Merton – On Silence and Solitude

Silence is a key theme in Thomas Merton’s life and writings.  During the first Eucharistic celebration in which Merton participated, he was very moved by the silence that was integral to the experience.  In 1935, Merton attended a Quaker meeting and was impressed by its silent nature.   Regarding his first visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941, Merton reflected that the silence there enfolded him and spoke more eloquently to him than any words possibly could.[1]  During his twenty-seven years as a monk at Gethsemani, Merton frequently took solitary walks on the extensive property there and quietly contemplated the beauty of the nature that surrounded him.  Encounters with birds, deer, frogs, and landscape such as ponds, knobs, and thick forests sent Merton’s spirit soaring because, for him, nature was a window on God’s incredible creativity.

In 1968, while in the Himalayas, Merton spoke of his several retreat days there in the following way:  “I appreciate the quiet more than I can say. This quiet, a time to read, study, meditate, and not talk to anyone is something essential in my life.”[2] Furthermore, at Polonnaruwa (in Thailand) close to the time of his death, Merton was completely overtaken by the profound experience of gazing into the silent, knowing faces of the Buddha sculptures there.

For Merton, silence is a basic human need.  Silence cleanses the spirit; it heals and rejuvenates one’s being. According to Merton, without some level of chosen silence, language becomes a clanging cymbal; it is mere sound and fury!  Regarding the necessity of silence, Merton asserts: “If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, will never become anything, and, in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless.”[3]

In his writings, Merton discusses exterior silence as the absence of sound which can lead to interior silence that entails the stilling of thoughts, desires, and judgments.  Entrance into the quiet of interior silence prepares one to commune with God in solitude. In solitude one is alone in conscious awakeness to God.  One is in tune with the Logos who emerges from the solitude of the Father and the Spirit, who is the solitude of love between the Father and the Son.  In solitude one, becomes absorbed and immersed in the immense and fruitful silence of God.  According to Merton, solitude is a “country whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.  You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.”[4]

Hermits testify to the truth that solitude has meaning and value.  In the following ways, Thomas Merton refers to his experience of solitude in his hermitage on the property of the Abbey of Gethsemani:

Steady rain all day.  It is still pouring down on the roof, emphasizing the silence in the hermitage and reinforcing the solitude.  I like it.[5]


I really need the quiet, the silence, the peace of the hermitage. [6]


I am just beginning to really get grounded in solitude, so that if my life were to be on the way of ending now, this would be my one regret.  Loss of the years of solitude that might be possible.  Nothing else.[7]

Merton understood the silence and solitude of the hermitage as privilege and responsibility.  From his hermitage, Merton reflected on the nexus of solitude and loving his fellow monks:  “I can see that there is a fruitful and happy obligation on my part of love them here in the hermitage and pray for them, and to share their burdens in solitude … to believe that I can be for them a source of healing and strength by prayer.[8]

According to Thomas Merton, all who are serious about their spiritual lives need the experience of some degree of silence and solitude, which are not luxuries but, rather, necessities  in life.  In one of Merton’s prayers, he states: “In solitude I have at last discovered that You have desired the love of my heart, O my God, the love of my heart as it is.[9] In solitude, one disappears into the loving, fruitful silence of God and is transformed by the experience!

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] See Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968) 321.

[2] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal, Eds. Naomi Burton Stone, Patrick Hart and James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1973) 158.

[3] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar Straus & Cudahy, 1958) 91.

[4] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1949) 58.

[5] Thomas Merton, Love and Living, Eds. Naomi Burton Stone, and Patrick Hart (New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1979) 4.

[6] Merton, Love and Living, 294

[7] Thomas Merton, Learning to Love: The Journals of Thomas Merton vol. 6, 1965 – 1967, Ed. Christine M. Bochen (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) 33.

[8]Merton, Learning to Love, 365.

[9] Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 121.

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.

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.

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.



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.

Setting Relationships Right

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared on March 16, 2014.

Among Catholics who take the season of Lent seriously, I’ve noticed a number of different approaches. There are the subscribers to Lent as boot camp. Boot campers decide to fast not just from one food they love, but from most foods they love. Added to this, they decide to get up an hour earlier than normal to pray or go to Mass, and they are going to give money to anyone they meet who needs help.  A second group makes one serious commitment and day by day spends a little more time thinking about God, remembers they are not eating fried foods and discovers the joy of crunchy vegetables, and starts collecting their change each day so as to make a contribution to a worthy group. A third group is pretty darn casual about the whole thing, happy that, over forty days, they may remember not to eat meat on a Friday or two, will get to confession, and will go all in for the campus ministry or parish hunger awareness campaign.

