Thomas Merton: One Foot in the Wilderness, One Foot in the World

By Jim Forest

Were our long-dead ancestors, say just about anyone from before the nineteenth century, transported by time machine into our twenty-first century world, my guess is that the biggest single shock that our world would pose for them would not be our modern technology but rather the unrelenting noise that most of us are subject to. The noise of traffic. The noise of jet planes overhead. The noise of television and radio. The noise of machinery. The noise of garbage trucks roaming the streets before dawn. The noise of canned music pumped out of loudspeakers into supermarkets and so many other stores. The noise of ambulance and police sirens. The thin ghostly sounds emitted by earphones. The noises made by mobile phones as they announce incoming calls, followed by the noise of one-way conversations. The noise of vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers…. This is but a partial list. Feel free to add your least favorite noise.

We live in a cacophonous world in which billions of people have not only acclimated themselves to noise but become noise addicts. Many of us depend on more or less continuous noise. For almost any urban person, silence is a stunning experience — for many, it’s frightening. We all know people who keep a radio, television or music player on continuously. I recall a friend in New York who lost his job as a radio announcer on a popular station for broadcasting ten seconds of silence. The station manager said that, more than anything else, their audience depended on the station to provide constant sound. Even one second of silence meant listener distress and an urgent search for sound on another station.

Thomas Merton was a refugee from the world of noise. On the 10th of December, 1941, a month before his 27th birthday, he left a teaching job at a small Franciscan college in upstate New York and presented himself as an applicant monk at the gate of a Trappist monastery, Our Lady of Gethsemani, in rural Kentucky. Until his death 27 years later, he was part of a community that lived in silence, the monks communicating with each other mainly by sign language, resorting to the spoken word only when it was essential. Merton had embraced what he sometimes referred to as “the silent life,” the title of one of his books. But at times even the monastery was not silent enough for Merton. When the abbot bought a tractor and other agricultural equipment to make the monastery’s farm more efficient and profitable, the resultant noise distressed him. Merton was noise allergic.

What Merton sought was not a dead silence or a cold silence but a vibrant silence, a condition in which it is easier to be aware of the presence of God. In many ways it was a leaning that was akin to what his artist parents had sought. They too were contemplatives. His mother, Ruth, had become a Quaker, connecting herself with a tradition whose base of worship is silence. His father, Owen, himself a churchless Christian, was a man who sought out quiet environments in which to draw and paint, the kind of place where Tom Merton was born: Prades, an isolated town in the French Pyrenees. My guess is that his contemplative parents, both of whom died in their son’s youth, played a major part in nudging Merton toward a contemplative vocation.

A significant aspect of Merton’s attraction to becoming a hermit was not only his at-homeness with solitude but his longing to live in a deeper silence than was possible even within a Trappist community. Just a decade after becoming a monk, he imagined what it would it would be like to live alone in the woods north of the monastery. “The woods cultivate me with their silences,” he wrote in his journal, “and all day long, even in choir and at Mass, I seem to be in the forest.”[i]

Six weeks later, in February 1952, comes a remarkable journal entry. Sitting on a cedar log under a tree gazing out at light blue hills in the distance, Merton saw his true self as a kind of solitary sea creature dwelling in a water cavern which knows of the world of dry land only by faint rumor. When he got free of plans and projects — the first level of the sea with its troubled surface — then he entered a deeper second level, the deep waters out of reach of storms where there was “peace, peace, peace…. We pray therein, slightly waving among the fish…. Words, as I think, do not spring from this second level. They are only meant to drown there. The question of socialization does not concern these waters. They are nobody’s property…. No questions whatever perturb their holy botany. Neutral territory. No man’s sea. I think God meant me to write about this second level.”

Still deeper down Merton was aware of a third level,

swimming in the rich darkness which is no longer thick like water but pure, like air. Starlight, and you do not know where it is coming from. Moonlight is in this prayer, stillness, waiting for the Redeemer…. Everything is charged with intelligence, though all is night. There is no speculation here. There is vigilance… Everything is spirit. Here God is adored, His coming is recognized, He is received as soon as He is expected and because He is expected He is received, but He has passed by sooner than He arrived, He was gone before He came. He returned forever. He never yet passed by and already He had disappeared for all eternity. He is and He is not. Everything and Nothing. Not light not dark, not high not low, not this side not that side. Forever and forever. In the wind of His passing the angels cry, “The Holy One is gone.” Therefore I lie dead in the air of their wings…. It is a strange awakening to find the sky inside you and beneath you and above you and all around you so that your spirit is one with the sky, and all is positive night.[ii]

