January 26, 2021

Key Themes in Merton

I’ve been reading William H. Shannon’s fine book, Thomas Merton: An Introduction, as a way to begin knowing the famous monk better for myself.

Shannon wrote this for folks who have little or no acquaintance with Merton, with the intent to show that his life and writings can still speak powerfully to people today. Along the way, he traces what he considers to be the key themes that surface throughout what Merton said and wrote, and he suggests a possible order for reading Merton’s works.

William Shannon suggests that there are eight key themes in Merton’s writings:

  • Interiority
  • Prayer and contemplative spirituality
  • God
  • Human identity
  • Community vs. Collectivity
  • Freedom as the expression of one’s inner truth
  • Nonviolence
  • Zen

Here is an overview of these themes. Words in quotes are from Merton himself.

Interiority. “Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.” Thomas Merton hoped that all people would become more aware of the inner depths of their own being and not just settle for living on the surface of life, content with externals.

Prayer and contemplative spirituality. “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.” Contemplative prayer is the means by which we become aware of the inner world wherein God dwells and meets with us. This is not something we seek out of “spiritual ambition” in order to reach heights of spiritual “achievement.” Rather, as Merton wrote, “To love prayer is, then, to love our own poverty and His mercy.” Through contemplation, the idols in our hearts and minds are smashed to pieces and we come to realize the overwhelming Reality of God and our total dependence upon him.

“In the long run I think progress in prayer comes from the Cross and humiliation and whatever makes us really experience our total poverty and nothingness, and also gets our minds off ourselves.”

• Thomas Merton

God. “So much depends on our idea of God! Yet no idea of Him, however pure and perfect, is adequate to express Him as He really is.” The reason we explore our interior spaces and practice the life of contemplative prayer is to know God and his merciful love, not to reach some pinnacle of spiritual mastery of which we can boast. The imperfect knowledge of God we experience here begets a yearning for knowing him face to face in the world to come.

Human identity. Knowing God leads us into a greater self-knowledge as well. As we learn more about God, we also come to learn more about our true identity in God. “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. …My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love — outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.” It is only at death, when we see God as he is, that we will truly be ourselves. This side of death, I can only begin to recognize my true self through contemplation, in the inner spaces, in prayer, with God.

Community vs. Collectivity. William Shannon writes that, as Thomas Merton matured, he came to understand that “the real struggle in human life is to construct the human community — with its values of human dignity, human freedom, solitude and contemplation.” Individuals may live in vital connection with others in community, or live as isolated individuals, separate units, in collectivity. In collectivity, people are united only superficially by external uniformity, while in reality, they are actually alienated from one another. Merton saw modern mass society as a collective, constructed “out of empty and alienated human beings who have lost their center and extinguished their own inner light in order to depend in abject passivity upon the mass in which they cohere without affectivity or intelligent purpose.” Communities, on the other hand, are made up of “persons,” centered in God and linked with others in shared humanity and fellowship in Christ. In collectivity, people seek distraction and diversion which further isolates people from reality, whereas in community there is space for solitude and contemplation which strengthens not only the person but also the entire community.

Freedom as the expression of one’s inner truth. Shannon describes three stages in Merton’s own experience of personal freedom. First, he knew the unbridled freedom of youth without rules. Second, upon entering the monastery, he experienced that freedom that comes through submitting to rules. Third, as he participated in contemplation, explored the inner life, grew in the knowledge of God and his true self, and lived in community with others doing the same, he developed a sense of freedom that arose from within, from the center of his being. True freedom is the ability to live out of “inner truth,” a true assessment of God, myself, others, and the world around me. Merton described the life of freedom as a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Liberated from enslavement to my false self, my true self may spontaneously move toward the good. These thoughts for Merton ultimately went beyond the personal, as he became active in standing for those who found themselves victimized by the oppressive forces and systems of the world.

Nonviolence. “We are violent to others because we are already divided by the inner violence of our infidelity to our own truth. Hatred projects this division outside ourselves into society.” 1961 marked a change in emphasis for Thomas Merton, as he began to write about war and politics, advocating responsible action with regard to social issues. In a letter to Daniel Berrigan (1963) he wrote, “what is the contemplative life if one becomes oblivious to the rights of men and the truth of God in the world and in His Church?” This thinking was not common in the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1960’s before Vatican II. But Merton had an interest in the work of Mohandas Gandhi that stemmed from his teenage years and grew in the monastery during the 1950’s. For Merton, living nonviolently means resistance to violence wherever it is found, whether in my own heart or in society. Through contemplation, I learn that we are all part of one human family, that both oppressor and oppressed are human, that each should be treated with human dignity and that I should seek the good for both, that I can learn from my adversary, and that I must be constantly on guard against my own tendencies toward violence that puts the lie to my claim of love.

