Thomas Merton's Desert Spirituality

By Schiffhorst, Gerald J | Cithara, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Thomas Merton's Desert Spirituality


Schiffhorst, Gerald J, Cithara


"I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man's heart... "1

When, in December, 1941, Thomas Merton left the hills of western New York and the campus of St. Bonaventure University, where he had been an instructor in English, to set out for the Abbey of Gethsemani in the Kentucky woods, where he would live for the next twenty-seven years as a Cistercian monk of the strict (Trappist) observance, he was beginning the most important journey in a life that was a series of journeys, both spiritual and geographical.

What he would later call the real journey of life - the interior journey - eventually took on a fuller dimension that was to make him into one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century. Interestingly, the spiritual significance of the sacred journey is the topic of a major essay in historical theology that Merton contributed in 1964 to the relatively new journal Cithara (inaugural issue, 1961), in which he does more than report on his extensive research into the history of Christian pilgrimage: he outlines the fundamental human journey where the self is abandoned to God. In explaining the work of early Irish monks, Merton is also talking about his own (and others') spiritual journey as one of "liberty and abandonment to God" (p. 9). The monk's peregrinado, or "going forth into strange countries," means trusting totally in Providence and "abandoning himself to the Lord of the universe"(p. 7). Clearly, Merton is concerned here with a major theme found in much of his work: the emptying of the self in solitude and silence in the symbolic landscape of the desert. Part of this spiritual program, as he wrote in Cithara, is the "complete integration of his [man's] inner and the outer life" (p. 17).

In the years before Merton's rich literary flowering in the 1960s, he underwent a personal desert experience of psychological anguish, anxiety, and depression. David D. Cooper, writing in Cithara's twentieth-anniversary issue devoted to Merton, notes the period of withdrawal, solitude, alienation, and despair that resulted in his discovery of his "true self." This period, says Cooper, was in large part one of struggling to reconcile his vocation as a monk with his even deeper calling as a writer. The main thing about these difficult years, mainly 1947-56, was that "much to Merton's credit he persisted." He did not give up the desert struggle, and the result was that he "began to speak with the voice of prophetic and eschatological protest" (p. 13).

Now, seventy years after his trip from Olean to Louisville, in the fiftieth anniversary issue of Cithara, it seems appropriate to review Merton's contribution to Christian spirituality by examining the unifying role of the desert tradition in his work. It is possible to see in the historically significant image of the desert a key to the recurring issues that constitute his unique and influential contribution to the literature of contemplative prayer.

I

Although Merton would not see an actual desert until a 1968 visit to New Mexico, he had long been aware of the desert as a symbolic landscape and had studied the desert fathers, as his translation and commentary on their sayings in The Wisdom of the Desert indicates.He knew that these fourth-century hermit monks were in the biblical tradition, beginning with Sinai, the wellspring of Judaism and Christianity When, generations later, Moses encountered God in a burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai, he was inspired by this vision to lead the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and into this desert, where, as summarized by Sara Maitland in ? Book of Silence, for forty years their harsh deprivation required a total dependence on God and a "direct and abiding encounter with the divine" (p. 49). So crucial is the desert asa place where God can be found that Jesus, like Muhammad later, withdrew into the desert to prepare himself for his ministry.

The eremitic life, Maitland says, the experience of living in the desert, with its discipline of asceticism and renunciation of the ego, "created an aspiration and understanding that has run as a thread throughout the history of Christian spirituality" (p. …

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