Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Ezekiel Lotz on Thomas Merton’s letter to Rachel Carson

[Thomas] Merton‘s letter to [Rachel] Carson, which he marked for inclusion as an appendix to his so-called “Cold War Letters,” succinctly summarizes the situation as Merton saw it and served as a springboard for the many other reflections on technology and ecology that would weave themselves in and out of his writings for the next six years.

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First of all, he notes that there is a strange and perplexing paradoxical contradiction seemingly inherent in the inter-relationships of technology and ecology. There is the same mental process involved (Merton notes to Carson that he had almost written “mental illness” instead of process) in the human person’s irresponsible propensity to “scorn the smallest values” while daring to use “our titanic power in a way that threatens not only civilization but life itself.” This vicious circle of suicidal actions is repeated in our very attempts to cure the illness: “…it seems that our remedies are instinctively those which aggravate the sickness: the remedies are expressions of the sickness itself“.[1][2]

There is a type of death wish, a Thantos Syndrome as Walker Percy termed it in his final novel, built right into humankind’s most fundamental being. Merton compares it to the Christian concept of original sin, but notes that no matter what one’s “dogmatic convictions,” humans almost universally possess a “tendency to destroy and negate” themselves just “when everything is at its best, and that it is just when things are paradisiacal that” we use our technological powers in a horrifyingly destructive manner.[3] Thus, there is a hatred of life lurking right under the surface of our optimism about ourselves and about our affluent society. But the economics, culture, philosophy of affluence is itself so self-defeating, contains “so many built-in frustrations” of its own that it “inevitably leads us to despair.”[4] The “awful fruit of this despair” is even more “indiscriminate, irresponsible destructiveness” and “hatred of life” (including hatred directed towards the natural world) to the point that in order “to ‘survive’ we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends.”[5] Furthermore, this destructive activity not only savages the natural resources of the world around us, it also eradicates the religious, spiritual systems that have for thousands of years assisted humans in maintaining a healthy balance between themselves and the planet on which they live. In the words of Donald P. St. John, “The technological system that has shattered nature’s system of checks and balances, and promised godlike powers to humans, has simultaneously eroded cultural systems which generate virtues and a perennial wisdom that attempted to guard humanity from its own excesses.”[6]
— Ezekiel Lotz in his speech “Thomas Merton and Technology: Paradise Regained Re-lost” presented at the Gethsemani III conference (The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Bardstown, Kentucky: Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, May 27, 2008).


[1] Thomas Merton in Witness to Freedom: The letters of Thomas Merton in times of Crisis, edited by William Henry Shannon, (San Diego, California: Harcourt Brace, 1995), p. 71. First published (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994).
[2] Also note Merton’s journal entry for December 11, 1962 in reference to wanting to obtain and read Carson’s book: “Someone will say: you worry about birds: why not worry about people? I worry about both birds and people. We are in the world and are part of it and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves, spiritually, morally and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness, and it all hangs together.” Available in The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 4, Turning Toward the World (1960-1963): The pivotal years, edited by Victor Kramer, (San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p. 274f.
[3] Thomas Merton in Witness to Freedom, p. 71.
[4] ibid., p. 71.
[5] ibid., p. 71.
[6] Donald P. St. John in “Technological culture and contemplative ecology in Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, in Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology, Volume 6, Issue 2, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2002), p. 166.

Meng-hu on Thomas Merton on solitude

Merton insists that “non-conformity” cannot be rebellion, for this sets up new illusions, subjective ones instead of social ones. This can be worse than accepting the social myth. But to guard against a false religion or a narcissistic mythology — “a world of private fictions and self-constructed delusions” — means becoming “fully awake,” fully conscious.

Hence, solitude must be characterized by “emptiness, humility, and purity.” The solitary pulls free of the diversions that alienate him from self and from God to live in transcendent unity.

His solitude is neither an argument, an accusation, a reproach or a sermon. It is simply life itself. It is. … It not only does not attract attention, or desire it, but it remains, for the most part, completely invisible.

