The Fruits of Silence (My Unlikely Kinship with Thomas Merton)


As a man, especially as one whose vocation was monasticism, Thomas Merton was something of a contradiction. The Cistercian is without doubt one of the most well-known and revered religious figures of the twentieth century. Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain is, according to the back cover of my own edition, “one of the most famous books ever written about a man’s search for faith and peace,” and one that draws sincere comparisons to Augustine’s Confessions.

This fame comes despite the fact that for many, Merton was hardly a shining example of a Trappist. I learned this on a recent visit to the doctor’s office to which I carried the Seven Storey Mountain under my arm to help pass time in the waiting room. The gentleman sitting next to me recognized the book and informed me that it was a banned book at the seminary where he had spent four years during the late 50s.

Certainly, Merton was unconventional. When he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, he established his own hermitage separate from the other monks, devoting himself to writing and correspondence with many other religious figures, particularly in the East. His unconventionality as a monk reached its peak when Merton left the abbey in 1968 for a tour of Asia to meet with a series of religious figures and leaders, including the Dalai Lama. It was on this trip that Merton died from accidental electrocution.

The monastic life is typically associated with solitude and silence. Contrary to popular belief, however, Merton’s Order of the Cistercians, who follow the Rule of St. Benedict, do not take a strict vow of silence, though they pledge to restrict communication to what is of absolute necessity so that they might better devote themselves to the contemplative life.

The earliest ascetics, however, who laid the foundation for later forms of monasticism, are often depicted as especially joyless and withdrawn from the world around them, all in attempt to purify themselves of the sins of the material world. An extreme example is found in Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony. Of Antony we read that,

On the far side of he river he found a deserted fort which in the course of time had become infested with creeping things. There he settled down to live. The reptiles, as though someone were chasing them, left at once. He blocked up the entrance, having laid down bread for six months…and with water in place, he disappeared as in a shrine. He remained there alone, never going forth and never seeing anyone pass by. [1]

Merton, in contrast, was loud. Not necessarily vocally, but he made himself known. That a Trappist monk would pen an almost 500 page autobiography detailing his early life and failures could easily been seen as self-indulgent. While the book is a sincere exploration of its author’s journey, it is not exactly deathly serious. There’s humour to be found as well as a willingness on the part of the author to admit uncertainty and anxiety as well as fondly recall his non-religious childhood.

When it came to his life and vocation, Merton seemed willing to go on and on. In his introduction to the book, editor Robert Giroux notes the resentment that came from those who thought it inappropriate that a so-called contemplative would undertake writing as an additional vocation. Giroux reports receiving a letter that remarked, “Tell this talking Trappist who took a vow of silence to shut up!“[2] Once again, Trappists take no such vow.

The fact is there is no one standard by which to judge Merton as a monk. While contemplation is a common theme running through the rules of many orders, it is not always meant to be entirely divorced from action or communication. Nor is it realistic to judge a man negatively because he failed to mirror the more bizarre aspects of his predecessors, the details of whose lives were often exaggerated anyway.

***

There is really no need for me to defend Merton or his book, which is now an established classic despite criticisms from small circles. Instead, I want to merely offer a reflection on the theme of silence and contemplation as I learned it from this loud Trappist.

Merton and I are different. As an atheist, I share none of his vocation or longing for the presence of God that he claims to have felt since his early years. Nonetheless, the recurring theme of “interiority,” or finding peace and happiness beyond the surface and material level of our lives is one that resonated with me greatly. Our day to day lives, sometimes out of necessity, can be driven by confrontation, anger, a need for control, and a materialism that often proves unfulfilling. This emptiness drives Merton throughout the Seven Storey Mountain.

For the contemplative, silence is a matter of withdrawing oneself from the temporal world and rather than undertaking a pursuit of rational thought or action, it is an exercise that concerns listening. It is a matter of not desiring or wanting anything from the world. In fact, contemplation, in the Christian tradition, is meant to be passive and a means of communing with God, who according to this tradition exists beyond our capabilities of language, reason, and action. That force is thus known only by withdrawing from the material world of action.

Certainly, the concept is abstract, and it is something that Merton does not fully flesh out in his autobiography. He does, however, provide a glimpse into the wonder of silence that he discovers upon entering the Abbey as a novice,

What wonderful happiness there was, then, in the world! There were still men on this miserable, noisy, cruel earth, who tasted the marvelous joy of silence and solitude, who dwelt in forgotten mountain cells, in secluded monasteries, where the news and desires and appetites and conflicts of the world no longer reached them.

They were free from the burden of the flesh’s tyranny, and their clear vision, clean of the world’s smoke and of its bitter sting, were raised to heaven and penetrated into the deeps of heaven’s infinite and healing light. [3]

Silence and contemplation, much like the Zen Buddhist traditions of which Merton became quite fond, enable us to enter a state of awareness and absorption. It is, in a sense, a resistance against the instincts of confrontation or thinking ourselves into exhaustion. In silence and contemplation, we are not trying to manipulate our surroundings as we so often do in our day to day lives, but rather detaching ourselves from those very instincts if only for a short time and seeing beyond our immediate surroundings.

For Merton and those of his vocation, entering the contemplative mode was going beyond our surface life and jettisoning our conventional ways of thinking and reasoning to feel a force that goes beyond all of that. In his New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton writes,

We experience God in proportion as we are stripped and emptied of attachment to his creatures. And when he have been delivered from every other desire we shall taste the perfection of an incorruptible joy. [4]

In my own meditational practices, though I do not take God as the object of this practice, I find some truth in the contemplative experience. As I sit in silence and concentrate strictly on breathing so that my mind is not occupied with a particular thought or object, the detachment that the contemplatives value does indeed come to fruition. Thoughts do come up. We are thinking creatures. In this silence, however, my goal is not to dwell on them, but simply to acknowledge them and continue breathing. Silence thus serves as a form of humility and resistance to violence or confrontation as I’ve noted throughout.

I find that this silence can be described as a pure form of love. We are listening and observing, and through this process can often see and learn things that we could not while we were tiring our minds with action and thought. We take things as they are and acknowledge them.We can easily exhaust our minds with too much action, which in turn only dulls our capacity for fruitful action and leaves us with no time for deep thinking or reflection or just understanding what it is that surrounds us.

The silence is not meant to push us into a place of passiveness. It is not meant to force us to accept injustice, but to understand that we can sometimes only learn when we step outside of our temporal world. Through contemplation and silence, we might find that we are capable of more than our fleeting emotions or desires. Lay Cistercian Carl McColman succinctly drives this point home when he says, “[b]eholding is the tree, and a life well lived is the fruit it bears.” We begin in silence, which emphasizes acceptance, resistance to violence, and our own smallness and need for humility, and take this lesson into the world.

Once again, I understand that this may be frustratingly abstract. I myself continue to struggle with the language and concepts of contemplation. The fruits of silence only reveal their truth and reality in practice, and this too, I admit, may not be a practice that works for everyone. For me, however, it has been an extremely slow process of worthwhile learning and liberation to spend time in silence each day, an idea that I stumbled upon through a fascination with monasticism the origins of which I still cannot explain.

***

The most important lesson from Merton’s autobiography is the intersection of silence and action. While theologians have gone back and forth over the course of centuries about the difference between the active and contemplative life, Merton sees them as unified. Through a long journey in which he is on many occasions indecisive about his vocation, including his failed attempt at becoming a Franciscan and abandoning the idea of the priesthood altogether, Merton comes to a point at which he is finally at peace with his decision, though he admits he is still learning about contemplation.

Merton reconciles his vocation of prayer and contemplation with the politically vocal and active student that he was during his years at Columbia as well as the young man who accompanied a Russian baroness to Harlem to carry out missionary work in service of that community. Contemplation must have its fruits for Merton, and ideally is not an end in itself. Merton writes, “Practically anyone who realizes the existence of the debate can tell you that Saint Thomas taught that there were three vocations: that to the active life, that to the contemplative, and a third to the mixture of both, and that this last is superior to the other two.” [5]

Whether or not he was a good monk, whatever that might mean, Thomas Merton was not a perfect one, nor was he a perfect man. It was through struggle and hard thought and trial and error that he came to lead the life he did. If such a man, who in telling his story comes across as an especially human friendly and wise uncle that you’re actually happy to see at Christmas, can devote a life to thought and teaching through his writing, then I suppose there is hope for those of us who are not perfect to spend time in thought and share its fruits with others.

No matter one’s belief system, it is possible to have a friend in Thomas Merton and see in his story that fulfillment lies beyond our immediate concerns, though of course we cannot neglect them. Withdrawing into silence, we find that the world does not begin and end with ourselves and that we are capable of quelling our desire for confrontation and violence. Learning a healthy detachment, we return from our silence refreshed.

We are not, as some charlatans would have us believe, trying to change the world our achieve our own selfish ends through magical thinking, but merely humbling ourselves and realizing that our actions can be informed by love rather than force, that an approach emphasizing patience can yield more fruitful results than one built upon immediacy. When we resist violence in our thoughts and in ourselves, we resist it in our actions.

Notes:

[1] “The Life of St. Antony.” The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. Edited by Bernard McGinn. New York: Modern Library, 2006.,49-55, pp. 53

[2] Merton, Thomas. The Seven Story Mountain. New York: Harvest Books, 1948., pp. xvii

[3] Ibid., pp. 346

[4] Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation.” The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. Edited by Bernard McGinn. New York: Modern Library, 2006., 545-553, pp. 549

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3 Comments

  1. Ravi, this is a thoughtful essay and I heartily agree with its conclusion, “No matter one’s belief system, it is possible to have a friend in Thomas Merton…”

    A few clarifications are in order. You wrote, “When he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, he established his own hermitage separate from the other monks.” Actually, Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941, and while he imagined the possibility as early as 1949, he lived in community for most of his time there. In the 1950s he spent periodic afternoons at a toolshed dubbed “St. Anne’s”. He was looking for a deeper experience of solitude and explored the possibility of joining a more restrictive monastic community (the Carthusians or Camaldollese). It was not until late in 1964, four years before his death, that Merton received permission to sleep at the hermitage which had been constructed on the grounds of Gethsemani (in 1960).

    I would challenge the the idea that “Merton was hardly a shining example of a Trappist” based on the opinion of someone you happened to meet at your dentist’s office. While there are many who have been critical of Merton, it is well known that “The Seven Storey Mountain” inspired many men and women to enter religious life. I have never heard of it being banned by a seminary, though it is possible that a lone administrator hostile to Merton’s views on peace and justice would do so. But, if true, it was certainly an isolated incident.

    You wrote, “His unconventionality as a monk reached its peak when Merton left the abbey in 1968 for a tour of Asia to meet with a series of religious figures and leaders, including the Dalai Lama.” This may give some the impression that Merton “left” his abbey permanently, but he in fact was given permission by his abbot to attend the conference in Bangkok, which dealt specifically with monasticism. Through the years, Merton had been asked many times to give talks at conferences and, almost always, he declined, usually because the abbot refused permission. The abbot himself described Merton as “the most obedient” of the monks in the community, as opposed to the idea that he did not adhere to his monastic vows.

    Lastly, you wrote, “That a Trappist monk would pen an almost 500 page autobiography detailing his early life and failures could easily been seen as self-indulgent.” In fact, it was Merton’s abbot who directed him to write the autobiography. Merton had renounced his life as a writer upon entering Gethsemani, but the abbot discerned that it was important for Merton to honor this gift and make use of it. Of course, he had a deep vocation as both a monk and a writer, and he explored both of these callings to the fullest.

    Your reflections are rich and I hope you will continue reading Merton and profit from the experience. He is a trustworthy guide!

    Reply
    • Hi Mike,

      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment, which helped to bring some more nuance to my understanding of Merton. I am very new to reading him, so I admit there is much to learn and understand about his life and his teachings, but after reading the Seven Storey Mountain, I’m eager to keep doing so.

      Either way, you’ve definitely alerted me to some things that I didn’t know. As far as Merton’s trip to Asia is concerned, I knew that it wasn’t his intention to not return to the Abbey, but I understand that my wording of that sentence may have left that impression.

      I will indeed continue to read Merton and I thank you once again for your very helpful comment.

      Reply
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