Wisdom from Thomas Merton’s Letter to a Young Activist

Now that the presidential election is over, some of you may be feeling listless after the loss in the “biggest election of all time.” My advice? Don’t be.

Depending on where you stand politically, think about how you reacted to last nights election news.

Did you get caught up in the election cycle so much that you lost sight of the Kingdom of Heaven? A slippery slope lies between being a concerned citizen and morphing into a partisan political hack who sees everything through the lens of party and not through the lens of faith.

Idolatry lies along that path, and many fall as a result of it.

As human beings, we are immortal souls in mortal bodies. The irony is that we feel compelled to do many things, and we are called to take actions. And yet, what the contemplatives like Merton help teach us is that we must pace ourselves. To do this, we must think not of just the short and long run, but of the eternal run as well.

You see, to only be in “action” constantly is to burn oneself out, and cast our lot with disappointment. We need to pace ourselves, stop running around constantly, and spend peaceful time in adoration, spiritual reading, contemplation and prayer. This is where the work of conforming ourselves to Christ takes place, and verily we can’t change the world until we ourselves are changed.

This is a holistic concept that in the era of the “rise of the specialist” has unfortunately fallen to the wayside. But Christ wants your whole being, not just your best, or strongest feature.

Merton’s short letter below has much good advice for how to be an active contemplative. His advice is not just for “activists,” but for all of us across the spectrum of Christian vocations.

It is  fitting for all Christians who are journeying along the Way and amounts to staying focused on Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, while remembering the importance of our personal relationships.

from A Letter to a Young Activist

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do God’s will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it before hand.

Enough of this…it is at least a gesture…I will keep you in my prayers.

All the best, in Christ,


Good advice from an “active” contemplative to an aspiring one, don’t you think?

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  • Faith

    Where do you find this wonderful stuff? This is so perfect! Thank you.

  • JerryS

    I never felt that this was the “biggest election of all time.” It’s not like we’re at the edge of the precipice deciding whether to jump in. Rather, we’re hurtling into the abyss deciding whether to go faster (whee!!) or maybe slow the descent for a bit. We decided to floor it. Kyrie eleison.

    After voting I had little interest in the results. I felt no need to watch any returns. It had no impact on what I would do today. I went to bed early. It’s all up to God, anyway. All very philosophical and detached. I was, however, taken aback to see that 50% of professed Catholics supported the man. Again. After everything we’ve seen in the last 4 years. Christe eleison.

    We seem destined for a major chastisement. Sadly, it must start in the Church. Kyrie eleison.

  • http://mertonocso.wordpress.com/ Randall

    I think you would find that Merton would certainly be for Obama. He was always a progressive and would have cringed at the Right’s infringement on women, middle class and poor. For more on Merton you might find this site interesting: mertonocso.wordpress.com

    • Frank Weathers

      I’m not sure if he would have voted for either candidate, as I believe he would have cringed at what The Thing That Was Liberalism and The Thing That Was Conservatism have become. Of course, strange days are the norm, as Fr. Louis (and the rest of the saints) knew well.

      Thanks for your link!

  • Ted Seeber

    I didn’t vote for either candidate (being in a deeply blue state where any vote for anybody other than a Democrat is a complete waste of time). But I find it odd that so many of my fellow Catholics in America, seem seduced by evil.

    And now I’m going to confession on Saturday, because I’m in despair over it.

  • chris

    J. R. R. Tolkien

    Frodo: “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

    Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil.”

    (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring)

  • http://www.jimandnancyforest.com Jim Forest

    The young activist to whom Merton’s letter was sent was me. It has been a help to me time and again. Glad to see you helping it reach new readers.
    My biography of Merton, “Living With Wisdom,” might interest you. Orbis is the publisher. Get the revised edition.

    • Frank Weathers

      How about that?! Thanks for stopping in Jim. :)

  • http://ICloud Karen Wilson Green

    I went to Washington 6 yrs ago and experienced a surreal occurrence . Shortly after, I became very ill and have faced the biggest challenge in my life so far. This I know: I’m closer to Jesus and His Passion so everything that my Spirit is at peace through prayer, fasting, and my Church.