Thomas Merton: A companion for the solitary walk

Merton is deep.  I knew this going into this volume.  I’ve read other works by Merton and I have encountered just how high my waders need to be.  I think that is what draws me to his writing.  He forces me to think and does so without tossing in scholarly rhetoric and all those words and catch phrases that so many Catholic theologians seem to be enamored with.  Merton makes me think using average, everyday language.  When reading Merton I don’t have to stop and consider if I have the proper understanding of a school of thought that has been referenced, or if I have the proper definition of some esoteric word rarely seen outside the works of theological tomes.  Merton talks about God, Christ, The Holy Spirit and what it is like to encounter them (or not) in the course of our daily lives.  He manages to get across profound, though-provoking ideas without boggling the mind with overwritten sentences and references to archaic writing to whom anyone outside the Vatican Library will never have access.

In Thoughts In Solitude I encountered several sides of Merton that I encountered  in just about all of his volumes that I’ve taken up.  First, there is the sound and unflinching social commentator.  This is the side of Merton I like most.  Merton sees the world around him with an eye that zeroes in on the fallacies of Western Civilization.  Not much has changed since he wrote about the disease that is commercialism and the widespread addictions to success and acquisition.  If anything they’ve only gotten worse but in his time these things were prevalent and hard to overlook.

The murderous din of our materialism cannot be allowed to silence the independent voices which will never cease to speak: whether they be the voices of Christian Saints, or the voices of Oriental sages like Lao-Tse or the Zen Masters, or the voices of men like Thoreau or Martin Buber, or Max Picard.  It is all very well to insist that man is a “social animal”—the fact is obvious enough.  But there is no justification for making him a mere cog in a totalitarian machine—or in a religious one either, for that matter.

Second I see in Merton the writer who points to the inward battle so many face whether they allow themselves to recognize it or not.  It is the battle of self-identity, the struggle to reconcile what society tells us we are with what God wants us to be.

When we are not living up to our true vocation, thought deadens our life, or substitutes itself for life, or gives in to life so that our life drowns out our thinking and stifles the voice of conscience.  When we find our vocation—thought and life are one.

Third I encounter in Merton’s writing the self-critic.  Merton is never embarrassed or shy in regards to looking at himself and his life and wondering if he got it right.  He doesn’t shy away from self-examination but uses it as the stepping stone to the next level.

What one of us, O Lord, can speak of poverty without shame?  We who have taken vows of poverty in the monastery:  are we really poor? Do we know what it is to love poverty?  Have we stopped to think, for a moment, why poverty is to be loved? And we, with our vow, we are content with the fact that we legally possess nothing, and that for everything we have, we must ask someone else’s permission? 

      Is this poverty?  Can a man who has lost his job and who has no money with which to pay his bills, and who sees his wife and children getting thin, and who feels fear and anger eating out his heart—can he get the things he desperately needs merely by asking for them?  Let him try.  And yet we, who can have many things we don’t need and many more which are scandalous for us to have—we are poor, because we have them with permission!


And I also encounter Thomas Merton the poet.  While Merton wrote poetry it is not always there that we encounter the poetic.  We find it also in his prayers and in his description of his inner thoughts.  Thoughts In Solitude is the book in which he gave us the prayer that has become known as The Prayer of Thomas Merton. I was familiar with this prayer from the internet but wasn’t aware that this is the book it came from.  It was a delight to encounter it in context.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my peril alone.

Merton’s writing is for people who want to think about life and their position in it. It is for people who want to encounter God on a deeper level, deeper being deeper than what they have encountered so far, whatever that may be for them.   His work is full of God and Jesus and The Holy Spirit.  Personally, I find that a good thing.  I like that Merton doesn’t attempt to give us the answers to all our questions.  He knows that the answers will be different for the different people walking the path.  He makes no bones about being Catholic but he doesn’t slam people upside the head with the Catechism and adherence to the Magisterium.   He is all about finding God and walking with Christ in obedience and humility, but he allows room for The Holy Spirit to do its work where that is concerned.

Reading Merton I feel as if I have a friend, a compatriot I can turn to when I’m feeling at sea in my spiritual walk.  And while the times I enjoy him most are times when I am looking for answers, I paradoxically am comforted by the fact that he gives me very few of them.  He recognizes that he and his readers are on the same path and that we are both looking for answers at the same time.  His experiences and his wisdom help point to way and turn over the occasional stone under which an answer may lie hidden.  But most of all he is a traveling companion and there are times when I, and other readers, need that most of all.

© 2014 M. Romeo LaFlamme


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