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"Merton's life and written work rings with authenticity, almost continuously, like a bell: clear, precise, unadorned. His words announce again and again that inner call that all human beings receive to unite with the divine. The radiance of his work emanates from the essential message of his life: in a continuous process of perfecting his relationship with life and with God, Merton disappears. His life was a work which transformed the man into the message"




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Home » Lives of Spiritual Unfolding » Thomas Merton

Seeds of Contemplation




Yet, as happens so often in life, what seems a tragic moment ends by redirecting one's life for the better. When reading his autobiography, one has the impression that a black curtain closes before him at this moment of his life. Yet, after that everything was a step forward to the discovering of his true vocation. The first thing he did was to buy the breviaries and decide: "I am going to live like a religious." And he did.

Not long afterwards, Merton went to the Cistercian monastery at Kentucky for a couple of retreats. After that he knew what his vocation was. Not without fear of not being accepted, he asked to enter the monastery. This time he was accepted. At last, in December, 1941, he entered the Cistercian Trappist monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky, taking vows of Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life; thus, undertaking a life in the strictest of the monastic orders in the Catholic Church.

He submerged himself in spiritual life with all his love. He penetrated into the path of contemplation with the security and happiness of the ones who know what their vocation is, of the ones who know where they are called. He demonstrated how much he loved his vocation during the next twenty-seven years of his life.

He continued to have a weak constitution and was sick for long periods, yet he never left the strict routine of the monastery or complained. And he had to wait many years before he was allowed to follow his yearning of solitude in hermitage. He was faithful to his vow of obedience by accepting the function of Master of Novices at Gethsemani and fulfilling the responsibilities of that office for ten years, all the while his soul yearning for complete solitude. He joked about this situation but never complained about it. He finally was allowed his hermitage if he would build it himself. Community life was the norm at Gethsemani and the Abbot did not want Merton's eremeticism to be too appealing. So his cabin had only a small fireplace for heat against the harsh Kentucky winters. Even though sickly, Merton did not complain during the three years he spent in hermitage there. He found his solitude.

It is more than interesting to note that the succeeding Abbot himself made use of the hermitage and that the eremitic is once again a respected vocation among the Cistercians.

During those three years, Merton deepened his spiritual search, especially his studies in Zen which he had begun seriously in the late 1950s. He continued to write, and much of his correspondence was extensive and worldwide. One of those with whom he corresponded was Dr. D. T. Suzuki, the Zen authority. Merton desired to learn Chinese, but the pressure of his other work made him give it up. He read voraciously all the books supplied to him by various sources-librarian friends, Dr. Paul K. T. Sih (who supplied him with the Legge translation of Chinese Classics), and other scholars. One of his close brothers at Gethsemani, Patrick Hart, comments that Merton's growing knowledge and interest in the East was clearly "providential preparation for his Asian trip." As with Merton's other realizations and understandings, he had shared his discoveries about Eastern thought with the reading public through numerous books on various topics: The Way of Chuang Tzu, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Mystics and Zen Masters, The Significance of the Bhagavad Gita. According to Dr. Suzuki, Merton had become one of the few Westerners who really understood Zen.

Merton was drawn to his studies in Eastern mysticism and religion and understood them so well because of his intimate affinity for, understanding, and personal experience of the mystical tradition of his own Christian heritage. At any rate, by August of 1968, he was engaged in planning for his trip to Asia. He had received permission to travel away from Gethsemani (a dispensation from the rule that a monk does not leave his monastery because of his vow of stability) to attend a fall conference in Bangkok organized by a Benedictine group aiming for monastic renewal. The conference was to be a gathering of all Asian monastic leaders, and Merton had been invited to deliver one of the principal addresses. This trip was the culmination and fulfillment of his studies of the Eastern traditions. His itinerary included visits to many Buddhist monasteries as well as Christian missions. He accepted another invitation to speak at an interfaith Spiritual Summit Conference in Calcutta shortly before the Bangkok meeting and also hoped to be able to meet with the Dalai Lama and other Eastern religious leaders.

The publication of his journal kept while he traveled throughout Asia on that occasion, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, reveals his excited enthusiasm in encountering not only the leaders but the monks, the countryside, the hermits, and the teachings. It is evident that he continued reading during the trip; there are numerous entries in the journal summarizing thoughts and quoting from texts of various different religious approaches to the spiritual life. In it we also learn firsthand the insights he gained from the people and places he encountered along the way. This material reveals why his ecumenicism was so comprehensive of all religious traditions.

Immediately after delivering his talk entitled "Marxism and Monastic Perspectives" in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton died of an accidental electrocution in his hotel room. Thus, his life had begun in Europe and ended in Asia. The first twenty-six years of his life were spent in gathering experiences, many of which were painful, and from which he learned disattachment and came to the renouncement of his outmoded ways of relating to the world and his own life. The last twenty-seven years of his life were spent in applying that same renouncement in fulfilling the vows he had made as a member of the Trappists and in realizing his unique individual way of knowing the divine. He died in the East that he had come to know through its mysticism, his last actions involving efforts to bridge the East-West chasm that his own understanding had transcended.

Merton's life and written work rings with authenticity, almost continuously, like a bell: clear, precise, unadorned. His words announce again and again that inner call that all human beings receive to unite with the divine. The radiance of his work emanates from the essential message of his life: in a continuous process of perfecting his relationship with life and with God, Merton disappears. His life was a work which transformed the man into the message.

Merton yearned for solitude, he loved souls, he loved the divine. All he really wanted in life was to fulfill his contemplative vocation. Yet, he was told to write and, faithful to his vow of obedience, he shared his experiences and the fruits of his contemplative life with the world. This was his great sacrifice, which he happily accepted out of love for souls. His clear revelations about the spiritual and mystical life answered and continually answer a need of us all in this century: to make contact with the divine through our own means.

But the full extent of his practical self-effacement is not readily noticed in his writing. He removes himself so effectively that even in his numerous journals, it is the voice of all humankind that speaks from them. We learn remarkably little about his personal life.

Perhaps our best understanding of Merton comes from the way he related to his vows. As a Cistercian monk, his vows are probably summed up in the vow of Conversion of Life. Merton made of this vow a living reality-disappearing as a separate personality and transforming his life into a testament for humankind.

Through the fidelity to his vocation and the humility that nourished his spiritual insight, his writing continues today to answer the great spiritual needs of our modern age.



Reprinted from Walking with Contemplation.


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