Contemplation and Action in Thomas Merton

By Labrie, Ross | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Contemplation and Action in Thomas Merton

Labrie, Ross, Christianity and Literature

Part of Thomas Merton's influence as a spiritual writer--and he is considered be many to have been the most important spiritual writer in America in the past hundred years--stems from his recommendation of contemplation for all human beings instead of only for those in monastic orders. Nevertheless, Merton believed the achieving of the deepest level of contemplation required a sacrifice of the active life, in his case the life of writer and artist, a sacrifice that might be deemed a failure if one considers that he had authored more than fifty books before his accidental death in 1968. Moreover, from within his monastery, Merton felt connected to those who were out in the world pursuing social justice. In order to balance the demands of contemplation and action, Merton divided contemplation into different levels, recognizing that some of these were more compatible with action than others.

Although Merton burned some of his unpublished writings prior to going into the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the Trappist monastery he entered in 1941, it wasn't long before he found himself writing and publishing poetry and penning a best-selling autobiography. Moreover, he was assigned writing tasks by his abbot. Nonetheless, from at least as early as 1949 Merton found himself longing for greater solitude, where he could include in his life, as he put it in his journal, some "real and solid contemplation" (Entering 330). In 1953 he received permission from his abbot to occupy a tool shed, an abandoned trailer, on the monastery grounds during the afternoons. In 1960 a hermitage was erected for him, a hermitage that was only fully completed so that Merton could live in it fulltime in 1965. In the meantime, he lived a busy life first as a Master of Scholastics and then as a Master of Novices throughout the 1950s and into 1965. Ironically, by 1968 Merton found that too many visitors were flocking to his Kentucky hermitage, and he set off in search of another location, visiting possible sites in New Mexico, northern California, and Alaska. Before he could make up his mind, he died on a trip to Asia, a trip that included visiting Hindu ashrams in northern India and Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka before addressing an international meeting of monks in Thailand.

What Merton slowly came to weigh regretfully was that the Trappists, even with their rule of silence in the 1940s, were essentially a communal order with little room for solitaries. For this reason, his asking for greater solitude was only very gradually accepted by his abbot, and Merton found himself looking around through correspondence with a number of people for a more solitary place than he had in Kentucky. In 1956 James Fox, his abbot in the 1950s and for most of the 1960s, brought Merton into contact with a psychoanalyst and author, Dr. Gregory Zilboorg, who showed little sympathy for Mertoffs situation, telling him that his desire for a hermitage was false and vain. "You want a hermitage in Times Square," he told Merton, "with a large sign over it saying: HERMIT" (Mott 297). The encounter threw Merton into a paroxysm of anger and self-doubt without, it goes without saying, in any way resolving the conflict between his Trappist vocation and his desire for solitude. Merton linked his own search for solitude with that of his contemporaries in mainstream society whom he perceived as subjected to endless distraction by the institutions that surrounded them. With silence and solitude, Merton believed, the self could gradually be heard above the collective clamor and at that point one could discover a spiritually fertile emptiness that Merton paradoxically referred to as the "unborn flower of nothing," Having shed external and distracting versions of itself, the newly born true self could reveal at its core a "paradise tree" (Emblems 52).

Although Merton had been baptized according to the rite of the Church of England in southeastern France where his parents happened to be living at the time, he was essentially raised in a secular environment. …

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