Here and Now: Thomas Merton

We are fortunate to have the journals, letters, writings, and recordings of Thomas Merton.  Even a cursory walk through them confirms Merton’s intention to live in the here-and-now.  Today, I illustrate his commitment in these ways.

First, he embraced the Cistercian vision of the monastery as a school of love and owned the Cistercian intention to be a total ‘yes’ to the will of God. [1]  Merton knew he was a complicated person whose energy and interests took him in many directions.  He knew he had to estsblish a center–a reference point, a point of return, a core.  The Cistercian tradition provided him with the ingredients to live in that center.

Second, within days of arriving at the Abbey of Gethdemani (12/10/1941), we find him engaged in the common life of this Cistercian community with the intent of improving what he found there.  He could do this because of his obvious great love for the life he had vowed to live.  So, even when fellow monks and abbots disagreed with him, they never saw him as someone throwing stones. 

Merton’s early observations grew into a larger effort to be an instrument for monastic renewal.  He never did this with an eye on the future that was detached from the present moment.  Every discovery could be applied here and now, and we can see how his little-by-little appropriation of those learnings affected life together at Gethsemani, and other places as well. [2]

Third, Merton’s commitment to renewal in the present moment was larger than monasticism, or the Church.  It was societal and global.  So, it is not surprising that he became a voice in the civil rights movement in The United States and in the larger peace movement around the world. Without leaving the monastic life, Merton’s deep contemplation about the time in which he was living gave him an authentic voice to which activists to this day pay attention and from which they learn. [3]

The maturing of his developing present-moment living (according to Merton himself) occurred at the intersection of Fourth & Walnut in Louisville, on March 18, 1958.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, he saw everyone there “shining like the sun.” In that present moment, Merton’s love for all people, and his sense of belonging to all people (and their belonging to him) was like “waking from a dream of separateness.”  And being awakened, he put it into here-and-now words by writing, “the gate of heaven is everywhere.” [4]

There is no greater attachment to or investment in present-moment living than that.

[1] M. Basil Pennington, ‘A School of Love: The Cistercian Way to Holiness’ (Morehouse Publishing, 2000).

[2] After his death in 1968, many of Merton’s thoughts about monastic renewal were compiled in the book, ‘Contemplation in a World of Action’ (Image Books, 1973).  Merton was putting together most of the material in the book before he died.  Friends added to what he had compiled, providing readers with other of Merton’s writings on monastic renewal.  In 1978, another book was compiled, ‘The Monastic Journey’ (Image Books) which added even more content to the subject.

[3] Jim Forest has written an excellent book about Merton’s ministry of social reform.  It is entitled, ‘The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peace-Makers (Orbis Books, 2016).

[4] Thomas Merton, ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ (Image Books, 1965), 156-158.  To grasp the full significance of Merton’s experience, you should read his complete account of it, not just the oft-quoted excerpts.  And of additional note is the fact that Merton included this experience in his final address as novice master (August 20, 1965) before moving full-time into his hermitage at Gethsemani.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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