Zen. “Zen teaches nothing; it merely enables us to wake up and become aware. It does not teach, it points.” In the latter part of his life, Merton became interested in eastern religions. It is William Shannon’s opinion that, “for Merton it is Zen as meditation…, not Zen Buddhism, that he looked to for enrichment of his own spiritual and monastic tradition.” Merton saw connections in the sense that both Zen and the Christian mystical tradition recognize an experience of Reality that goes beyond words or logical formulation. Revelation, which gives Christianity a foundation unlike that of Zen, is not meant to lead merely to doctrine, but to a life in which God’s presence and love is known and shared.

• • •

So much of what I have seen in the Christian ethos of my lifetime, particularly within the evangelical branches of the faith, betrays an unfamiliarity with Merton’s themes. We have often emphasized emotional experience, stimulation, and spectacle, drivenness and activism, rule-based morality, a didactic approach to discipleship, and chummy camaraderie as the accepted culture of the church.

We have lived on the surface. We have been nourished on fast food. We live the unreal life, filling our days with external activities and failing to grow deeper in the center of our being. There is little place for silence, little time to contemplate, few opportunities taken to sit and gaze at beauty without any agenda but to savor God’s creativity and feed our human souls. Instead of pastors we have leaders. We receive instructions and marching orders in the place of spiritual formation. Instead of sanctuaries we have bustling campuses. We have forgotten how to kneel or to sit at the table together. Those who disagree with us are our enemies and we fear them and separate ourselves from them. Our opinions and politics are judgmental and militaristic. Our minds are a-buzz. Our spirits are famished. Our legacy will be…what?

It may be time to get to know Thomas Merton again, or for the first time.


  1. CM — for those of us who have never read Merton, where do you recommend we start?

  2. Your last full paragraph beginning with, “We have lived on the surface.” Wow. it made me a bit sad at the truthfulness of it. 🙁

    • And it is so hard to stay under the water… at the times when I have gone deeper I feel I was at my spiritual best (for me anyway). But it is hard to stay there… so I have to keep making up ground just to get back to where I was, as I am moving forward. Problem is though, I get so distracted that its hard to even get started again. sigh….

  3. The last full paragraph spoke to me as well. We are certainly bombarded with so much during our day to day lives and it’s quite overwhelming and certainly doesn’t lend itself to peace of mind. I think the theme of Zen touches quite well on why time devoted to silence and contemplation is so worthwhile in light of the chaos that is life. I’m very knew to these kinds of practices so I can’t speak to it with any authority, but there’s no question in my mind that silence and contemplation changes who we are and brings a sense of peace and humility into our lives.

    This was a fantastic article. Look forward to learning more about Merton!

  4. “Individuals may live in vital connection with others in community, or live as isolated individuals, separate units, in collectivity. In collectivity, people are united only superficially by external uniformity, while in reality, they are actually alienated from one another.”

    Based on this definition of collectivity, many political conservatives today are as guilty or even more guilty of collectivism than those they so bitterly criticize. Those defending and helping the poor out of a sense of community are labelled collectivists by those who organized around superficiality and external uniformity such as political slogans, flag-waving, and fear-mongering.

    • The emptiness of the collective immediately made me think of celebrity worship in the western world. Any time B-movie starlet or singer goes out in public, her clothes/lack of clothes, companions, facial expression, footwear, and motives are all over the internet and some TV channels. I cannot THINK of anything more shallow and sad than spending energy worshipping at this altar of fleeting fame and waiting for the next fall to drugs, divorce, or something serious like GAINING WEIGHT!!

      It is the antithesis of looking inward to our souls and outward to the God who made us and the real beauty in the world He made for us to delight in. I always find my center in the middle of a forest or on a remote beach…

  5. “Second, upon entering the monastery, he experienced that freedom that comes through submitting to rules.”

