Thomas Merton

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Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are.

Thomas Merton (31 January 191510 December 1968) was one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in the U.S. state of Kentucky, Merton was an acclaimed Catholic theologian, poet, author and social activist.

Quotes[edit]

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason for my existence, for God is love.
Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.
The biggest human temptation is … to settle for too little.
All problems are resolved and everything is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya… everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.
This new language of prayer has to come out of something which transcends all our traditions, and comes out of the immediacy of love.
  • To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason for my existence, for God is love.
    Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.
    • Seeds of Contemplation (1949)
  • Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the impersonal "law" and to abstract "nature." That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him ... and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who "saves himself" in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.
  • A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying God. It “consents,” so to speak, to God's creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.
    • New Seeds of Contemplation (1972)
  • The biggest human temptation is … to settle for too little.
    • As quoted in Forbes (4 August 1980)
  • I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything — without refutation — without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening.
    • The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (1975) Part One : Ceylon / November 29 - December 6
  • Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. ... The thing about this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no "mystery."
    All problems are resolved and everything is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya… everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.
    The whole thing is very much a Zen garden, a span of bareness and openness and evidence, and the great figures, motionless, yet with the lines in full movement, waves of vesture and bodily form, a beautiful and holy vision.
    • The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (1975) Part One : Ceylon / November 29 - December 6
  • This new language of prayer has to come out of something which transcends all our traditions, and comes out of the immediacy of love. We have to part now, aware of the love that unites us, the love that unites us in spite of real differences, real emotional friction... The things on the surface are nothing, what is deep is the Real. We are creatures of Love. Let us therefore join hands, as we did before, and I will try to say something that comes out of the depths of our hearts. I ask you to concentrate on the love that is in you, that is in us all. I have no idea what I am going to say. I am going to be silent a minute, and then I will say something...
O God, we are one with You. You have made us one with You. You have taught us that if we are open to one another, You dwell in us. Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts. Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection. O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept You, and we thank You, and we adore You, and we love You with our whole being, because our being is Your being, our spirit is rooted in Your spirit. Fill us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes You present in the world, and which makes You witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. Amen.
  • Closing statements and prayer from an informal address delivered in Calcutta, India (October 1968), from The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (1975); quoted in Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master : The Essential Writings (1992), p. 237
  • The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.
    • Statement from his final address, during a conference on East-West monastic dialogue, delivered just two hours before his death (10 December 1968), quoted in Religious Education, Vol. 73 (1978), p. 292, and in The Boundless Circle : Caring for Creatures and Creation (1996) by Michael W. Fox
  • Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.
    • Letter to Dorothy Day, quoted in Catholic Voices in a World on Fire (2005) by Stephen Hand, p. 180

The Seven Storey Mountain (1948)[edit]

  • Is there any man who has ever gone through a whole lifetime without dressing himself up, in his fancy, in the habit of a monk and enclosing himself in a cell where he sits magnificent in heroic austerity and solitude, while all the young ladies who hitherto were cool to his affections in the world come and beat on the gates of the monastery crying, "Come out, come out!"
  • There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in the wind that does not preach and proclaim the greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world. There is not an act of kindness or generosity, not an act of sacrifice done, or a word of peace and gentleness spoken, not a child's prayer uttered, that does not sing hymns to God before his throne, and in the eyes of men, and before their faces
  • It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness. And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money. We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.
  • Everybody makes fun of virtue, which by now has, as its primary meaning, an affectation of prudery practiced by hypocrites and the impotent.
  • Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers the most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture.

The Ascent to Truth (1951)[edit]

We drive by night. Nevertheless our reason penetrates the darkness enough to show us a little of the road ahead. It is by the light of reason that we interpret the signposts and make out the landmarks along our way.
  • One might compare the journey of the soul to mystical union, by way of pure faith, to the journey of a car on a dark highway. The only way the driver can keep to the road is by using his headlights. So in the mystical life, reason has its function. The way of faith is necessarily obscure. We drive by night. Nevertheless our reason penetrates the darkness enough to show us a little of the road ahead. It is by the light of reason that we interpret the signposts and make out the landmarks along our way.
    Those who misunderstand Saint John of the Cross imagine that the way of nada is like driving by night, without any headlights whatever. This is a dangerous misunderstanding of the saint's doctrine.
    • Ch. X : Reason in the Life of Contemplation, p. 114

Thoughts in Solitude (1956)[edit]

  • We must suffer. Our five sense are dulled by inordinate pleasure. Penance makes them keen, gives them back their natural vitality, and more. Penance clears the eye of conscience and of reason. It helps think clearly, judge sanely. It strengthens the action of our will.
  • Contradictions have always existed in the soul of [individuals]. 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.
  • 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.

The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton (1959)[edit]

  • There is a logic of language and a logic of mathematics. The former is supple and lifelike, it follows our experience. The latter is abstract and rigid, more ideal. The latter is perfectly necessary, perfectly reliable: the former is only sometimes reliable and hardly ever systematic. But the logic of mathematics achieves necessity at the expense of living truth, it is less real than the other, although more certain. It achieves certainty by a flight from the concrete into abstraction. Doubtless, to an idealist, this would seem to be a more perfect reality. I am not an idealist. The logic of the poet — that is, the logic of language or the experience itself — develops the way a living organism grows: it spreads out towards what it loves, and is heliotropic, like a plant.

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)[edit]

  • It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.


Misattributed[edit]

  • Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.
    • Attributed to Merton in a number of sources, the earliest located being Studia mystica, Volumes 5-6 (1982), p. 76. This does not attribute a direct quote to Merton, but says "To use another of Merton's favorite distinctions, for Furlong Merton's life is seen principally as a problem to be solved, which it was, in the final analysis, successfully, rather than a mystery to be lived". The next-earliest source located is the 1998 book The Artist's Way at Work: Riding the Dragon by Mark Bryan and Julia Cameron, which attributes the exact quote to Merton on p. 152. In reality this seems to be a slightly altered version of the quote "The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved; it is a reality to be experienced" which appeared in the 1928 book The Conquest of Illusion by Jacobus Johannes Leeuw, p. 9.

External links[edit]

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