Friday, February 13, 2015

Excellent Introduction to Thomas Merton

In this past Sunday's Louisville Courier-Journal, my colleague Fr. George Kilcourse, a Merton scholar and director of Bellarmine University's Merton Centennial celebration, wrote a lovely piece on Merton that is worth reading.  For those not familiar with Thomas Merton, the article serves as an introduction to Merton, his writings, and his enduring influence.  For those familiar with Merton, the article will make you rediscover what it is about this hermit-monk that resonates with so many people around the world.

George gets to the heart of what makes Merton such a good companion, his playfulness and his irrepressible yearning to engage in meaningful dialogue with the other:
Merton's playfulness, his irrepressible good humor, and the brio he brought to his promiscuous reading habits and writing have gifted us with an outstanding essayist who continues to delight and encourage readers. He once described himself paradoxically as travelling "without maps."
It is an apt image for one who understood that the spiritual life is not so much our seeking God but God seeking us. He affirmed the centrality of this mystical consciousness in a 1967 letter written for those marginalized from religion in myriad ways: "God seeks Himself in us, and the aridity and sorrow of our heart is the sorrow of God who is not known to us, who cannot yet find himself in us, and live there out of choice, out of preference. But indeed we exist solely for this, to be the place He has chosen for His presence, His manifestation in the world, His epiphany."
Thomas Merton encouraged us by daring us to "penetrate our own silence and advance fearlessly into our heart's solitude; then we can risk sharing of that solitude with lonely others who seek God through and with us." Here resides the ultimate act of compassion that is distinct from charity or even social justice. That definition of compassion means to enter willingly the chaos of another. It is a level of commitment and responsibility that gives us pause.
Compassion is not a word to use lightly. Merton, a United States Cistercian monk, showed such greatness of heart when he welcomed the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to the Abbey of Gethsemani at the height of the Vietnam War and declared that he "is my brother." He asked friends and acquaintances to do for his Buddhist friend whatever they would do for Merton himself.
I encourage you to read the entire article here.


  1. Thomas Merton was a great author pre-1966. But according to a Catholic Answers Magazine article I read called "Can You Trust Thomas Merton?" after 1966 he starts to take stuff from eastern religions that aren't compatible with Christianity. The article is a thought-provoking read that I think you'd be interested in too.

    1. I've studied Merton extensively. I'm afraid the article you read is misguided in its assessment. Merton didn't take on stuff from Eastern religions. He found in his own Christian tradition much that was in common with Eastern religion in terms of prayer, contemplation, and meditation. A careful reading of Merton will show that he should not be accused of indifferentism or relativism. Rather, he was interested in dialogue, as have been all the popes since Pope St John XXIII.

    2. I agree with Dr. Hillis. Fr. Thomas Merton was a faithful Catholic priest. See then Fr., now Bishop, Barron's excellent short video on Thomas Merton Spiritual Master