Thomas Merton

On being loved


‘If we are to love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!

This is a difficult job. It can only really be done by a lifetime of genuine humility. But sooner or later we must distinguish between what we are not and what we are. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is. We must find our real self, in all its elemental poverty but also in its very great and very simple dignity: created to be a child of God, and capable of loving with something of God’s own sincerity and His unselfishness.

Both the poverty and the nobility of our inmost being consists in the fact that it is a capacity for love. It can be loved by God, and when it is loved by Him, it can respond to His love by imitation—it can turn to Him with gratitude and adoration and sorrow; it can turn to its neighbor with compassion and mercy and generosity.

The first step in this sincerity is the recognition that although we are worth little or nothing in ourselves, we are potentially worth very much, because we can hope to be loved by God. He does not love us because we are good, but we become good when and because He loves us. If we receive this love in all simplicity, the sincerity of our love for others will more or less take care of itself. Centered entirely upon the immense liberality that we experience in God’s love for us, we will never fear that His love could fail us. Strong in the confidence that we are loved by Him, we will not worry too much about the uncertainty of being loved by other men. I do not mean that we will be indifferent to their love for us: since we wish them to love in us the God Who loves them in us. But we will have to be anxious about their love, which in any case we do not expect to see too clearly in this life’.

– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

[Image: Thomas Merton, right, poses with writer Wendell Berry, left and the poet Denise Levertov. Photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Institute 193 Courtesy of Christopher Meatyard. Source.]

… believing in God’s love

Dancing in the Water of LifeHere’s a wonderful confession from Thomas Merton, which even in its brevity dares to say more than we can really know this side of the dirty mirror:

Automatic and compulsive routines that are simply silly – and I don’t take them seriously. All the singing, the “speaking in tongues,” etc. Funny. I see how easily I could go nuts and don’t especially care. I see the huge flaws in myself and don’t know what to do about them. Die of them eventually, I suppose, what else can I do? I live a flawed and inconsequential life, believing in God’s love. But faith can no longer be naïve and sentimental. I cannot explain things away with it. Need for deeper meditation. I certainly see more clearly where I need to go and how (surprising how my prayer in community had really reached a dead end for years and stayed there – fortunately I could get out to the woods and my spirit could breathe). Still, Gethsemani too has to be fully accepted. My long refusal to fully identify myself with the place is futile (and identifying myself in some forlorn and lonesome way would be worse). It is simply where I am, and the monks are who they are: not monks but people, and the younger ones are more truly people than the old ones, who are also good in their own way, signs of a different kind of excellence that is no longer desirable in its accidentals. The essence is the same.

Renounce accusations and excuses.

– Thomas Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage, ed. Robert E. Daggy, The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 5: 1963–1965 (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1998), 328.

With thanks to Mary Luti for drawing my attention to some of these words.

Waiting Without Justification: Broodings on Vocation in Conversation with Merton’s Letters

The Hidden Ground of LoveA guest post by Chris Green

Last summer, I read a collection of Thomas Merton’s letters, The Hidden Ground of Love (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985). I was affected most deeply by some of Merton’s responses to the letters of then up-and-coming feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, exchanges that took place in 1966 and 67, near the end of Merton’s life—he died in December 68—and at the beginning of Reuther’s career.

The correspondence begins with Ruether’s letter of August 12, 1966. She is grateful to have heard of Merton’s appreciation for an article she had recently published, and wonders if she might send him the manuscript of her work, The Church Against Itself. Their earliest letters are warm if lively exchanges, the friendly back-and-forth of kindred spirits. He’s direct about his struggles with Catholic hierarchy—“I do wonder at times if the Church is real at all … Am I part of a great big hoax?”—and he always writes under the assumption that she shares his vision and his experience. Early in 1967, however, Ruether delivered a few stinging criticisms of the monastic life. In the following few letters, he writes with an edge, attempting to correct what he takes to be her fundamental misapprehension of his vocation. At points he stops just short of out-and-out rebuke. Still, he never hides the fact that her criticisms open old wounds in him, wounds that obviously have not healed and are not healing.

For example, in a letter dated 19 March, Merton remarks how he finds himself wanting to shake off his monastic orders, to make his way out to the “big-time struggle” in the world beyond his hermitage. Bluntly put, he wants to be “more effective” in real-world matters. He nonetheless insists that he cannot abandon his given way of life. To do so, he insists, would mark a “real betrayal of the Kingdom.” In his experience, most if not all of the monks who abandon the monastery in hopes of making a more significant impact in the wider world soon lose their way entirely. So, in spite of himself, he knows he’s not going to up and leave his post.