Silence is not silent. There is a torrent of sound even at midnight on the driest, most remote desert: breezes scraping the sand, the tireless conversation of insects, the tidal sound of one’s own breathing, the drumming of one’s heart, the roar of being. It’s an active silence, being attentive rather than speaking, praying rather than engaging in chatter. So long as we breathe, so long as our heart keeps beating, we will never hear absolute silence, but by avoiding distractions and listening to what remains, we discover that the door to silence is everywhere, even in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. To listen is always an act of being silent. Yet finding places of relative silence can help a pilgrim discover inner silence. As Merton’s friend, the poet Bob Lax, who in his later years made his hermit-like home on the quiet Greek island of Patmos, once put it in a letter:

The thing to do with nature … is to listen to it, and watch it, and look deep into its eyes in a sense, as though you were listening to and watching a friend, not just hearing the words or even just watching the gestures but trying to guess, or get a sense, or share the spirit underneath it, trying to listen (if this isn’t too fancy) to the silence under the sound and trying to get an idea (not starting with any preconceived formulation) of what kind of silence it is.[iii]

In 1965, a few months before Merton began living as a full-time hermit, he wrote a descriptive essay, “Day of a Stranger,” about what he had so far experienced in his several years of being a part-time hermit. In it he speaks in rapturous terms of what he has been learning day-by-day in the woods of Gethsemani:

One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world. So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves. I attempt to cultivate this plant without contempt in the middle of the night and water it with psalms and prophecies in silence. It becomes the most rare of all the trees in the garden, at once the primordial paradise tree, the axis mundi, the cosmic axle, and the Cross…. There is only one such tree. It cannot be multiplied.

Words were so very important to Merton. One reads his books not only for his surprising and challenging insights but because he plays with the music of words as if he were playing jazz clarinet or saxophone. No one is more articulate than Merton but also no one was more aware than he of the limits of words. Like arrows, words point but they are not the target. As he once remarked to his novices, “He who follows words is destroyed.”

Merton explores this topic more deeply a letter the Venezuelan poet, Ludivico Silva:

The religion of our time, to be authentic, needs to be the kind that escapes practically all religious definition. Because there has been endless definition, endless verbalizing, and words have become gods. There are so many words that one cannot get to God as long as He is thought to be on the other side of the words. But when he is placed firmly beyond the other side of the words, the words multiply like flies and there is a great buzzing religion, very profitable, very holy, very spurious. One tries to escape it by acts of truth that fail. One’s whole being must be an act for which there can be found no word. This is the primary meaning of faith. On this basis, other dimensions of belief can be made credible. Otherwise not. My whole being must be a yes and an amen and an exclamation that is not heard. Only after that is there any point in exclamations and even after that there is no point in exclamations. One’s acts must be part of the same silent exclamation. It is because this is dimly and unconsciously realized by everyone, and because no one can reconcile this with the state of division and alienation in which we find ourselves, that they all without meaning it gravitate toward the big exclamation that means nothing and says nothing: Boom. The triumph of speech, when all the words have worn out, and when everybody still thinks that there remain an infinite amount of truths to be uttered. If only they could realize that nothing has to be uttered. Utterance makes sense only when it is spontaneous and free…. [This] is where the silence of the woods comes in. Not that there is something new to be thought and discovered in the woods, but only that the trees are all sufficient exclamations of silence, and one works there, cutting wood, clearing ground, cutting grass, cooking soup, drinking fruit juice, sweating, washing, making fire, smelling smoke, sweeping, etc. This is religion. The further one gets away from this, the more one sinks in the mud of words and gestures. The flies gather.[iv]

In February 1962, when I first met Merton, his long-nurtured fantasy of living as a hermit was in its second year of being realized. His abbot, Dom James Fox, had authorized the construction of a small cinderblock building that stood on the edge of the woods about a mile north of the monastery. Officially it was a place for Merton to meet with non-Catholic visitors for ecumenical dialogue, but from day one Merton saw it primarily as his hermitage. Merton had lit the first fire in the hearth in December 1960. It was, he wrote in his journal, “the first time in my life I ever really felt I had a home and that my waiting and looking were ended.”[v] A narrow bedroom behind the main room was part of the structure. Occasionally he had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965, three-and-a-half years later, that it became his full-time home. At that point Merton became the first Trappist hermit in modern times. He had become a citizen of the wilderness, much as Thoreau had been when he moved into his log cabin on the side of Walden Pond.

When I came to visit, the hermitage already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We sat inside, with Merton regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. There was a Japanese calendar on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year — not even the year was correct — and a black-on-black painting of the cross by Merton’s friend, Ad Reinhart. There was a bookcase and, next to it, a long table that served as a desk placed on the inside of the hermitage’s one large window offering a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been erected on the lawn, with a wagon wheel, symbol of wholeness and convergence, leaning against it. On the table was a portable Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse which Merton shared with a black snake.

