Category Archives: Merton

The New Man

The New Man

by Thomas Merton (1961)

This is the least informal writing I have yet seen from Merton. And the most philosophical. Neither trait hurts the book, but I did find myself taking longer than usual to decide whether I would finish the book. Then about a third of the way through I began to start realizing that this could be one of his strongest works ever.

The topic is about Adam vs. the New Adam, Christ. And the Fall. And Baptism. It does not sound all that original, as St. Paul covers this quite well in his epistles. But in his usual fashion, Merton finds something new to say, and a way of saying it that holds the reader’s interest.

Let’s supply some excerpts to demonstrate the point. From the chapter “Life in Christ”:

Everything that has the power to make us real, to bring us to the fulfilment of our destiny, to perfect happiness, and peace with ourselves and one another, is contained in God’s will for us: first His will as implanted in our very nature, and then His will as supernaturally revealed. To want to know something besides this one great good, to desire to add the knowledge of evil to the knowledge of good by turning away from God, is to turn away from life itself and from reality. We die the death.

(pg. 185)

And again from the same chapter:

[T]he patience of the charitable man [is not] merely a hidden weapon by which he shames and defeats his enemies. It is the strength which knows the difference between good and evil, and which knows how to overcome evil with good. Without this strength, this alchemy which silently and inexorably destroys evil, the passive aspects of Christian charity would have no reason for existence. They are never really negative. They are the negation of evil, and evil is a negation. Hence even the passive elements in charity are positive, constructive forces. Very often they are more constructive than the more obvious and affirmative acts of the charitable man.

(pp. 191-192)

So as not to spoil it for you, I will omit the part where Merton gives the best explanation I have ever seen as to why Adam (and we along with him) lost his immortality.

 

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Spiritual Direction & Meditation

Spiritual Direction & Meditation

by Thomas Merton (1960)

This is a great little no-nonsense book by Merton. Check out how he clears up a common misconception about spiritual direction:

This [previous] description of spiritual direction brings out certain important differences between direction and counselling, or direction and psychotherapy. Spiritual direction is not merely the cumulative effect of encouragements and admonitions which we all need in order to live up to our state in life. It is not mere ethical, social or psychological guidance. It is spiritual.

But it is important for us to understand what this word “spiritual” means here. There is a temptation to think that spiritual direction is the guidance of one’s spiritual activities, considered a small part or department of one’s life. You go to a spiritual director to have him take care of your spirit, the way you go to a dentist to have him take care of your teeth, or to a barber to get a haircut. This is completely false. The spiritual director is concerned with the whole person, for the spiritual life is not just the life of the mind, or of the affections, or of the “summit of the soul” — it is the life of the whole person. For the spiritual man (pneumatikos) is one whose whole life, in all its aspects and all its activities, has been spiritualized by the action of the Holy Spirit, whether through the sacraments or by personal and interior inspirations. Moreover, spiritual direction is concerned with the whole person not simply as an individual human being, but as a son of God, another Christ, seeking to recover the perfect likeness to God in Christ, and by the Spirit of Christ.

– pp. 14-15

His insights on meditation and mental prayer are even more penetrating:

The Sense of Indigence

In order to make a serious and fruitful meditation we must enter into our prayer with a real sense of our need for these fruits. It is not enough to apply our minds to spiritual things in the same way  as we might observe some natural phenomenon, or conduct a scientific experiment. In mental prayer we enter a realm of which we are no longer the masters and we propose to ourselves the consideration of truths which exceed our natural comprehension and which,  nevertheless, contain the secret of our destiny. We seek to enter more deeply into the life of God. But God is infinitely above us, although He is within us and is the principle of our being. The grace of close union with Him, although it is something we can obtain by prayer and good works, remains nevertheless His gift to us.

One who begs an alms must adopt a different attitude from one who demands what is due to him by his own right. A meditation that is no more than a dispassionate study of spiritual truths indicates no desire, on our part, to share more fully in the spiritual benefits which are the fruit of prayer. We have to enter into our meditation with a realization of our spiritual poverty, our complete lack of the things we seek, and of our abject nothingness in the sight of the infinite God.