A few weeks after (in a letter from 9 April), Merton seems to reach a kind of resolution, writing that he’s convinced he must pursue his own way, “marginal and lost” as it is, without any rationale or apology. The monk’s life, he says, is not supposed to be explained, only lived.

But judging by the letters that follow, he hadn’t really convinced himself.


Taken as a whole, these letters suggest that even after a quarter century of immersion in the monastic life, Merton could not rest in his calling. We sense, in and under his words, an agonizing unsettledness. If just for a moment he seems to have found his footing—some surety about what he’s bound to do and why it’s good for him to do it—the very next moment the ground drops out from under him. What troubles him most, it seems, is a nagging sense that he’s not living truthfully, that somehow he’s been deceived and so is deceiving others. In one of the March letters, Merton had admitted to Reuther that his previous responses weren’t adequately honest, and that her criticisms, inaccurate as they may have been on some points, had nevertheless struck a nerve. He acknowledges the depth of his uncertainty:

Problem: unrecognized assumption of my own that I have to get out of here. Below that: recognition that life here is to some extent (not entirely) a lie and that I can no longer just say the community lies and I don’t. With that: sense of being totally unable to do anything about it that is not a feeble gesture. But the genuine realization that this is my vocation, but that I have not yet found the way of being really true to it. Rock bottom: I don’t know what is down there. I just don’t know.

The monastic life, he acknowledges bluntly, is “an idol.” Not that he despises his fellow monks. They are “idiots,” he knows, but they remain nonetheless God’s idiots—and just so are his brothers, his responsibility. He recognizes that it’s his vanity that aches to belong to “a really groovy worldly in-group,” and he knows better than to surrender to such temptation. The solidarity required of him begins with loving these very idiots, many of whom have given themselves over to what he can see as this idolatrous form of the monastic life. Such a life, which he cannot but experience as “exile, humiliation, desperation,” he knows is nonetheless the chosen way for him—and better than whatever alternatives he might find for himself.

Again, however, Merton’s resolution, such as it is, holds only for a little while. After a few months, the language of despair surfaces again:

I hang on in desperation to what I think I have been called to, trusting not in it but in the mercy of Christ, who knows better than I that it isn’t real, but that it is at least a choice. And there don’t seem to be more meaningful ones around, for me, all things considered.


What sustained Merton through all of this “exile, humiliation, desperation”? Not mere resignation—although he certainly sounds fatalistic at times. No, I think he had in his depths some small but lively hope that God was in fact using his unsettledness somehow for his (and others’) good. He trusted, even against hope, that through this disquiet God was working to deliver him from damning fantasies and pretentions, saving him from delusions about the effectiveness of his work and from “wish-dreams” about the community to which he was called. He wanted to live free of such idolatries. And I think he tried at least to offer that kind of hope as a cry for mercy.

Maybe there is a kairos coming, but I have no notion where or when. I am in the most uncomfortable and unenviable position of waiting without any justification, without a convincing explanation, and without any assurance except that it seems to be what God wants of me and that this kind of desperation is what it means for me to be without idols—I hope.


Frederick Buechner has said that we find our vocation just at the point that our “deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” For some people, perhaps, that turns out to be true. But at least for a few of us, vocation is not nearly so gladdening or fulfilling. For some of us, finding and living our calling feels at least at times like protracted martyrdom.

If that seems unnecessarily dire—or “unhealthy,” as we are wont to say—we should perhaps recall the Lord’s response to Paul’s desire to have his “thorn” removed (2 Cor 12.7). I suspect that some of us simply cannot remain true to the gospel in any serious sense if we do not at least at times find ourselves “thorned” into desperation, if we are not riled by a sanctified and sanctifying discomfort. Like Merton, we won’t be free to find the truth of our calling—or to learn how to be true to it—without also facing how untrue it all feels to us. Maybe we’re never going to move into our vocation until we learn what it means to wait without justification or assurance in the fires of idol-destroying desperation? Perhaps such endurance becomes possible only as we’re wasting away on the margins of what seems most important? Maybe it’s only in exile that we find our way?

Thinking about Anglicanism

I have a deep and abiding appreciation for Anglicanism, and for Anglican theology, fostered in no small part by a year that I spent as an undergrad studying at Ridley Theological College. But it is no news to anyone that Anglicanism finds itself in hard times. Not uniquely hard, nor uniquely for this time, but still hard. And it may be fair to say that the Anglican communion needs all the friends it can get at the moment. So I was struck by these stinging words from Thomas Merton:

‘The Church of England depends, for its existence, almost entirely on the solidarity and conservativism of the English ruling class. Its strength is not in anything supernatural, but in the strong social and racial instincts which bind the members of this caste together; and the English cling to their Church the way they cling to their King and to their old schools: because of a big, vague, sweet complex of subjective dispositions regarding the English countryside, old castles and cottages, games of cricket in the long summer afternoons, tea-parties on the Thames, croquet, roast-beef, pipe-smoking, the Christmas panto, Punch and the London Times and all those other things the mere thought of which produces a kind of a warm and inexpressible ache in the English heart’. – Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1988), 72.

