Contemplation and Action in Thomas Merton

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

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Although Merton burned some of his unpublished writings prior to going into the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the Trappist monastery he entered in 1941, it wasn't long before he found himself writing and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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Contemplation and Action in Thomas Merton
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.