My being a guest at that time was linked to another aspect of Merton’s vocation. If he had one foot in the wilderness, he also had one foot in the world. In the framework of the world-wilderness duality, I was from the other side — the world side — of the border: Monasticism, on the other hand, was generally thought of as a radical exodus from “the world,” the “world” meaning the arena of headlines, wars, propaganda, slogans, alienation, elections, noise, controversy, borders, competition, greed, etc. In theory the “world” was on the other of the monastery walls, but in reality — consider any astronaut’s photo of the whole earth — there is no border between here and there. As the fifties ended, Merton was becoming intensely aware of the underlying unity. “The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream,” he wrote. He could not turn a blind eye toward the world, its suffering and its march toward doomsday.

In his essay “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” he wrote:

There are always a few people who are in the woods at night, in the rain (because if there were not the world would have ended), and I am one of them… Of course at three-thirty A.M. [a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber] goes over, red light winking low under the clouds, skimming the wooded summits on the south side of the valley, loaded with strong medicine. Very strong. Strong enough to burn up all these woods….[vi]

A lone man listening to noises most of us sleep through. The root meaning of the word “monk” is the Greek word monokos — a person who is alone, a solitary. One does not have to belong to a monastery to experience and benefit from inner solitude. In his rain-drenched essay, Merton stresses the positive significance of being alone.

At the time of my first visit, I was part of the Catholic Worker community in New York City whose activities were largely urban. We were engaged in welcoming and assisting the down-and-out while engaging in occasional acts of protest. The leader of the community, Dorothy Day, had been to prison time and again for various acts of civil disobedience, most recently for refusing to take shelter during civil defense drills. Instead she had sat praying on a park bench in front of the mayor’s office. Following Christ, in Dorothy’s view, meant following his teaching and example. He killed no one and healed many. He invited us to live lives shaped by mercy and forgiveness. He neither advocated war nor took part in any. He was a threat to no one’s life.

Only a few months before my visit, in October 1961, The Catholic Worker had published its first essay by Merton, a text with the title “The Root of War Is Fear.” It was an expanded version of a chapter of the book he was then writing, New Seeds of Contemplation. In this chapter Merton stressed the human tendency to accuse the other rather than to accuse oneself, so that, failing to recognize our own co-responsibility for evils that lead toward war, we come to see war — even nuclear war — as necessary and justified, forced on us by the evil other. We pray for peace while spending a “fabulous amount of money, planning, energy, anxiety and care” on the production of weapons of mass annihilation. “It does not even seem to enter our minds,” Merton wrote, “that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as He had loved us, who warned us that they who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time annihilate not thousands but millions of civilians and soldiers, women and children without discrimination.” Only love, he wrote, “can exorcise the fear which is at the root of war.”

In the several pages that he added to the Catholic Worker version, Merton summoned his readers to embrace nonviolent methods of conflict resolution and to work for the abolition of war:

What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war…. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war. First of all there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method…. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time… for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it….[vii]

In the issues of The Catholic Worker that followed Merton wrote more on the topic. Such writing got him into a great deal of trouble.

Since the Reformation, censorship had been deeply embedded in Catholic life. A Catholic writing on theological topics was required to submit his or her books for scrutiny to an official censor who might in time grant a declaration of nihil obstat (Latin for “without error”), which would clear the way for the local bishop to give the book his imprimatur (“let it be printed”). For a Trappist author, the process was still more complex, involving prior approbation by censors within the order before the monk’s abbot gave permission for the book to be forwarded to the bishop for final approval. For the Trappists, it was not enough that a book or article be free of theological error; the topic also had to be deemed suitable for a Trappist to address. “The abbots-general in the fifties and sixties kept an eagle eye on Merton’s writings,” one older Trappist told me. “Their view was that prayer and weeping, not social commentary, were the province of monks.”

It became increasingly difficult for Merton to get his war-and-peace-related articles into print as some of the monks appointed as censors considered Merton’s views on war inappropriate if not outrageous. There is a document in the archive of the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville that gives a sense of the opposition Merton was facing within his own order after October 1961. Here we have an unnamed abbot of another American Trappist community writing to the Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais, warning him of the scandal being caused by Merton’s anti-war writings:

There is one further matter, Reverend Father, which I hesitate to speak of but which I feel I should. We have, in the United States, a weekly paper [in fact monthly] called “The Catholic Worker.” This is a very radical paper, which some Americans believe is a tool of the Communists. Fr. Louis (under the name Thomas Merton) has been writing for it frequently…. The name “Thomas Merton” is almost synonymous in America with “Trappist.” Thus quite a number of people believe that he is expressing the Trappist outlook…

The writer goes on to report that a military intelligence officer had visited his monastery and had spoken with him “concerning Father Louis.” [Louis was Merton’s monastic name.] He concludes his letter by acknowledging that many have benefitted from Merton’s “spiritual works,” but:

[I]t is difficult to understand how [Father Louis] can express himself so strongly on questions as to whether the United States should test nuclear weapons and also the wisdom of building fallout shelters. It is hard to see how — as an enclosed religious — he has access to enough facts to pass a prudent judgment on such matters.

