in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 24 January 2014

Thomas Merton and Christian Spirituality

Dear All

Following yesterday's post I thought I would post here the epilogue to 'The Bloomsbury Guide'. Re-reading it yesterday I like the exploration of Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968) and his contributions to our understanding of Christian spirituality. I hope you enjoy it.


Epilogue: Whither Christian Spirituality?



We began this book by asking the questions ‘What is Christian Spirituality?’, ‘Whence does it arise?’ and ‘What distinguishes Christian Spirituality from other spiritualities?’ Drawing on the breadth of wisdom presented in this volume, this concluding chapter will try to suggest a way forward for Christian spirituality. Or, as we may term it, what may be the key elements of a Christian spirituality for the Twenty First Century.

The beginning of the Millennium, starting with the terrible events of 9/11 and its aftermath, has challenged us to rethink how we can go forward as people of faith in a time of darkness. Although we may see around us despair and confusion what arises in the essays of this volume are the gentle words of peace of the Risen Lord that allow us to treasure in our hearts a ‘spirit of optimism’ intrinsic to Christian faith. In addressing this final question, which is very much a question of futures – our future, the future of our faith and the future of our planet – we would like to suggest some forms a ‘Christian spirituality for a New Millennium’ may take. To aid this reflection we will divide these characteristics into the following areas: contemplation, engaged social ethic, psychological insight, embodiment, God in the everyday, awareness of creation and ecumenism. In looking at these categories we shall draw in particular on the insight of the visionary twentieth-century American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, whose life, career, and writings foreshadowed so many of the developments of the later twentieth century and still point the way ahead.



As we have seen, from the very beginnings of the Christian tradition contemplatio – the contemplation of the soul on the presence of God through the inspiration of the scriptures – has been central to all Christian spirituality. As we have seen the Desert Fathers and Mothers saw in contemplatio the vision of the ‘pure in heart’ mentioned in the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:8) and tried to live this through their solitary contemplation. A contemplatio taken up by St Benedict and Western monasticism and manifest through the Middle Ages in the traditions of theologia mystica, the Mendicant movements of St Francis and St Dominic and the great Spanish Carmelite mystics of the sixteenth century, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. Thus, as we enter our new Millennium we do so as heirs to this tradition of contemplation. The tradition is essentially heart-centred - although it is not anti-intellectual (as we have seen some of the greatest exponents of contemplatio have been intellectual giants of the Church, for example, St Thomas of Aquinas and Meister Eckhart), many proponents of the tradition have sought to place the intellect in context often through a use of teasing paradox or ‘shock tactics’ that throw a spanner into the restless whirring of the mind. It is succinctly put by the late Dominican scholar, Herbert McCabe:


Prayer is really a waste of time. The incarnate form of our prayer may be concerned with getting something done, forwarding our plans, and the generosity of God is such that he will let himself be incarnate even in these ways. But the very heart of prayer is not getting anything done. It is a waste of time, an even greater waste of time than play… For a real absolute waste of time you have to go to prayer.[1]


Thomas Merton makes the same point slightly differently in one of his last books, On Contemplative Prayer, published posthumously:


We should not look for a ‘method’ or ‘system’, but cultivate an ‘attitude’, an ‘outlook’: faith, openness, attention, reverence, expectation, supplication, trust, joy. All these finally permeate our being with love in so far as our living faith tells us we are in the presence of God, that we live in Christ, that in the Spirit of God we ‘see’ God our Father without ‘seeing’. We know him in ‘unknowing’.[2]


Prayer and contemplation are not, then, an ‘add-on’ to life, they are at the heart of life. This ‘divine unknowing’, what the medievals called the stulta sapientia (literally: ‘foolish wisdom’ cf. 1 Cor. 1) is thus the beginning of all wisdom and the heart of Christian contemplation. ‘It is the seriousness’, Merton reminds us, ‘of breathing when you’re drowning.’[3] Once we recognise our nothingness and helplessness before God then we can begin to pray. From such a perspective, even a coldness or impossibility to begin prayer is in itself a sign of this helplessness before God – a sign of His grace towards us and the necessity for our dependence upon God’s grace. For, as McCabe and Merton remind us in their own ways, ultimately there can only ever be one teacher of prayer – and that is the Holy Spirit.

