Every year, thousands of people travel, as I did recently, to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a monastery set in the rolling hills of Kentucky, to immerse themselves in a world wholly at odds with modern life. The visitors are not all Christians, nor even religiously inclined, but many come and stay for days hoping to adopt, if only for a brief stretch of time, the contemplative way of life that has attracted monks to monasteries for thousands of years—a life defined by silence, constraint, and meditation.
The monks at Gethsemani belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a monastic community known for the rigor of its contemplative way of life. Trappists, as they are called, remain silent, speaking only when necessary. They fast regularly and are constantly engaged in prayer and meditation, whether in church where they pray the seven offices of the Liturgy of the Hours each day, or in their cells reading scripture, or in the fields where they work.
A life defined by silence, constraint, and meditation.
In 1941, a man much like today’s pilgrims traveled to Gethsemani for a silent retreat. He was twenty-six years old and was working as an English teacher at the time. Several months after his retreat, he quit his job, returned to Gethsemani, and spent most of the remainder of his life there as a monk. When he first arrived at Gethsemani as a young man in 1941, he was an unknown seeker. He planned to remain anonymous, cloistered in the monastery for the duration of his life. But by the time he died in 1968, Thomas Merton had become one of the most influential Christian apologists and spiritual writers of the twentieth century.
Like most people, Merton led a life stretched between the competing demands of the sacred and the profane. In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton tells the story of his path to monasticism. True freedom, he realized during that journey, paradoxically requires restraint and discipline; the monastic life, rather than the dispersions of modern life, was his avenue to this goal.
Born in 1915, Merton grew up in France, England, and the United States. His mother died when he was a boy, and his father when he was a teenager. Suddenly on his own, Merton was free to live his life as he chose. After his father’s death, his “rebellion began,” writes Paul Elie in The Life You Save May Be Your Own; he was now “independent, accountable to nobody but himself.” Or, as Merton put it, “I became the complete twentieth-century man.”
Though Merton was baptized in the Church of England and attended Catholic and Anglican schools, he grew up to be religiously agnostic. In high school, he defiantly refused to recite the Apostles’ Creed during chapel and found faith instead in “pamphlets and newspapers.” He fancied himself an intellectual and acted like it. In college, he dabbled in Communism, became a pacifist, wrote for literary publications, flirted with a lot of women, drank a lot of alcohol, and read a lot of D. H. Lawrence.
But his freewheeling lifestyle failed to bring him fulfillment. “If what most people take for granted were really true—if all you needed to be happy was to grab everything and see everything and investigate every experience and then talk about it,” he wrote, “I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle even until now.” What he was, though, was a shallow young man with an inner life that was a mess of raging appetites and desires.
His life, he came to believe, reflected the chaos of the times. “Free by nature, in the image of God,” he wrote, “I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.”
During these formative years, Merton felt the pull of a countervailing force to his libertinism. When he was eighteen, he traveled by himself to Rome, where he was most moved not by the ruins of the classical world, but by the holy sites of Christendom. Church art, in particular, stirred him with its “spiritual vitality” and service to “higher ends.” These works began to effect a spiritual conversion in him. When he returned to his room in the evenings after wandering from church to church, he put away his modern literature and began reading the gospels. “Soon, I was no longer visiting them merely for the art,” he said of the churches: “There was something else that attracted me: a kind of interior peace.”
His freewheeling lifestyle failed to bring him fulfillment
One night in his room, Merton had a transcendent experience. He felt the presence of his father and “was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul.” He prayed to God to help free him from “the thousand terrible things that held my will in their slavery.”
The trip to Rome turned into a pilgrimage. The newly humbled Merton began now to pray at the churches he visited rather than merely admire their art. And, one day, as he was exploring the quiet grounds of a monastery in the holy city, a fanciful thought struck him: he wanted to become a Trappist monk.
It would be several years before Merton would “shake the iron tyranny of moral corruption that held my whole nature in fetters.” After a dissolute year at Cambridge—where it seems that he fathered an illegitimate child—Merton transferred to Columbia in New York to complete his college and graduate education. At Columbia, his religious curiosity blossomed thanks, in part, to the mentorship of professors like Mark Van Doren and the guidance of friends like the poet Robert Lax. One day, he stumbled on a book of Catholic theology, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Étienne Gilson, and its depiction of God as Being appealed to him.
But it was reading about the life of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins—who converted to Catholicism as a student at Oxford and later became a priest—that pushed Merton over the edge and inspired him to convert. Merton received baptism as a Catholic in 1938 and decided he wanted to become a priest, as Hopkins had. The following year, he sought advice from Daniel Walsh, his former teacher at Columbia. Walsh, a professor of philosophy, told Merton about the different religious orders within Catholicism. He also mentioned a Trappist monastery in Kentucky that he once visited on a retreat. This was the first time Merton heard of Gethsemani.
About two years after their conversation, Merton visited the monastery during Easter week 1941. The experience made a profound impression on him. The “whole place,” he wrote, “was as quiet as midnight and lost in the all-absorbing silence and solitude of the fields. Behind the monastery was a dark curtain of woods, and over to the west was a wooded valley, and beyond that a rampart of wooded hills, a barrier and a defence against the world.”
Merton spent several days at the monastery in silence, prayed the Liturgy of the Hours with the brothers each day, and read theology. It was awe-inspiring. “The silence,” he wrote, “the solemnity, the dignity of these Masses and of the church, and the overpowering atmosphere of prayers so fervent that they were almost tangible choked me with love and reverence that robbed me of the power to breathe. I could only get the air in gasps.” The monks, he saw, turned themselves toward God at every waking moment of the day. “You have nothing to do” at the monastery, he wrote, “but lament your separation from Him, and pray to Him.” This, to the young Merton, was “paradise.”
One day during the retreat, he noticed a postulant dressed in secular clothes praying among the monks. Several days later, Merton saw the same man now dressed in white habits, practically indistinguishable from the other monks. This man had, in a way, died: “The waters had closed over his head,” Merton wrote, “and he was submerged in the community. He was lost. The world would hear of him no more. He had drowned to our society and become a Cistercian.” Unlike in the modern world, Merton realized, where excellence is defined by standing out and attracting attention, in the monastic world excellence is defined by one’s obscurity. The more a person’s individuality has been destroyed, the closer he is to the higher reality that he seeks. Merton concluded that he, too, wanted to die in this manner.
The modern world, Merton realized, was not for him.
The morning Merton left the monastery, he felt “like a man that had come down from the rare atmosphere of a very high mountain.” The world at the foot of that mountain—the ordinary world—now seemed to him “insipid and slightly insane.” Compared to the purity and simplicity of monastic life, it was strange for him to see “people walking around as if they had something important to do, running after busses, reading the newspapers, lighting cigarettes. How futile their haste and anxiety seemed.”
The modern world, he realized, was not for him. In December of 1941, several months after his retreat, he returned to Gethsemani—and this time stayed for good. There, he led a monotonous life. Each day consisted of the same routines: He chanted the Divine Offices in the monastery’s church with his brothers, prayed in solitude at various points in the day, and worked on the monastery’s grounds scrubbing floors, chopping wood, and engaging in other tasks. He lived in an austere cell; ate plain meals; and within several weeks of joining the abbey, landed in the infirmary after catching the flu.
When Walsh first described monastic life at Gethsemani to him, Merton emphatically declared that he was unsuited to its asceticism. But now, thrust into that life headlong, he was the happiest he had been in many years. The rituals of monastic life, though they seem oppressive, helped liberate him from his “false self,” allowing him to grow closer to God. “I was enclosed,” Merton wrote, “in the four walls of my new freedom.”
As a monk at Gethsemani, Merton used that freedom to write about the importance of contemplation in books like New Seeds of Contemplation. Echoing Aristotle, Merton called contemplation “the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life,” the “sudden gift of awareness.” He defined contemplation as an awareness of the divine. Its province extended beyond the practice of religious ritual to saturate the course of everyday life.
Thomas Merton was a paradoxical character. He was a garrulous apostle of silence but thrived among words. The Seven Storey Mountain was a bestseller and several of his many books enjoyed a wide readership. He professed a mystic extinction of individuality but became a celebrity. A charismatic advocate of selflessness, his absorption in the monastic community stood alongside his conviction that contemplation was not the preserve of monks and mystics alone: everyone, he taught, needs contemplation to satisfy his spiritual yearnings. He was a Catholic monk who became increasingly drawn to the tenets of Zen Buddhism. He extolled solitude but met his end at fifty-three in Bangkok, Thailand, at an interfaith conference when he was electrocuted by a fan.
In Four Quartets T. S. Eliot wrote of being “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” It’s a line that must have resonated with Thomas Merton, whose spiritual itinerary took him from that hurly-burly to Eliot’s “still point of the turning world” and at least part way back. Merton’s celebrity has faded in recent years but his articulate serenity persists, a quiet, cooling oasis of spiritual possibility.