Bishop Robert Morneau discusses
The Spirituality of Merton
in The Catholic Church in the Twentieth CenturyJohn Deedy, Editor The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN
If spirituality is about searching, struggle, restlessness, Thomas Merton was one deeply engaged in these activities throughout his life. . . .
In what lies the good life, the holy life? For Merton and his close friends three things were essential: simplicity, wholeness and love. Merton responded to the call to contemplative life and sought in the radical simplicity of this life his path to God.
Closely allied to simplicity is humility, a virtue that Merton often wrote about and which he found difficult to practice given his many talents and strong egotism. Yet throughout his writing and his entire life, he knew the one thing necessary: a union with God and people that overflowed in peace and joy.
Wholeness was another spiritual ingredient that Merton prayed for and made valiant efforts to attain. Integrity was a precious gem that he sought to acquire yet found so illusive. At times he would describe himself as a phony, saying one thing and doing another, writing eloquently while knowing that his present reality was quite different. Though never totally successful, part of the attraction to Merton’s life and his writing is that they are “real,” they present a flawed human being who found pretense abhorrent. There’s an authenticity that allows us to appreciate and accept life as a truly “human” journey.
Merton was absolutely clear about the primacy of love on the spiritual journey. That is why he treasured so profoundly friendship, friendship with God as well as with a variety of men and women. The cost of friendship in terms of time, energy, commitment was high and Merton paid the full price. Mistakes were made, hurts were inflicted, some scars never healed. But the importance of relationships over things and career stands out as a major contribution to spirituality in the last one hundred years.
Merton also contributed much to the role of prayer and contemplation on his spiritual journey. He wrote brilliantly and movingly about the necessity of silence and solitude. He was in full agreement with John of the Cross in holding that contemplation at bottom was essentially loving attention. Merton sought more and more the depth of prayer that led to union. He hungered with a passionate restlessness for “experience,” for the immediacy of God that left concepts and images and creedal propositions far behind. Merton witnessed to the contemplative life and a good part of the world paid attention.
One of the constant refrains in Merton’s journey was the issue of the false self. Here the Trappist monk had a deep appreciation for modern psychology and its many insights. All of us deal with a variety of selves; our ideal self, our social self, our “real” self, and yes, our false self. We are capable of constructing an image of who we think we are and what we would like to be, which is not the image that God has of us. Stripping away the false self — the process of conversion — is a life-long process and one sense that right up to his fifty-third and final year, Merton was engaged in a violent warfare against the false self.
So what has Merton left the twentieth century as a legacy? Numerous books describing prayer, solitude, the hungers of the human heart; a life that was “real,” filled with successes and failures, graces and sins; an appreciation of friendship as one of the greatest of all God’s gifts; the willingness to stay in the process of conversion, turning from our false self to the living and true God; the need to balance our excessive desire for full autonomy with an awareness that some authority and guidance is absolutely necessary; the joy of living and the ecstasy of poetry; an appreciation of the richness of other traditions and the need to glean their wisdom; a love for writing by which we can process our lives.
Although Merton has been dead for over thirty years, his writings continue to be published and read. Let me leave Merton on a personal note. A friend of mine was working as a salesman. He happened one evening to see a copy of Merton’s autobiographical piece “The Seven Storey Mountain.” He read it through the night and within a week applied to enter the seminary. He was ordained and served as a priest for twenty-eight years until his death. Many other individuals also attribute to Merton a part of their finding God. No greater legacy could be left.