Similar criticism was made in an editorial published in an archdiocesan newspaper, The Washington Catholic Standard. Here Merton was described “as an absolute pacifist” whose recent writings ignored “authoritative Catholic utterances” and made “unwarranted charges about the intention of our government towards disarmament.”

At the end of April 1962, Merton received a letter from his order’s Abbot General forbidding him to publish any war-related writings because, said Dom Gabriel Sortais, writing about war and peace “falsifies the message of the contemplative life.”[viii]

Merton wrote at length to me about this. Here’s an extract:

I have been trying to finish my book on peace [Peace in the Post-Christian Era] and have succeeded in time for the axe to fall…. For a long time I have been anticipating trouble with the higher superiors and now I have it. The orders are, no more writing about peace. This is transparently arbitrary and uncomprehending, but doubtless I have to make the best of it…. In substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace. This I know is not a very encouraging thing. It implies all sorts of very disheartening consequences as regards the whole cause of peace. It reflects an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastic values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation.

As Merton saw it, the monk was vocationally obliged to be among those most attentive to what was going on in the world at large and raise a prophetic voice in times of crisis:

The problem, from the point of view of the Church and its mission, is of course this. The validity of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the “kingdom of God.” The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized. But these authoritarian minds believe that the function of the monk is not to see or hear any new dimension, simply to support the already existing viewpoints precisely insofar as and because they are defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials…. [The monk] must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.

Merton’s own abbot, Dom James Fox, saw a loophole in the silencing order. If Merton was prohibited from writing about war for commercial publishers, non-commercial publication on a small scale by Merton’s own monastery was a different matter. With Dom James’s permission, a mimeographed edition of Peace in the Post-Christian Era, for controlled distribution, was run off, the first printing followed not long afterward by a second. By the end of 1962 there were five or six hundred copies of the book in circulation. Hot item that it was, few copies stayed long at any one address. Within a few months Merton’s banned book must have reached thousands of attentive readers, many of them people of influence. One recipient was Merton-correspondent Ethel Kennedy, who may well have shared it both with her husband Robert and her brother-in-law, President John Kennedy.

To the credit of Dom Gabriel Sortais, in 1964 he permitted copies of the mimeographed edition of Peace in the Post-Christian Era to be circulated to the bishops and theologians participating in the final session of the Second Vatican Council where Merton’s voice played a part in shaping the one formal condemnation issued by that Council:

Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.

It follows, the Council fathers declared, that conscientious objection to participation in war must be universally recognized and respected. “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of each human being,” the text read. “There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.” The express recognition of conscientious objection marked a major turning point in Church teaching. For centuries, Catholics in every country had been told to obey their rulers, submit to conscription, and do what they were ordered to do, assuring them that, were they made party to a sin by their obedience, the guilt would lie with the rulers rather than with themselves. Those who obey commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless to death were described as “criminal.”

This lecture has been both too long and not long enough. My focus has been limited to only a brief exploration of one aspect of Merton’s engagement with “the world.” Several topics that were important for him — for example racism and abuse of the environment — have been left unmentioned. But time’s up. Let me make just one final observation:

A Trappist hermit, living the silent life in a cinderblock shelter in the wilderness of Kentucky, paid such close attention to the nightly passage overhead of a Strategic Air Command B-52 bomber, whose cargo more than equaled hundreds of Hiroshimas and Nagasakis, that he played a part in shaping one of the most important results of the only Council of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century: its condemnation of total war and its affirmation of conscience, including our right, even our duty, to say no to killing. In the fifties no such change of direction could have been imagined not only by the average church member but even by the average member of the College of Cardinals.

We owe a great deal to Merton’s attentive eyes and ears. Thank God he had one foot in the wilderness and one foot in the world. Thank God for this unwalled and undivided man.

* * *

[i]           Sign of Jonas, 337.

[ii]          Sign of Jonas, 338-39.

[iii]         Letter by Bob Lax to Jubilee magazine staff, quoted by Jim Harford in his book Merton and Friends; New York: Continuum, 2006, p 105-6.

[iv] The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers by Thomas Merton, letter dated 10 April 1965, 225

[v] Entry dated 26 December 1960.

[vi] Raids on the Unspeakable, 13-14.

[vii] The full text of the paragraphs added to the Catholic Worker version of his essay are found in The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, Jim Forest, Orbis Books, 28-32.

[viii] See Merton’s letter to Jacques Maritain dated 12 February 1963; Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, 36.