    True, but didn’t he also find that at some point those rules needlessly oppress individuality? In “Contemplation in a World of Action”, he blamed authoritarianism for the eventual failure of the monastic movement in America.

    • I don’t the monk well enough to comment at this point. Maybe others will. In his introduction, Shannon also distinguishes between authority and authoritarianism and suggests Merton’s vision of freedom could live under the first while opposing the second.

    • As Merton aged the more he railed against pettyfogging rulerrie. And, it seems he figured out how to break just about all impositions placed upon him (getting to move into the hermitige certainly constituted a distancing from the pettyfogging). Conformity for conformity’s sake was not his cup of tea.

      However, in those things which he deemed significant (very idiosyncratic “deeming” at times) he was obedient; as in being the novice master for about 15 years.


  6. I have to admit, when I hear a Christian talking about their interest in practicing Zen, little alarm bells go off in my head.

    • What can I say? It was the 60’s.

      • If you meet Christ on the road, crucify him.

        • Sadly, few are going to get what you are referring to. As Sam Harris states about Lin Chi’s alleged quote about meeting the Buddha on the road, “Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught.” If only Christians could apply that wisdom to their faith. But what can Christians possibly learn from Buddhism? (insert rolling-eye emoticon here.)

          • Indeed–certainly Evangelicals would have difficulty appreciating the contributions of the Abe / Cobb dialogue group, or its fruit in the form of the journal Buddhist / Christian Studies, as well as books like “Beside still waters” and “Christians talk about Buddhist meditation, Buddhists talk about Christian prayer.”

      • Mike, it’s a reflex after all these years. The same alarm bells go off when my wife says she’s going to Yoga at the gym.

        • Calm the reflex, Steve. It is possible to learn techniques from eastern worship without adopting the worship or belief system. Really. I grew up surrounded by Buddhists and am very Catholic. Touring the Buddha statues of southeast Asia didn’t shake my faith even then, as a kid.

    • Well, it was an interest he took late in his life. One can think his flirting with Buddhism was a mistake and still appreciate much of Merton’s other work.

  7. I bought “A Book of Hours”, spiritual writings from Merton, when I was on vacation a while back. It looked interesting when I first saw it in the bookstore, but it’s been collecting dust on my bookshelf ever since I got back. After reading this fascinating article about Merton (I knew virtually nothing about him), I’m going to start reading it!

    • Brian, “A Book of Hours” is remarkable. I bought it thinking I might use Merton’s prayers and thoughts as kind of a devotional guide for myself, but found myself more caught up in trying to view the world around me as he did…seeing all the beauty and pain, joy and suffering, and experiencing wonder and angst as gifts from God. It’s a great work. I’ve given it as a gift a few times over the years…

  8. When we left the agrarian society, passed through the industrial age, and now live as service providers, we lost our connection with creation and the Creator; we lost wisdom and found information

    • +1

    • Morton N. Horton says

      And you knew who you were then
      Girls were girls and men were men
      Mister we could use a man like J.R.R. Tolkien again

      Wouldn’t need no nation-state
      Everybody pulls his weight
      Feudalism sure was great
      Those were the days!!!

      • Bill, I think you may be romantising having a life span of 32 years, watching child after child die, literally scratching the earth for food and your body due to the fleas. Didn’t leave much prayer time…

      • You went too far back. Try 1870 instead of 1170.

    • Bill, I would also add that we lost communion and community. We depended on God and each other.

      An agrarian society is hard work, but the rewards are amazing….

  9. I have been rereading Galatians, “If righteousness comesthrough the law {doing/ not doing} then Christ died in vain.”2:21 Contemplation and silence will get one closer to God, but God is a mystery to our finite minds.

  10. Those last two paragraphs regarding evangelical Christianity just break my heart. That is such a bittersweet portrait. I am a product of that Christian culture and am seeing the awful harvest of chaff in my own soul and in the souls and lives of others who immersed themselves in the “new way of doing church”. As Bill Hybels ( the granddaddy of the “Seeker Friendly Church) announced a couple of years ago, the grand experiment didn’t work. He was humbled to learn that his method had not produced disciples of Jesus Christ. So we have been left starved and as we enter the seasons of loss and aging we have been totally unprepared. And interestingly enough in my church of 25 years their response to this is to literally remove the older people. Both from the staff and the current congregation. They have been relegated to another building and the staff people, after years of faithful service, have been given their pink slips. Unbelievable.

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