only way a person can truly know God is by loving God.  Additionally, as Saint Bernard indicates, there is also the matter of simplicity of will that manifests itself in one’s embracing the common will, which is the good of all.  For Cistercians, simplicity of will includes obedience of the monk to his abbot who, in monastic life, is considered Christ’s representative, and submission to one’s brothers in community.  Regarding monastic obedience, Merton reflects: “If we want union with God, let us obey our superiors and give in to one another, and seek to do what is profitable to others, not what happens to suit our own pleasure or convenience.”[2]

According to Saint Bernard, a person who embraces a life of simplicity is able to progress to the experience of union of his or her will with God’s will in a marriage of love.  In this union, which Saint Bernard describes as a kiss, the person who is immersed in God has no other interests or desires but those of God.  In such a mystical marriage, the person participates in God’s uncreated and utter Simplicity.

During his life as a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton strove to live out the Cistercian charism of simplicity of life. In his final years, as a hermit Merton took up residence in a cinder-block dwelling on the monastery property.  There, Merton developed a daily simple routine of prayer, study, some writing, preparing and consuming  meals, washing dishes, and cutting wood.   In the greater silence of his lodging in the woods, Merton sought mystical union with God.

Also during the latter part of his life, Merton became interested in the community called the Shakers.  The Shakers’ simplicity of life was what most attracted Merton to this celibate community.  According to Merton, the Shakers and the Cistercians were “born of the same Spirit.”[3]  In a letter to Edward D. Andrews, Merton wrote:

I am deeply interested in the thought that a hundred years ago our two communities were so close together, so similar, somehow in ideals and yet evidently had no contact with one another. … I feel all the more akin to them [Shakers] because our own Order, the Cistercians, originally had the same kind of ideal of honesty, simplicity, good work, for a spiritual motive.”[4]

Merton recognized in both the Shakers and Cistercians a lifestyle centered on the rhythmic interplay of prayer, work, and study.  Both communities looked upon work as a sacred endeavor, a participation in God’s ongoing work of creation, entered into for the praise and glory of God.  Both groups also shared a commitment to peaceful living and the sharing of goods in common.  The motto: “Hands to work and hearts to God” that Shaker foundress Ann Lee coined Merton deemed applicable to the Cistercian as well as the Shaker way of being.

In his writings, Thomas Merton stresses that the Cistercian and Shaker commitment to simplicity of life provides a clarion call to humans to embrace sustainable ways of being.  With respect to sustainable practices, I believe Merton would insist that all be done by humans in order to grow in greater union with God by loving all of God’s creation.  Finally, I am convinced that Thomas Merton would argue that any sustainable actions of the human community be entered into in order to live simply so that others, including Earth itself, might simply live and that simplicity of life is always a work in progress.

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, The Spirit of Simplicity (Trappist, Ky.: Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1948) 124.

[2] Merton, Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard, 143.

[3] Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life, Ed. Lawrence S. Cunningham (San Francisco, Calif.: HarpercCollins, 1996) 287.

[4] Letter of Thomas Merton to Edward Deming Andrews, dated December 12, 1960 in A Meeting of angels: The Correspondence of Thomas Merton with Edward Deming and Faith Andrews, Ed. Paul M. Pearson (Frankfort, Ky.: Broadstone Books, 20087) 12-3.

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