Such a prayer, such a contemplatio, is not a fugit mundi, a flight from the world, but leads us back into life, into the arms of the world. Which leads us to our second aspect of a ‘Christian spirituality for the Twenty First Century’: an engaged social ethic.


An Engaged Social Ethic

One of the most precious insights of Christian contemplatives and writers in the past half century has been that there is no such thing as a Christian contemplation that does not engage with the world. Merton, the deeply contemplative Trappist monk, also engaged in the struggles of the anti-Vietnam protestors, the black rights groups and the anti-nuclear lobby. The ultimate irony was that after his sudden and tragic death in Bangkok in 1968 his body was transported back to the United States in the same aeroplane carrying the bodies of the young men and women killed in the Vietnam conflict.

          From Merton’s writings we can draw out three aspects of his understanding of such an engaged social ethic:

First, how such an ethic reiterates the essentially Trinitarian nature of Christian spirituality. As we have seen in this volume, much Christian discourse over the past half century has sought to re-engage with the Trinitarian model at the heart of Christian theology and social anthropology. For the modern theologians we could describe ourselves as homo relationis – instead of ‘I think therefore I am’, our twenty-first century motto could be ‘You are therefore I am’. As God is defined in terms of relatedness then our basic anthropology, as reflecting God’s triune life, can also be defined through relatedness.

One of the key characteristics of Christian spirituality in recent years has been the search for and, indeed, recovery of Christian community. L’Arche, Iona, TaizĂ©, Focolare are just a few of the new movements that have sought to refind Christian community and have proved especially popular with the young. Such communities have all, in their own way, sought to rediscover the essential communitarian, trinitarian basis that lies at the heart of Christian anthropology.

The second aspect of our understanding of the ‘engaged social ethic’ is our relationship to and analysis of violence in society. In Faith and Violence Merton places our First World Western consumerist behaviour in the context of a radical social analysis that still bites today:


The population of the affluent world is nourished on a steady diet of brutal mythology and hallucination, kept at a constant pitch of high tension by a life that is intrinsically violent in that it forces a large part of the population to submit to an existence which is humanly intolerable… The problem of violence, then, is not the problem of a few rioters and rebels, but the problem of a whole structure which is outwardly ordered and respectable, and inwardly ridden by psychopathic obsessions and delusions. [4]


The third and final part of our understanding of this social ethic in a way combines our first point with our second: that there can be no social engagement unless it is rooted in deep contemplation and awareness of self. In the famous ‘Letter to an Activist’ written to Jim Forrest on 21 February 1965, Merton emphasises the importance of not attaching to the results of activism: ‘face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.’[5] ‘All the good that you will do’ he adds, ‘will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.’ Along with alcohol, sex, food and consumer goods, it seems we can add social activism to the list of things we use to fill the void that lies at the centre of our aching hearts. ‘The great thing’ he concludes ‘is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths.’


Psychological Insight

The past century has seen enormous strides in our understanding of the psyche, its subtleties and forms. Sadly this has not necessarily been matched with a concomitant increase in our awareness of the integration of the spiritual and psychological. For historical reasons, modern psychology grew up with a distrust and wariness towards religion, an attitude which was by and large reciprocated by the churches. Fortunately the past two decades have seen a rapprochement in this attitude with both sides willing to dialogue and learn from each other. There have, of course, been notable exceptions on both sides and from the Catholic tradition both Thomas Merton, and his near contemporary, the British Benedictine monk, Dom Bede Griffiths, stand out.