Let’s just pretend for a moment that Merton is not completely off the page here, and that most Anglicans really are like Jane Austen’s Mr Collins; is this all that we might want to – even feel compelled to – say about our Anglican sisters and brothers, few of whom I know enjoy ‘tea-parties on the Thames’ or anywhere for that matter, and about Anglicanism itself?

Forsyth’s assessment of Anglicanism has significantly more currency than that of Merton’s and, in true Forsyth style, he goes to the bottom of things. Forsyth locates the enigma and scandal of Anglicanism in the schism which occured at the time of the Reformation. Painfully aware that he may cause offense, and that he is stepping on toes long blistered, some of which like it so, Forsyth, addressing a British audience from the Free Church camp, recalls that it is the judgement of the chief branch of the Catholic family that Anglicanism is guilty of sponsoring (ongoing) schism in the church:

‘If it is denied that there was a schism, how is it that the put with so much learning (whatever insight) fails to convince? It fails to convince, on one side, Rome and the Greek Church (which know a good deal about schisms), and, on the other hand, ourselves (who are not ignorant of them). If the Anglican Church did not owe its existence to a schism from the Pope and, in connection therewith, to a schism from the great Church of the West, at least it came out there. By its detachment from European Christianity it acquired much of the insular spirit, which in a Church is the sectarian note. It seems extravagant, not to say harsh, to speak thus of a Church so great and even glorious. But I am only speaking the language it has taught us. Of course, it is a true Church and a noble, with a great glory both in past and future. Historically it is the mother of us all. And we should differ as Churches – respectfully, and not bitterly, like political parties or petty heretics. But, if it will insist on treating as sectaries and schismatics those outside itself in virtue of a succession now more than shaky to its own scholars – it must not be grieved if we interrogate its own history and explore it with the torch of the Gospel. It is a schism and a sect, which abjures the name because of its greatness just as the Norman raid is dignified as the Conquest, and claims to be the beginning of the true England and of English nobility. But it is not size that parts a Church from a sect. Indeed, the larger the Church the greater is the risk of corruption into a sect, by the spirit of ascendancy; while quite small “sects” may be full of the faith and love that make a Church. Most of the sects were, in their inception, nearer the actual conditions of the New Testament churches than the Churches were which they left. And, if the actual form, practice, and precedent of the New Testament Churches, as distinct from their Gospel, were decisive for all time, it is the sects that would be in the true succession, the true Churches. But, if a sect is the debasement of a Church, and if a Church is really debased only by moral faults, then the egoism, the pride, the spirit of ascendancy that gather these up is more likely to beset a great institution with a prerogative, a history, and vested interests. A Church becomes a sect when it develops the egoism which for the Church is moral marasmus and when it sees in its size, its splendour, and its domination the chief sign of its calling’. – The Church and the Sacraments, pp. 41–2.

Thomas Merton on ‘one’s daily immersion in “reality”‘

“Nine tenths of the news, as printed in the papers, is pseudo-news, manufactured events. Some days ten tenths. The ritual morning trance, in which one scans columns of newsprint, creates a peculiar form of generalized pseudo-attention to a pseudo-reality. This experience is taken seriously. It is one’s daily immersion in ‘reality.’ One’s orientation to the rest of the world. One’s way of reassuring himself that he has not fallen behind. That he is still there. That he still counts! My own experience has been that renunciation of this self-hypnosis, of this participation in the unquiet universal trance, is no sacrifice to reality at all. To ‘fall behind’ in this sense is to get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly.”

– Thomas Merton. Faith and Violence (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 151.

[HT: Kim Fabricius]

Doubting Thomas

Over at Hopeful Imagination, Jim Gordon has posted a wonderful reflection on ‘Doubting Thomas’ wherein he suggests that ‘Thomas wasn’t playing the hard wired sceptic, nor the melancholic discourager of the others’ so much as the hurt lover, ‘a man disappointed because he hoped for so much’. By doing so, Jim writes, ‘he sanctified the deepest questions we can ask about God and ourselves’.

Jim cites from Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island (p. xiii):

But questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked. And there is a far worse anxiety, a far worse insecurity, which comes from being afraid to ask the right questions – because they might turn out to have no answers. One of the moral diseases of the church comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.