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"It may be that the primary factor in the appeal of Merton's writings is his characteristic of penetrating in clear language to truth. His works lead the reader to a depth of self-understanding through a sharing of his own inner discoveries"

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Home » Lives of Spiritual Unfolding » Thomas Merton

Seeds of Contemplation

In the late 1940s, in the aftermath of a terrible war and as the world struggled to rebuild itself, confident in technology's capacity to help in the task, a surprising thing happened: a young monk's autobiography quickly became a bestseller. Not only did it attract a wide reading audience, it awakened vocations too: the Trappists as well as other religious orders were overwhelmed by the number of postulants to the monastic life who responded to his narrative. Thomas Merton shared his story with the world in The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948. From that time until his death in 1968, he continued to write voluminously.

His writings on the life of the spirit, on prayer, contemplation and inner life, solitude, and humanity's alienation from and possible reconciliation with God, never failed to strike a responsive chord in his diverse reading public. A monk's austere and demanding existence was apparently fertile ground that produced the fruits for which many hungered in the midst of their plenty.

It may be that the primary factor in the appeal of Merton's writings is his characteristic of penetrating in clear language to truth. His works lead the reader to a depth of self-understanding through a sharing of his own inner discoveries.

Merton's diligent studies of Christian saints, mystics, and theologians was never expressed in his writings as a sterile erudition. The reader always gets the impression that "here is something alive, Merton is telling me something real, he is sharing profound discoveries that have significance for my life here in the 20th century." In the same way, his eremitic calling did not separate him from his fellow humans who toil in the world, but in fact united him with them. The body of his published works chronicles a growing contact with the ground of being, and he makes it clear that the inner life of the spirit is the heritage of all humankind.

Although there were many apparent obstacles to walking the path he perceived as being his path-that of a contemplative monk-all elements in his life added up to create in him a fully realized human being. His European beginnings, his wild youth and rebellious college days, his vocational self-doubt, the growing awareness that the mere form of religious dogma was insufficient for his spiritual unfolding, the struggles with the Church censors over his writings, the prolonged delay of being allowed to go into hermitage, the demands placed upon a solitary monk by a world hungry for his words, the physical deprivations he had to suffer as the price of his hermitage, and, finally, the trip to the East and meetings with monks and spiritual leaders from non-Christian traditions-all contributed to the message he felt so naturally compelled to share with his fellow sojourners in the modern age.

He was a monk in a Christian religious order dating from the Middle Ages, yet he was modern. He was a contemplative who treasured solitude, yet he knew this world very well and shared not only his "thoughts in solitude" but also his observations on contemporary times. His purpose among us was to report on the deepest meaning of human existence, and he did it with wit and humor and always with love.

Given the depth of his writings and the response they evoked in hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries, it should serve as a useful purpose to look at some of the factors that were involved in his awakening to the spiritual vocation.

Having arrived at a turning point of his life, Thomas Merton made the decision to become a Trappist monk. This was not done on a whim nor was it an instantaneous conversion. In his autobiography, published when he was thirty-two, he details some of the chance fortuitous events that prepared him for his spiritual vocation. Merton's discovery of his vocation involved a process of self-recollection that was kindled by seemingly unimportant or irrelevant events. Some people consider such ultimately poignant encounters to be miracles, others consider them to be coincidence, while, for most people, these potential turning points in life go largely unnoticed or ignored. Merton himself came to view these fortuitous events as the work of grace.

The first example of these fortunate events is related by Merton as having happened even before his birth: his father had been tempted to join an Antarctic exploring expedition that passed through the town in France where he lived with his wife, but he ended up not going. This "circumstance" resulted in Thomas' birth in 1915. His mother was a devout Quaker, yet was also open-minded in her child's religious upbringing. She consciously tried to keep from molding him according to her own ways. Merton's comment in his autobiography on this is probably accurate: "My guess is that they thought, if I were left to myself, I would grow up into a nice quiet Deist of some sort and never be perverted by superstition." An example of her singular approach to assure that her son thought for himself is the way she used her own death as a teaching for him. Thomas was six years old when she died, and she would not allow the child to see her in the hospital in the last few weeks. Instead, she wrote him a note telling him about what was happening, which he read after her death. He was thus left to contemplate this major event in his life on his own and without the immediate emotional confusion that might have accompanied a closer participation.


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