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.