January 23, 2021

The Merton Prayer

Merton portrait by Victor Hammer

One of the books I will be reading and meditating upon during my sabbatical is Thomas Merton’s Thoughts In Solitude.

A well-known passage from this book has been called, “The Merton Prayer” (see below). This prayer acknowledges that, despite our human tendency to think we know what life is about and how we can manage it, we really have no clue. As the Jews say, “Man plans; God laughs.”

“The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.” (Prov 16:9)

In the chapter following this prayer, Merton writes, “In our age everything has to be a ‘problem.’ Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves.

“…Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison.”

Merton suggests that it is learning to live in “silence” that enables us to live at peace with the contradictions that lie within us. The contradictions remain, but they cease to be a problem for us.

The prayer that precedes this counsel expresses the peace that comes from knowing and trusting in God’s presence in a life with so many unknowns and irresolvable conflicts.


MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

• Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”

© Abbey of Gethsemani


  1. This is one of my favorites. I have these words mounted on my desk, and I am still moved every time I read them. I am blown away both by Merton’s honesty and humility (and how much I connect with his words), as well as the graciousness of God that Merton points to. As a worker in ministry, keeping these things close to my heart is paramount.

  2. Here is another quote of his that is displayed at a Trappist monastery where I take my personal retreats:

    “Actually, what matters about the monastery is precisely that it is radically different from the world. The apparent ‘pointlessness’ of the monastery in the eyes of the world is exactly what gives it a real reason for existing. In a world of noise, confusion, and conflict it is necessary that there be a place of silence, inner discipline and peace …”

  3. This prayer has been a wonderful reminder to me and to various people I know at times throughout life.

    I can’t help but wonder a bit about Merton’s statement, “Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so.” While I agree with this to an extent, it sounds as if he’s asserting that if we just stopped willing the time to be anxious, it would cease to be so, and I’m not sure that’s quite accurate. I think anxiety is inherent to the fallen human condition wherein we are not certain of what will be, and we are born not in and do not well cultivate communion with the One who is certain. Anxiety is a response to something being wrong, and something is wrong. Thus, he’s right in saying that our anxiety isn’t something that is impressed upon us from without; instead, it’s something impressed upon us from within, but that does not equate with our having control of it. Perhaps we have willed our anxiety to become worse, but I’m not sure we’ve willed it to be.

    Perhaps it’s a matter of nuance and not exceedingly important, but I thought I’d throw my $0.02 in.

    • Matthew I agree with you that anxiety is part of the human condition. I also think, however, that the “world” brings out certain human frailties in different eras and perhaps anxiety is heightened in ours.

  4. It has been decades since I read this prayer, and I needed to see it again today while I cope with my sister’s coma and iminent death. Thank you…

    • May God’s mercy surround you and your sister. May she have a peaceful, holy and painless passing into God’s presence, and may He grant you much consolation, Pattie.


      • Dana and other I-Monks:

        I can only say that I know now how Mary and Martha must have felt when their brother returned to life. I am an RN, and her illness and problems are simply not compatible with normal life…yet here she is, confused but cracking jokes, moving except for her left arm, and swallowing ice chips.

        I am dazed, awed, and feeling a bit quilty for “losing hope”…….but I do this for a living and this does not happen after a severe lack of oxygen to the brain for 20+ minutes and total heart failure. My most ferverent prayer now is that she will return to the Lord with all her heart and soul….for all I know, He and she talked over the last few days and they decided that she needed to stay here. So please join my prayer that Mary will recognize the Savior that sent her back for more chances to grow in Him…

        • Amen!

          Glory to God!


        • Fantastic news, Pattie! We will keep praying.

          • Thank you all so much. Please pray that her heart is opened to a return to the faith of our youth and the God who loves her so much. She must have lessons to learn and work to do since she was sent back to us here. I do not care about her physical life nearly as much as I do about her spiritual life and where she will spend eternity. I joke that our “more Catholic than the Pope” mother must have had a stern but loving discussion with her and the Lord in the “waiting room”.

  5. David Cornwell says

    There will come a time in every person’s life when this prayer will take on real meaning, if it has not already. There is not an easy way to respond to the thoughts on this page, except this is the life we have been given and the path we are being offered.

  6. While reading Merton’s prayer I was reminded of Mark 9:24, “I believe; help my unbelief!”. And then I read Pattie’s comment about her sister. Let’s keep praying.

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