– pp. 79-80

 

The Wisdom of the Desert

The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century

(translated) by Thomas Merton (1960)

The back cover says:

The Wisdom of the Desert was one of Thomas Merton’s favorites among his own books — surely because he had hoped to spend his last years as a hermit. The personal tone of the translations, the blend of reverence and humor so characteristic of him, show how deeply Merton identified with the legendary authors of these sayings and parables, the fourth-century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East.”

The humor is evident, as you will see in later quotes, but let’s first view the Author’s Note:

This collection of sayings from the Verba Seniorum is by no means intended as a piece of research scholarship. It is, on the contrary. a free and informal redaction of stories chosen here and there in the various original Latin versions, without order and without any identification of the particular sources. The book is designed entirely for the reader’s interest and edification. In other words I have felt that as a monk of the twentieth century I ought to be quite free in availing myself of the privilege enjoyed by the monks of earlier days, and so I have made a little collection of my own, with no special system, order or purpose, merely in order to have the stories and to enjoy them with my friends. This is the way such books originally came into existence.

When the first version of this work was completed, I gave it to my friend Victor Hammer who printed an extraordinarily beautiful limited edition on his hand press in Lexington. Kentucky. After that, it was decided to expand the collection a little, and rewrite the introduction, so that New Directions could bring out a larger edition. So here it is. But I hope the book still preserves its original spontaneous, informal and personal aspect. Far from detracting from their wisdom, this informality will guarantee the stories the authenticity they have always had and keep them fresh and alive in all their concreteness and immediacy. May those who need and enjoy such apothegms be encouraged, by the taste of clear water, to follow the brook to its source.

– pg. ix

The first page of the book proper is a real grabber, these prefatory remarks extending on for nearly 25 pages:

In the fourth century A. D. the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men who have left behind them a strange reputation. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in solitude. Why did they do this? The reasons were many and various, but they can all be summed up in one word as the quest for “salvation.” And what was salvation? Certainly it was not something they sought in mere exterior conformity to the customs and dictates of any social group. In those days men had become keenly conscious of the strictly individual character of “salvation.” Society – which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life “in this world” – was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life. We need not stop here to discuss the fairness of this view: what matters is to remember that it was a fact. These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the “world” was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve.

It should seem to us much stranger than it does, this paradoxical flight from the world that attained its greatest dimensions (I almost said frenzy) when the “world” became officially Christian.

– pp. 3-4

And then come 150 translated sayings (averaging about three per page), matching in number the Psalms. Here are some samples:

* XXXVIII *

Once there was a disciple of a Greek philosopher who was commanded by his Master for three years to give money to everyone who insulted him. When this period of trial was over, the Master said to him: Now you can go to Athens and learn wisdom. When the disciple was entering Athens he met a certain wise man who sat at the gate insulting everybody who came and went. He also insulted the disciple who immediately burst out laughing. Why do you laugh when I insult you? said the wise man. Because, said the disciple, for three years I  have been paying for this kind of thing and now you give it to me for nothing. Enter the city, said the wise man, it is all yours. Abbot John used to tell the above story, saying: This is the door of God by which our fathers rejoicing in many tribulations enter into the City of Heaven.

* LXXXVI *

To one of the brethren appeared a devil, transformed into an angel of light, who said to him: I am the Angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to thee. But the brother said: Think again — you must have been sent to somebody else. I haven’t done anything to deserve an angel. Immediately the devil ceased to appear.

* CXLI *

Once two brethren came to a certain elder whose custom it was not to eat every day. But when he saw the brethren he invited them with joy to dine with him, saying: Fasting has its reward, but he who eats out of charity fulfils two commandments, for he sets aside his own will and he refreshes his hungry brethren.

* CXLIV *

 A certain brother asked Abbot Pambo: Why do the devils prevent me from doing good to my neighbour? And the elder said to him: Don’t talk like that. Is God a liar? Why don’t you just admit that you do not want to be merciful? Didn’t God say long ago: I have given you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and on all forces of the enemy? So why do you not stamp down the evil spirit?

 

 

Thoughts in Solitude

Thoughts in Solitude

by Thomas Merton (1958)

This book has the distinction of containing the prayer most commonly associated with Thomas Merton. It is also unique in that it does not carry the Nihil obstat and Imprimatur that usually appear at the beginning of his books. No matter, as there is very little of what would pass for doctrine in these pages.