Many of us, me included, have a love-hate relationship with Lent. It can so easily become more of a contest than a season of prayer. Thomas Merton once remarked that his brothers, in wanting to outdo one another in the severity of their fasts, became a bunch of grouchy, miserable men. Far better, Thomas thought, to feast and give thanks to God for his abundance than to fast and make yourself and others miserable. How is that holy? Thomas wondered.

The ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving which define the season of Lent are about making right the three most important relationships in the life of a Christian, God, self and others. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that “the interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms,pray fast give fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434). Rather than a contest with our best and worst selves, we are invited to think about what will make our relationship with God stronger. Where do we need to bring some balance into our lives so as to be healthier and what relationships are asking us to be more giving; emotionally, practically or monetarily?

I’ve learned from my own experience that Lent is most fruitful when I take some time to think about how I can deepen my relationship with God. What am I eating or drinking or doing (or maybe not doing) that is really not healthy or good for me? And where can I be more generous with the people who are part of my everyday life?  Answering these questions opens up a number of practices that will make a difference over the course of forty days. My goal is to make these things a habit, not doing them for forty days and then be done, but rather to discover at the end of 40 days, they have become easier and have found a permanent place in my daily routine. If done well, I also am more aware of the depth and breadth of God’s love and mercy, because whether I am successful or not, I am saved. Jesus died for me so that my own failures and sins are not the end of my story.

Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Resting in God’s Will: Shedding the false self, revealing the true self

Two roadsAll of us at some point or another have been at a crossroad, and determining which path to take in our lives can be daunting. We can overwhelm ourselves – How do I know I am choosing what God wills of me? Yes, frequent prayer is essential! However, is that God’s voice I hear or my own? Yes, listening to God through others is important, but how do I differentiate between the conflicting, but sage, voices of family, friends, and colleagues? Are they just telling me what I want to hear? Yes, inner reflection is equally necessary. Nevertheless, how do I recognize the truth in that inner voice? God is not a micromanager, though some of us may wish otherwise! In addition to consulting my spiritual advisor, I frequently turn to the writings of Thomas Merton (who, by the way, would have turned 100 this year) for all things spiritual.

I find Thomas Merton’s insights not only helpful to myself in wrestling with decisions, but also in guiding those discerning God’s will for their vocation, particularly the high school seniors with whom I have had the privilege to work this year. Thomas Merton, OCSO (1915-1968), a convert to the Roman Catholic faith and a Trappist monk from Our Lady of MertonGethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, wrote more than 70 books on the spiritual life, peace, social justice, and ecumenism. Additionally, his autobiographical work, The Seven Storey Mountain, is on par with St. Augustine’s Confessions. In his works, he builds on the Church’s rich mystical and contemplative traditions, bringing his insights to contemporary readers. His writings have inspired numerous others, including Fr. Basil Pennington, OCSO (one of the architects of centering prayer, along with Fathers Thomas Keating and William Meninger), Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM (author and founder for the Center for Action and Contemplation), as well as Fr. James Martin, SJ (author and editor-at-large for the Jesuit magazine, America), to name just three.

Merton’s writings speak to Christians and non-Christians alike and can be an unwavering influence in maintaining a prayerful presence and discerning God’s will. Merton teaches us that contemplative prayer can bring not only inner peace, but also profound insight. I have found meditation and contemplative prayer, specifically the simple method of centering prayer, helpful in the discernment process – no matter the magnitude of the decision! More importantly, Merton’s explanation of the “true self and false self” construct can be beneficial to unifying your will with God’s will – to hear what God is calling you to do. Illuminating Christ’s teaching that we must “lose ourselves to find ourselves” (see Mk 8:35), Merton penned and explained the term false self, which Keating, Rohr, and others further expounded upon. Briefly, the false self (think “ego”) is who you present to the world, an illusion according to Merton that is outside the reach of God, whereas your true self is the person you are before God, that which is made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27).

There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1961). 

In the silence of contemplative prayer, I can quiet my mind so I can lose my ego that depends on control, pride, power, and recognition and which is often envious, judgmental, and/or worried. I shed my false self and reveal my true self. In the midst of the silence, if I find my true self, I rest with God. In that rest, I often hear God’s will. I experience God in the present moment – I am open to God’s will, even though it may run counter to my own desires.

Merton’s words, in what is known as the “Merton Prayer,” provide insight on the mindset we should have going into any discernment process (it is also an excellent prayer to begin a period of contemplation).

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 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. (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1956)

When a question of discernment arises, set aside time to spend with God in silence whether it is Eucharistic adoration, meditation, contemplative prayer, or centering prayer. Quiet your mind, shed your false self, reveal the passion of your true self…trust and wait in hope for God to lead you by the right road…rest in God’s will.

Fawn Waranauskas teaches Catholic Spirituality for the Catholic Catechesis Program at Saint Joseph’s College Online.