Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Thomas Merton: A Life of Contemplative Writing

Monastic Life


“Ask me not where I live or what I like to eat . . .
Ask me what I am living for and what I think is keeping me from living fully that.” 
Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (1958)


Thomas Merton [1915-1968]: On the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani in New Haven, Kentucky, in the early 1960s. Merton, who was known as Fr. Louis, joined the monastic order in 1941 and remained there until his death in 1968.
Photo Credit: Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University

An excellent and thoughtful article, by Emily Esfahani Smith, in The New Criterion brings to light the life of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who spent his adult years at Our Lady of Gethsemani, part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a Catholic community in the rolling hills of Kentucky.

In “Fetters & Freedom” (Oct 2016), Esfahani Smith writes:
In 1941, a man much like today’s pilgrims traveled to Gethsemani for a silent retreat. He was twenty-six years old and was working as an English teacher at the time. Several months after his retreat, he quit his job, returned to Gethsemani, and spent most of the remainder of his life there as a monk. When he first arrived at Gethsemani as a young man in 1941, he was an unknown seeker. He planned to remain anonymous, cloistered in the monastery for the duration of his life. But by the time he died in 1968, Thomas Merton had become one of the most influential Christian apologists and spiritual writers of the twentieth century.
Like most people, Merton led a life stretched between the competing demands of the sacred and the profane. In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton tells the story of his path to monasticism. True freedom, he realized during that journey, paradoxically requires restraint and discipline; the monastic life, rather than the dispersions of modern life, was his avenue to this goal.
It does sound appealing, or at least initially, does it not? The noise and distractions around us, surrounding us, assaulting us and engulfing us can suffocate our soul. The desire for solitude is strong in some, a few, if you will. As does residing within the bounds of the sacred in the service of God or Heavenly Father.

This conflicts with the desire for social engagement and, of course, recognition as to who we are, which might give answer to why Merton wrote as he did. It is not that we require unfettered freedom to do good, but a mind and a heart directed toward a meaningful goal. Counter-intuitively, this might require less life planning and more letting go.

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For more, go to [NewCriterion]