Merton stresses the distinction between the solitary and the individualist. The individualist does not seek transcendence, only a heightened self-consciousness, a higher form of diversion. He does not reject the social myth but maintains it as a backdrop to his own myths. He seeks not the hidden and metaphysical but the smugness of self-congratulations. In short, the individualist’s model is not the desert but the womb.
Meng-hu in his article “House of Solitude: Thomas Merton’s Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude. Cites Thomas Merton‘s “Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude” published in Disputed Questions, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960), p. 177.

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Thomas Del Prete on Thomas Merton’s epistemology

What [Thomas] Merton does, in terms of knowing and knowledge, is to capture anew a quality of knowing alien to our modern and western consciousness, one that reflects an integral relationship between mind and heart, between lived inner experience and insight, between intellect and intuition, and between understanding and being. This way of knowing seems an important, if not necessary basis for growth in wisdom and contemplative awareness. In fostering it, Merton provides a striking and instructive contrast to the all-too-familiar approach in which learning is construed as a matter of acquisition, of absorption, control, and manipulation of information by a detached and unreflective individual, or as a purely cerebral act. Merton’s understanding of the purpose and manner of knowing implies a profound interior or ontological openness and attentiveness, and the possibility of a new, renewed, or deeper re-orientation of self in love. As he put it simply, “We study in order to love.”
Thomas Del Prete in his speech “The Contemplative as Teacher: Learning from Thomas Merton” presented at the first general meeting of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Southampton, England: May 1996).

Thomas Merton on alienation

What is alienation, and what is an alienated person, and what are the results of alienation? Alienation is the psychological condition of somebody who is never allowed to be fully himself. For example, in the social order a slave is an alienated person because he does not belong to himself. His work is not his own. There is no real personal meaning to his life, because everything he does belongs to somebody else. Anything can be taken away at any moment.

Transfer that obvious example to a person who is never able to be himself because he is always dominated by somebody else’s ideas or somebody else’s tastes or somebody else’s saying that this is the way to act and this is the way to see things. We live in a society in which many people are alienated in that sense without realizing it. Their choices are made for them, they don’t really have ideas and desires of their own; they simply repeat what has been told them. And yet they think that they are making free choices, and to some extent maybe they are.

What happens to a person in this condition is that, without realizing it, he does not have any real respect for himself. He thinks that he has ideas and he thinks he is doing what he freely wants to do, but actually he is being pushed around, and this results in a sort of resentment, which in turn leads to hatred and violence under a cover of respectability. This is the problem of our world, psychologists tell us. People feel inner tensions and violence and hatred, and they are ready to explode at any moment because they don’t really belong to themselves.
Thomas Merton in Thomas Merton in Alaska: The Alaskan Conferences, Journals, and Letters, (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1989), p. 74.

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"What is alienation, and what is an alienated person"

Thomas Merton on loving by letting

God knows us from within ourselves, not as objects, not as strangers, not as intimates, but as our own selves. His knowledge of us is the pure light of which our own self-knowledge is only a dim reflection. He knows us in Himself, not merely as images of something outside Him, but as “selves” in which His own self is expressed. He finds Himself more perfectly in us than we find ourselves.

He alone holds the secret of a charity by which we can love others not only as we love ourselves, but as He loves them. The beginning of this love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them. Can this be charity?
Thomas Merton in No Man Is an Island, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003), p. 168. Originally published (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955).

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"God knows us from within ourselves"

Thomas Merton on the crafting of symbols

In dealing with symbolism one enters an area where reflection, synthesis, and contemplation are more important than investigation, analysis, and science. One cannot comprehend a symbol unless one is able to awaken, in one’s own being, the spiritual resonances which respond to the symbol not only as sign but as “sacrament” and “presence.”… The true symbol does not merely point to some hidden object. It contains in itself a structure which in some way makes us aware of the inner meaning of life and of reality itself. A true symbol takes us to the center of the circle, not to another point on the circumference. A true symbol points to the very heart of all being, not to an incident in the flow of becoming.
Thomas Merton, in his essay “Symbolism: Communication or Communion?” in the posthumously published collection Love and Living, edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart, 2002 edition, p. 54. Cited by Dr. Charles T. Davis of Appalachian State University in “How Others Read the Bible” (not currently available online).

Thomas Merton on Zen and the Art of Narcissism

Descartes made a fetish out of the mirror in which the self finds itself. Zen shatters it.
Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander