Thomas Merton: The Rediscovered Geography of an American Mystic.

Alan Altany

Early Geography: A Monastic Sanctuary


The life of the American monk, Thomas Merton, is a story of a continual movement away from inner and outer idols and towards union with the desert God of his Christian faith. In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, written when he was in his early thirties, he said that "in one sense we are always travelling; and travelling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense we have already arrived." (1) The very choice of the title from Dante's imagery of a purgatorial mountain which must be ascended in order to reach the gates of paradise demonstrates Merton's early awareness of himself as on a long and difficult journey through a dangerous and mysterious geography.


This geography was constantly being re-evaluated and remapped. From his birth in France in 1915 until his death in Asia in 1968, Merton was surrounded and shaped by the complexities of the twentieth century. Through his writings, especially his journals and poetry, he left a personal map of his search for paradise, for the sacred, for union with God.


In his initial years as a monk Merton continued to be influenced by Neoplatonic thought and the mystical tradition in Christian history which it greatly informed. The earthly pilgrim was one who sought the ascending path towards the eternal realm of truth, towards heaven, while leaving this world of shadowy existence behind. Dante's Divine Comedy (with Comedia meaning a story with a happy ending) exemplifies the close connection that Merton saw between the pilgrim and the mystic. Dante's work begins with himself in a dark woods, unable to climb out and then up a wondrous mountain because of ferocious beasts blocking the way. But the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, appears and tells Dante that only by passing through hell and purgatory can he find his way to heaven. The dark woods can be seen as the dark night of mystical literature and the need to go through hell as symbolic of the mystic's need to go through the center of that dark night of doubt, despair, anguish and the seeming absence of God. Merton's idea of the sacred came to demand of him a refusal to escape directly into an abstract, timeless realm of pure sacrality, but was instead a journey into the inner hells and purgatory of his own fears and egoism or self-absorption. Thus, for Merton the image of pilgrimage and mystical quest was indicative of a struggle in the wilderness of solitude and liminality where all the old securities lost their validity. Virgil leads Dante past the gates of hell where it is inscribed: LAY DOWN ALL HOPE, YOU THAT GO IN BY ME. (2)


Dante places Satan, encased in ice, at the center of the earth. It is the point of greatest horror, but also of reversal. Once past Satan's generative organs, the descent becomes an ascent towards Mount Purgatory. As for Merton, facing the evil and terror is the way to get beyond it. The wilderness is the place of opposites and reversals and transformation. Merton's use of the Dantean image of Mount Purgatory for his autobiography is based upon its portrayal of progressive transformation of the sinful self by love. There is suffering, as in hell, but unlike hell the suffering is redemptive because love, not evil, is the meaning of the fire and suffering. Merton's Virgil can be said to be multi-faced with people like Augustine, Aquinas, Eckhart, Gandhi, Suzuki, Camus, Pasternak, John of the Cross leading Merton through the levels of his hell and purgatory. Even with a medieval-shaped geography of the earth and universe, Dante did not want his work taken too literally, for its soteriological, moral and mystical meanings were central. For Merton the mystic's pilgrimage is not necessarily through a literal desert, but through the radical emptiness of the self when devoid of its usual distractions and delusions and sins. At the top of the mountain Dante meets Beatrice, his image of love, in whom truth and beauty are united. In one sense Merton's own self is his Beatrice, an image of God in which the deadening weight is removed. In Dante's heaven there is room for all who love or seek to love. A white rose symbolizes the divine presence at the center of heaven where the pilgrim says,

Power failed high fantasy here; yet, swift to move

Even as a wheel moves equal, free from jars,

Already my heart and will were wheeled by love

The love that moves the sun and the other stars. (3)

There is no more profane existence in this empyrean vision and it was one that the early Merton could identify with very much. But in time the world would not seem so closely matched with hell and the sacred not so much a geography beyond history.


Merton entitled an early journal The Sign of Jonas. It was a symbol for him of the hidden destiny of humanity towards which it was mysteriously traveling. In that journal he wrote:

The sign of Jesus promised to the generation that did not understand Him was the "sign of Jonas the prophet"--that is, the sign of His own resurrection... like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox. (4)

The paradox is that the flight from God becomes the journey to God, that the escape from the world leads to an embrace of the world, that things bear the seeds of their own opposites. Years later in another published journal Merton described his prophetic vision further:

If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we can not do so by imposing the one division upon the other or absorbing one division into the other ... We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ. (5)

Merton's geography was his century and the whole world. He took upon himself the task "to see and speak for many, even when I seem to be speaking only for myself." (6)


For all the criticism he received and the fame that came his way, Merton was a traditional Christian. His pilgrimage had gone from an early triumphalism to a critical, but human, embrace of the world. He never abandoned his roots, but went deeper and deeper into those roots:    "... he did not so much reach out for contact with other traditions, but rather went so deeply into his own that he could not help discovering the common roots." (7) He riot an especially original thinker or artist, but he had such a passion for experiencing the truth no matter what, that his life has become for many a symbol of the turmoil and restlessness and hope of the century in which he lived. His monasticism, mysticism, dialogue with other religions, social justice involvement, and writing were all oriented towards his journey to the hidden center. In an age when the holy or sacred had become defined as either other-worldly and remote, or as vacuous or even illusory, Merton's personal trajectory was as a pilgrimage to the sacred.


The Mysticism of a Kentucky Hermit


The Cistercian Order ("Trappists") at the time Merton entered it in 1941 was still one of the most ascetic orders in the Catholic Church. Merton wrote that the Trappists "have not come to the monastery to escape from the realities of life but to find those realities: they have felt the terrible insufficiency of life in a civilization that is entirely dedicated to the pursuit of shadows." (8) In those early years Merton felt that the monastery was a sanctuary from the corrupt world, an island of holiness. It was a "sacred center" for Merton, a form of cosmogonic microcosm of the geography of heaven. He sought to live "as near as possible to the Center of the World... where a break in plane occurs, where space becomes sacred, hence pre-eminently real." (9) In 1946 he said that "for myself, I have only one desire and that is the desire for solitude--to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face." (10) The irony is that his "disappearance" became so highly visible that an editor of Merton's could later say that "surely he will remain in history as one of the remarkable men of our time." (11) He found fame by not seeking it. Nevertheless, he never gave up his dream of becoming more solitary and silent. For the last three years of his life (1965-1968) he was given permission to live as a hermit in a building on the monastic grounds.


Merton felt a special affinity towards the Christian "Desert Fathers" of Egypt and Syria in the third and fourth centuries, including one named Abbot Moses who responded to a monk's request for a good word by telling him: "Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." (12) The word "monk" is derived from the Greek monos meaning "alone" and Merton believed true values and contemplation required a certain degree of solitude and silence in order "to be free from what William Faulkner called 'the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing' which is the essence of 'worldliness' everywhere." (13) Merton knew that the monastic life had become a forgotten, demeaned or irrelevant place for many of his contempories, but that only meant for him that the monastic life had the great task of doing for the world what it could not or would not do for itself. Leclercq has said that the one end of monastic life is the search for God" (14) and Merton felt that was exactly what many people were failing to do.


The more Merton advocated monastic reform in the final decade of his life, the less he came to see the monastery as some separate realm of sanctity and the more it should be liberating for the monks and the whole monastic life would be "utterly useless if it turns us into freaks." (15) Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century called the monastery a "school of charity" and the monk was a silent martyr ("witness") to that love. This kind of understanding was behind Merton's insistence that idols and masks of the ego must be abandoned through a process of formation and transformation that could be both terrifying and enlivening:

What is lonelier than death? To confront the emptiness, the void, the apparent hopelessness of this desert and to encounter there the miracle of new life in Christ, the joy of eschatological hope already fulfilled in mystery--this was the monastic vocation. (16)

The monk is to disappear into this form of death in order to be a paradoxical sign of life. Yet the monastery is not to be "a morgue, museum nor an asylum. The monk remains in the world from which he has fled, and he remains a potent, though hidden, force in that world." (17) Merton saw the contemplative monk as helping rescue the world from a new dark ages: "In the night of our technological barbarism, monks must be as trees which exist silently in the dark and by their vital presence purify the air." (18)


It was in this kind of spiritual landscape that Thomas Merton the mystic lived. It has been said that "the original aim of monasticism was to provide a setting in which the mystical life could be lived." (19) For Merton, mystical life, mysticism, mystical contemplation and contemplation were basically equivalent terms. He did not work out a detailed, systematic theology of prayer and he judged (as did critics) his sole effort at such an analysis of mysticism, The Ascent to Truth, to be a failure. He simply said that "prayer ... means yearning for the simple presence of God ..." and "our desire and our prayer should be summed up in St. Augustine's words: Noverim te, noverim me ('May I know you, may I know myself!)." (20) When he spoke of meditation, he was referring to a more active, directed, biblical or conceptual form of prayer that mystics of the Eastern Church have called "prayer of the heart'.' while by contemplation and mysticism he meant an immediate experience of union with God that could not be caused by psychological techniques and was direct and wordless, totally a gift from God. In Merton's view all Christians were called to live a mystical life in some way, no matter how preparatory compared to the full life of contemplation which he judged a relatively few people would actually experience. Merton says that

Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is active. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. (21)

He is saying what Thomas Aquinas meant in speaking of the contemplative life as the most perfect life that humans can live on earth  (22) and of the life of faith on earth as a contact between time and timelessness (inchoatio vitae aeternae (23)). Such contemplation is a simple intuition of the truth--simplex intuitus veritatis. (24) For the contemplative in Merton's view is a person who sees beyond the false self or ego into the "mystery in which God reveals Himself to us as the very center of our own most intimate self--intimior intimo meo as St. Augustine said." (25) Merton's mysticism is centered upon the union of the true self with God and the transformation which both fosters that union and is a fruit of it. He says that

there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him. (26)

Merton's mystical geography focuses upon the still point of the turning self which he believes to be God.


In his later years Merton would come to see a very existential aspect in mysticism "not only in the sense that it experiences our own reality immersed in the reality of Him Who IS, but also in the sense that it is the participation in a concrete action of God in time, the climax of the divine irruption into human history ..." (27) The ground of this mysticism for Merton is love-where the mystic's love for God "suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is... (that) there is 'no such thing' as God because God is neither a 'what' nor a 'thing' but a pure ‘Who.’" (28) The medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart, whom Merton came to admire very much, spoke of this discovery: "the eye wherein I see God is the same eye wherein God sees me." (29) For Merton this realization of God simultaneously involves the paradox of self-abandonment:

man cannot enter into the deepest center of himself and pass through that center into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of selfless love. (30)

Thus, it is not a matter of visions, ecstasies, raptures, voices, or any other kind of extraordinary phenomena, but of love, transformation and union, which is very much in keeping with the traditional teachings of Christian mystics.


Greatly influenced in his mysticism by John of the Cross, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic, Merton saw this selfless, transformative love in the context of a "Transforming Union, the way of 'Night,' nada, pure faith" (31) as opposed to a kind of mysticism that depends on special signs and manifestations and thus runs the risk of focusing upon the phenomena instead of God himself. Merton rejects as pseudomysticism that which "centers upon the individualistic enjoyment of experience... (and) seeks the permanent delight of the ego in its own spirituality" (32) including the use of drugs that have been claimed to produce instant spiritual experience. He sees such pseudomysticism as a serious modern danger because of

the confusion it causes in the minds and hearts of those who might conceivably be drawn to authentic communion with God and with their fellow men by the austere traditional ways of obedience, humility, sacrifice, love, knowledge, worship, meditation, and contemplation. All these ancient ways demand the control and the surrender, the ultimate "loss" of the empirical self in order that we may be "found" again in God. (33)

Therefore, Merton's evaluation of the Christian mystical heritage finds mysticism an integral part of Christianity itself: "for Christianity and Christian mysticism were', originally, one and the same thing ..." (34) "… the same journey from man to God--which is our destiny." (35)


The word "mystical" means "hidden" and in the ancient mystery religions referred to rites that were hidden from those who were not initiates. For early Christianity the word came to refer to the deepest meaning of the scriptures, the reality of the sacraments which presented divine realities by visible symbols and finally to the fullness of new life in Christ. (36) At the heart of Merton's mysticism is what Eastern Christianity calls theosis, or humanity being created in the image of God. Theologically it has been referred to as deification or divinization where the person realizes pure union with God. For Merton "to be a Christian ... is to be committed to a deeply mystical life" (37) where "man reresembles God in so far as he is a contemplative" (38) and where the greatest human identity is found in union with God because "for Him we are made. In Him we possess all things." (39) The classic statement of this belief is by Athanasius: "He (God) became man that we might be made God." This theosis in Merton's mysticism has no other motivation and destiny but love:

Man's greatest dignity, his most essential and peculiar power, the most intimate secret of his humanity, is his capacity to love. This power in the depths of man's soul stamps him in the image and likeness of God. (40)

Merton therefore is a Christocentric mystic since Jesus Christ is understood as the fundamental and foundational image, or icon, of God.


Pilgrim of No-thingness, Emptiness, Darkness and Compassion


Darkness was one of Merton's favorite ways of describing contemplation or mysticism. This is connected with his interest in apophatic theology as found in such people as Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, the Victorines, Meister Eckhart, John Ruysbroeck, the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing and John of the Cross. Aquinas has said that mysticism is the knowledge of God through experience and Merton increasingly sought to express that knowledge by an "unknowing" which claims that God cannot be understood by conceptualization and reason alone, but must be experienced directly in the "darkness" and "emptiness" and "desert" where no words or images can contain the Other or God. Merton was not a technical theologian and was more "at home with the metaphorical language of darkness and emptiness than with complex reasoning.” (41) His appropriation of the apophatic tradition in Christian mysticism was a "waiting upon God in darkness" (42) that served to prepare the ground for his deep involvement with Zen Buddhism in the late 1950s and the 1960s. He found Zen's indictment of ego-centered thought as resonating well with the Christian apophatic approach.


The via negativa opened Merton to writing poetry that could include material from his dreams, unconscious, surface consciousness, intuition, imagination in ways not limited by discursive logic. He sought for a way to express the inexpressible, as he would try to do all his life. In fact one of the difficulties he had was a tendency to over-conceptualize what he says cannot be conceived. That is what made him a silent monk of many words. Yet it was this apophatic influence that expanded his embrace of the world and his contact with atheists and people from other religions. It became clear to him that the truest way to understand another's deepest beliefs was not through academic analysis, but personal contact and dialogue. It was this trait in Merton for meeting others on their own ground that helped him become more catholic while remaining rooted in the Catholic tradition.


His dialectics of the sacred relied deeply upon the apophatic view that God is not a being among other beings, but is "No-thing," or as the Hindu would say, neti neti ("not this nor that"). As a poet of the sacred, Merton could agree with his spiritual mentor, John of the Cross, that God's presence in the mystic is todo y nada ("everything and nothing").


The American poet, John Neihardt, said that man without mysticism is a monster, while Aldous Huxley thought that the mystics "are a channel through which a little knowledge of reality filters down to our human universe of ignorance and illusion. A totally unmystical world would be a world totally blind and insane. (43) Merton believed all Christians had a vocation to be contemplative to some degree, that is, they were to know God by experience which "is a foretaste of the vision of God in eternity" (44) that "gives the recipient the power to serve the others who are in the Christian community" (45) and the world. As a deeply traditional man, Merton felt that the failure of Christians to know about their mystical heritage was an opening for the idols of technological reductionism and scientism to minimalize the human perspective and deny a human destiny of spiritual life. He even wrote that "the spiritual anguish of man has no cure but mysticism," (46) meaning that since humans are made in the image and likeness of God "it is a spiritual disaster for a man to rest content with his exterior identity" and deny the "dynamic tendency that carries us toward union with God"... since "we find ourselves to be most truly human when we are raised to the level of the divine." (47)


Ironically, Merton's mysticism and fondness for the apophatic tradition in Christianity led him to change his evaluation of the worth of the world as a physical and social entity:

For too many Christians ... Christianity is an entirely negative religion which seems to prescribe a complete alienation from life, from human values, and from the world, if one is to hope for union with God. (48)

Merton's expanding world was no longer the monastery grounds, either literally or figuratively, but the whole world. He condemned as a disincarnate or disembodied Christianity that piety which seemed to forget Christian origins because "he who says 'Christianity' says 'Incarnation.’" (49)


By the 1960s Merton was involved in contemporary social issues and was in dialogue with atheism and the main religions of the world, especially Buddhism. The geography of the sacred for Merton became more universal the more he realized the mystical center of his own religious tradition. The poet in Merton never allowed the mystic to become progressively angelic and ethereal, but kept him in contact with the world he was coming to love more and more. The American poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, admitted he didn't know how to classify Merton as a poet, that he was "primarily a religious mystic who couldn't escape the real world and he wouldn't allow his conscience to escape the real world. So it must have been a conflict all his life between retreat and attack." (50) The mystic and the poet were married in Merton, but not without "lovers' quarrels.”


On his last journey, his pilgrimage to Asia in 1968, Merton was having a dream come true since he had been looking to the East for many years. The Catholic monk from Kentucky was walking the streets of Calcutta and met the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, where the Dalai Lama described Merton as a "Catholic geshe" which is a title of respect for a learned lama. At a meeting with another Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, Chatral Rimpoche, the talk was about meditation, some aspects of Christian teachings as compared with Buddhism, but mostly about " ... dzogchen, the ultimate emptiness, the unity of sunyata and karuna, going 'beyond the dharmakaya' (cosmic body of the Buddha, essence of all things) and 'beyond God' to the ultimate perfect emptiness." (51) As with the Dalai Lama, Merton felt a deep personal union with this man who laughed with him and called Merton a rangjung Sangay, or a natural Buddha. He was at last in Asia. There were plans to go to Japan and then to Europe on his way back. He was wondering if he should return to the hermitage in Kentucky or to a new hermitage in Alaska. Asia was a liminal geography for Merton and renewed his enthusiasm and his vision for the mystical life in the contemporary world as well as expanding his catholicity.


Merton steadily manifested paradox. Here was a hermit monk in love with a young woman (he had met a student nurse at a hospital in Louisville), a mystic in the woods telling the world what it lacked, a Christian who wanted to be a good Buddhist, a gregarious man aching passionately for solitude. The geography of his last years: was a dialectical movement towards a union of fullness and emptiness, God and not-God, aesthetic and mystical, sacred and profane. It was a geography of darkness, over conceptualization, obsessive writing, hasty conclusions, but one that was revealing the trajectory of his century.


During his trip to Asia he had a profound experience which he described in his journal. It happened in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) less that a week before his death and describes a powerful insight. He was visiting a Buddhist shrine at Polonnaruwa where there are huge statues of the Buddha. Merton, barefooted, approached the Buddhas through the wet grass:

Then the smile of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and 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 ... The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no "mystery." All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear ... 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 ... 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. (52)

Merton's trail of darkness, laughter, emptiness, compassion and illumination ended on December 10, 1968, in Thailand, when he was evidently electrocuted by a faulty electric fan. A short time earlier he had concluded his talk to monastic women and men by saying that during the afternoon break between sessions he was "going to disappear." That afternoon his body was discovered.


Augustine has said that "Men go to gape at mountain peaks, at the boundless tides of the sea, the broad sweep of rivers, the encircling ocean and the motions of the stars: and yet they leave themselves unnoticed; they do not marvel at themselves." (53) The true or real self of a person was for Merton the psychological, anthropological, sociological, ontological and spiritual geography for the experience of the sacred or holy in the very ambiguity and facticity of history. Already having tried to find meaning outside of himself, Merton spoke of finding God and all of humanity within your own self and experience. The sacred center or axis mundi or omphalous (navel) for Merton was the self in union with God and God in union with the self. All people were beginners in such a journey, but some were more beginners than others.


A Geography of One Everyman


Merton has become a kind of paradigm of the mystic in the modern world, a unique person who became an "everyman" for “anywhen" because of his desire to experience that which was most real within himself and the world. Merton's geography is both inner and external: "If mysticism is an interior pilgrimage, pilgrimage is exteriorized mysticism." (54) Merton's pilgrimage was to God at the center of the true self and the self found in the experience of God. Even as a five year old boy Merton's favorite book was his geography book. In that geography Asia would become a crucial symbol for pilgrimage. It was as a passage through the desert of an ascetic, monastic life, but even more it was a passage through the deserts of the modern sense of absurdity and disbelief in the sacred. His mystical dark night was his liminal threshold where the absolute, the absurd and the ambiguous reacting together left Merton stripped of his secure idea of a separate holiness. He could no longer be the monk-pilgrim for whom the monastery was as a shrine in which he forgot about the secular world. Like that medieval monastic idea, 'Merton's journey was undertaken according to the Christian pattern of the via crucis, yet because of his emptied and expanded idea of the sacred, his pilgrimage merged with the paths of other religious traditions. He remained a Christian and did not want to relativize Christ or the Christian vision of truth, but he saw that truth present when and where often least expected and recognized.


Merton, as a seeker of the sacred, moved from having a nostalgic desire for a lost primal unity to a view historical and eschatological where the sacred was no longer a special realm beyond the world, but the very reality of that world when seen in its naked presence. It was Zen that helped Merton renew his attraction for apophatic mysticism. Both focused upon realization of truth based upon direct experience, now. It directed Merton to see his own Catholic heritage as an incarnational experience of God in the profane. The mystical dark night had been an emptying of many layers of sacred forms in order to see the sacred as not-sacred and a void where all human experience evidenced either a rejection of or an embrace of a God intimately identified with personal and collective histories.


About a decade before his death, Merton had one of the most transformative experiences of his life that led directly to his greater involvement with societal issues of peace and justice and that deepened his compassion while increasing his acceptance of the sacred being found in the midst of a pluralistic world.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream ...

... Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts ... the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed ... (55)

As a result, Merton's mystical geography did not remain the cloistered consciousness of an a-temporal monk, but the contemporary world as he saw it from a self-chosen marginal position from which he would speak to that world:

It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny ... I am saying NO to all the concentration camps ... I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators. (56)


If Merton is thought of as a man on a vision quest he can be likened to a shaman who travels in the geography of the spiritual in order to give healing to the people and guide them in understanding the topography of death and the power of the sacred in life. As such a Christian shaman, Merton's "eye" became more catholic in its concerns based upon his mystical vision which both incorporated and transcended the purely conceptual. In the "darkness" of a "learned ignorance" where "all is emptiness and all is compassion," his dangerous and mysterious geography bore the fruit of telling others about his insight where the dualism between the sacred and the profane was overcome and where the holy was found in and through the profane itself. Merton's mystical landscape was the paradox of finding meaning at the very heart of the mystery. Here are the concluding lines from his poem "The Night of Destiny":

See! See!

My love is darkness!


Only in the Void

Are all ways one:


Only in the night

Are all the lost



In my ending is my meaning.





1. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: New American Library, 1948), p. 409. Merton would later see this autobiography as misguided in its extreme world-denying focus, but he accepted it as the work of a young monk he no longer was.

2. Morton Kelsey, Afterlife: The Other Side of Dying (New York: Crossroad, 1982), pp. 43-49.

3. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1949), p. 9.

4. The Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953), p. 11.

5. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 21.

6. Ibid., p. 245.

7. David Steindl-Rast, "Destination East; Destiny: Fire--Thomas Merton's Real Journey," ed. Gerald Twoney, Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 149.

8. Merton, The Waters of Siloe (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949), p. xviii.

9. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Willard Trask (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959), pp. 43, 45. Eliade says that "religious man can live only in a sacred world, because it is only in such a world that he participates in being, that he has real existence...," p. 64.

10. Sign of Jonas, p. 18. .

11. Robert Giroux, Merton: By Those Who Knew Him Best, ed. Paul Wilkes (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), p. 26.

