Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton April 18, 2008

Last night I watched a beautiful and moving documentary: Merton: A Film Biography. To be honest, the film quality, editing and whatnot were all quite mediocre, it was the subject that made viewing so exquisite. Thomas Merton, a Trappist (Catholic) Monk, lived a life of fierce spirituality, struggling to the very heart of what it meant – and means – to live a life of both amazing spiritual depth and passionate social commitment.

My own love and amazement with Merton began when I was in England three years ago studying for my MA in Buddhism. His “Asian Journal” was sitting in an odd corner of the tiny departmental library where I often went to relax after class. It is an amazing read: effusive and joyful, contemplative and poetic… hopeful and yet grounded.

His biography is likewise inspiring, perhaps especially to me because I see so much of myself in his life. I see how he molded his intelligence and rambunctious youth into one of our century’s most prolific religious figures and I can only hope to live out some shred of that simple spiritual greatness. In any case, here are some bits from the movie (mostly excerpts from his writings) to ponder:


Solitude is not found so much by looking outside the boundaries of your own dwelling as by staying within. Solitude is a deepening of the present. And unless you look for it in the present, you will never find it.


In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of a shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, a world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The conception of separation from the world that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion, the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being. – from “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander


While non-violence is regarded as somehow sinister, vicious, and evil, violence has manifold acceptable forms in which it is not only tolerated, but approved by American society.


One would certainly wish that the Catholic position on Nuclear war was as strict as the Catholic position on birth control.

It seems a little strange that we are so wildly exercised about the murder of an unborn infant by abortion, or even the prevention of conception, which is hardly murder, and yet accept without a qualm the extermination of millions of helpless and and innocent adults.

(from an interview about Merton) …When a nuclear war comes, it will not be because of the insane, a psychotic getting to the button. It will be because sane persons have accepted sane commands, coming all down the chain. And [Merton] felt that we were really on a very perilous course because of the insanity of thinking that you could win a nuclear war… or that you could limit a nuclear war, that 20 million people were expendable. Merton saw all of that and cried out against it.

In the last weeks of his life, he traveled to India to meet with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks and then on to Sri Lanka before finally attending a conference in Bangkok, Thailand. It was in Sri Lanka that, according to the movie, Merton had “the most moving religious experience of his life.”

There he visited the great statues at Polonnaruwa, some of the largest and most ancient depictions of the Buddha in existence today. Of his experience he wrote:

I am able to approach the Buddha barefoot and undisturbed. Then, the silence of the extraordinary faces, the great smiles, huge yet subtle, filled with every possibility. Questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing.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. Surely, with Polonnaruwa, my Asian Pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know, and have seen what I was obscurely looking for.

Days later he died in a tragic accident in Bangkok. It was December 10, 1968.

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