“A voice of one crying out in the desert”

Merton on trusting God’s mercy

Merton on facing despair

Merton’s prayer of total trust

No Man is an Island

No Man is an Island

by Thomas Merton (1955)

As mentioned earlier, this is a step back to cover concepts that were taken for granted in Seeds of Contemplation six years earlier. And the chapter titles alone testify to this: “Conscience, freedom, and prayer”, “Being and doing”, “Sincerity”, “Mercy”, “Silence”.

Do not let the simplicity of the chapter titles fool you. This is a challenging yet rewarding book to work your way through.

See the following excerpt from Chapter 11, “Mercy”, for a sample of one of the best passages:

Merton on Mercy

The Seven Storey Mountain

The Seven Storey Mountain

by Thomas Merton (1948)

The fiftieth anniversary edition labels itself as “An Autobiography of Faith”. Fair enough, though most people might already know that by 1998. At over 450 pages, this is a long book. It takes time to get through. Some of the comments on Amazon are less than positive or charitable, but many of those refer to typos in the Kindle edition, while others come across as anti-Catholic, and still others as flat out anti-Merton. So be warned. Merton has his detractors.

This book is full of little surprises that I would hate to ruin for you, so I will say very little in terms of details. I will at least give some random vague references of things you might find unique or of interest:

His time at Columbia University in the 1930’s. His time at St. Bonaventure in Buffalo, NY. His terrible troubles with dental health. His memories of his parents, especially his father. Also his relationship with his younger brother, John Paul. His first visit to America from Europe. Experiences in Harlem. His time spent in old European cathedrals. His literary ambitions. The authors that influenced him. His initial visits to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. And not insignificantly, hints of what would characterize his later writings, a sample of which is found here:

Seven great Merton paragraphs

The above passage falls about one-third of the way through the book and is unique to the book. There is no other passage that is similar in the rest of the 450 pages. I believe that was intentional, but even if it was not, it foreshadowed the best works that Merton would publish over the next dozen or so years.

Personal note: My mother mentioned this work to a friend when I was about 10 years old (mid 1970s), her enthusiasm giving me the impression she had recently read it. While I was reading it a couple years ago and discussing it with her, I learned that she had read it shortly after it first came out, when she was probably a sophomore or junior in high school. Here I was thinking that I had been reading it at approximately same age as she did, but I was quite mistaken.

New Seeds of Contemplation

New Seeds of Contemplation

by Thomas Merton (1961)

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the writings of Thomas Merton, who is considered in some more traditional circles as controversial, is that he invariably sought and received the Nihil obstat and Imprimatur. In addition, his references to the Eucharist in his other writings convey such reverence–and all this as a pre-Vatican II author (meaning that he–as a monk known first as Brother Louis, then soon after as Father Louis–was referring to the now oftentimes controversial traditional Latin Mass). He also displays great devotion to the Blessed Virgin. While I have read very little of his post-conciliar material, I can say without reservation that his pre-conciliar writing is soundly orthodox, while at the same time it hints at some of the best post-Vatican II developments in doctrine. I suspect he may have influenced some of the council fathers, and not the ones who rushed headlong into taking liberties in its aftermath.

New Seeds of Contemplation, as the reader will learn in the Preface, is an updated re-release of Seeds of Contemplation released 12 years earlier (just one year after The Seven Storey Mountain put him on the literary map in 1948). In 1955, Merton would publish No Man is an Island, in which he explains that Island (which is no small challenge to read) covers ground that Seeds took for granted. New Seeds of Contemplation, while nominally more advanced in topic than Island, is not inaccessible by any means. It is quite possibly the one book I have revisited the most over the last two and a half years since I first read it. What I notice when rereading it, is that the first two to three chapters open up more and more each time.  That said, the second half of the book is the best part.

I first became aware of this book when I read a lengthy excerpt in an anthology of mystical writings. The chapter that was excerpted is the 37th of the 39 in this volume: “Sharing the Fruits of Contemplation”. That was enough for me. I quickly acquired a copy.

Rather than continuing to talk around this excellent spiritual work, I will let you see some of its finest offerings for yourself:

Seven great Merton quotes

Journey through the Wilderness