12. The Wisdom of the Desert, trans. Thomas Merton (New York: New. Directions, 1970), p. 30.

13. Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1973), p. 27.

14. Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (New York: Fordham University Press, 1961), p. 24.

15. Merton, No Man Is An Island (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1967), p. 94.

16. Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 253.

17. Merton, The Silent Life (London: Burns & Cates, 1957), p. 77.

18. Merton, The Monastic Journey, ed. Brother Patrick Hart (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1969), p. 61.

19. Evelyn Underhill, "The Essentials of Mysticism," Understanding Mysticism, ed. Richard Woods (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1980), p. 34.

20. Merton, Contemplative Prayer (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1969), p. 67. "Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy," p. 90.

21. New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), p. 1. "… an awakening to the Real within all that is real," p. 3, and "it is a wakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God's creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life," p. 5.

22. Merton, Waters of Siloe, p. xxxiv.

23. Merton, The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt Brace Jonavovich, 1951), p. 133.

24. Ibid., p. 205.

25. Merton, The New Man (New York:Bantam Books, 1961), p. 11.

26. New Seeds, p. 36.

27. New Man, p. 9.

28. Merton, New Seeds, p. 13.

29. Cited in James Finley, Merton's Palace of Nowhere (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1978), p. 93

30. Merton, New Seeds, P. 64.

31. Ascent to Truth, p. 154.

32. Merton, Love and Living, eds. Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart (New York: Bantam Books, 1979), p. 68. Merton considered spiritual experience sought as an end-in-itself as just another idol. John of the Cross was very critical of this trap and thus was critical of the need for extraordinary visions and signs.

33. Ibid., pp. 67-68.

34. New Man, p. 100.

35. Ibid., p. 101.

36. Louis Bouyer, Introduction to Spirituality, trans. Mary Perkins Ryan (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1961),

pp. 302-303.

37. Merton, Life and Holiness (New York: Image Books, 1964), p. 58.

38. New Man, p. 34.

39. Ascent to Truth, p. 53.

40. John Higgins, Thomas Merton on Prayer (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1975), p. 33.

41. John F. Teahan, "A Dark and Empty Way: Thomas Merton and the Apophatic Tradition," The Journal of Religion, Vol 58 no. 3 (July 1978): 266.

42. Merton, What is Contemplation? (Holy Cross, Indiana: St. Mary's College, 1948), p. 24.

43. Sisikumar Ghose, Mystics as a Force for Change (Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1981), pp. xviii, 31.

44. Lawrence S. Cunningham, The Catholic Heritage (New York: Crossroad, 1983), p. 96.

45. Ibid.

46. New Man, p. 66.

47. Ibid., pp. 70, 71, 73.

48. Love and Living, p. 155.

49. Ibid., p. 156.

50. Merton, ed. Paul Wilkes, p. 31. One is continually aware of Merton's humanness and his social nature which serves to highlight the paradoxical quality of his life as a cloistered monk. During the mid-1960s he was in love with a young nurse at a Louisville hospital, but really felt he could not give up the monastic life, even though there seems to have been some talk between them about marriage. It was   intense and unsettling for Merton (and probably for the woman too). Ferlinghetti met Merton once in San Francisco on Merton's trip to Asia. They sat in a coffee shop and "he was quite interested in any beautiful woman who walked by. A natural Trappist interest--why not? I took him to the airport the next morning, and that was the last anyone saw of him in America. It was a great shock to hear that he'd died. But I thought that he had finally resolved the conflict about a Trappist remaining silent. There was very little to be found out about how he died, so ... he just disappeared. He disappeared into silence," p. 31.

51. Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, eds. Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart and James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1973), p. 143.

52. Ibid., pp. 233-236.

53. Confessions X

54. Victor and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), p. 7.

55. Conjectures, pp. 157-158.

56. "Author's Preface to the Japanese Edition" of The Seven Storey Mountain, trans. Tadishi Judo (Tokyo: Chuo Shuppansha, 1966), p. 12.

[ Alan Altany and used with permission.]

Go to the Thomas Merton Society home-page