In a letter written in the 1960s to a friend of his, Dr Mary Allen, a Jungian analyst, Griffiths makes some startling analogies between the psychological insights of the twentieth century and the ancient Christian ascetic traditions of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. For Griffiths the life of prayer is essentially a ‘reordering’ of the unconscious through the reflection of God’s love: ‘The point is that though these sins (Pride, Lust etc) are largely unconscious our will has consented to them. This is the mystery of original sin’.[6] Much of the life of prayer then, becomes for Griffiths, a purification of the unconscious on this radical level: ‘We are all by nature under the  power of these forces of the unconscious. . .  these forces may be kept down, to some extent a kind of balance established, and that is the normal human condition, but it is very inadequate’. Struggling with the forces of the unconscious we have two choices – to repress them or to give way to them in an undiscriminating fashion – ‘becoming slaves to passion’.  The first option, so common in the West, represses these forces so much that we become slaves to them, in which case we are controlled by the all-controlling, all-powerful, all-knowing ego. ‘The average Christian’ says Griffiths, ‘simply represses the unconscious like everyone else and lives from their will and reason’.

          However, in baptism in Christ we have entered the deepest depths of the unconscious to allow their purification: ‘It is Christ alone who can set us free from the unconscious. Baptism is a descent beneath the waters, a conflict with Satan (in which the soul is mystically identified with Christ) in which the daemonic powers are defeated and the healing powers of the unconscious are realised to give birth to new life.’ This, for Griffiths, is what should happen in our Christian life – ‘The Holy Spirit should penetrate to the depth of the unconscious to the ultimate root of being, and transform us.’

So many of us, especially in the West, lock up the forces of the unconscious and are terrified of opening up their contents ( often with good reason), alternatively we see around us total unconscious ‘acting out’ of the destructive unconscious forces of the psyche. The Life of Christ penetrating into the darkest depths of the unconscious can bring liberation and healing in a most unexpected and profound way. The goal, following Griffiths, is to bring about a marriage of the conscious and unconscious, the male and female, animus and anima in which each is preserved and reintegrated in Christ.

Examining the lives of Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths we see exactly this ‘reintegration of the self in Christ’ through marriage of different poles of the self. Merton, living from the unconscious as a young man embraces the hard ethical demands of the Christian life when he enters the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani (as does Griffiths when he enters Prinknash Abbey), only with age and experience realising that the hard edges of ego-control have to be surrendered to allow a softer entrance of the spirit into all aspects of the self, bringing about what Blake calls the ‘marriage of heaven and earth’. As we saw above in the chapters written by Richard Rohr and Bernadette Flanagan, it is highly likely that through deepening awareness of the gendered life of the Spirit that Christians will increasingly learn to articulate the spiritual quest in the Twenty First Century.



The Christian spirituality of the new Millennium will not only be psychologically aware but embodied. It takes all aspects of the self seriously, including the erotic. A point observed by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est. Benedict’s encyclical restores eros to its rightful place at the centre of Christian life, reinvigorated and renewed in agape: ‘Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved.’[7]

The new spirituality is not just a school of the head but a school of the heart and intuition that gives as much importance to the arts, liturgy and embodied expression as it does to scholastic theology. As Merton puts it in Zen and the Birds of Appetite: ‘In our need for whole and integral experience of our own self on all its levels, bodily as well as imaginative, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, there is not place for the cultivation of one part of human consciousness, one aspect of human experience, at the expense of others, even on the pretext that what is cultivated is sacred and all the rest profane. A  false and divisive ‘sacredness’ or ‘supernaturalism’ can only cripple us.’ [8]


God in the Everyday

The breakdown of the barrier between the sacred and the secular leads to our fifth aspect of the spirituality for the Twenty First Century –the breakdown of the barrier between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary. It is what the eighteenth-century Jesuit Jean Pierre de Caussade referred to as the ‘sacrament of the present moment’. Merton, again, put it thus: ‘There is no longer any place for the kind of idealistic philosophy that removes all reality into the celestial realms and makes temporal existence meaningless… we need to find ultimate sense here and now in the ordinary humble tasks and human problems of every day.’[9] Merton himself, following the artistic example of his parents, was a keen photographer and his photographs, illustrate the ‘quiddity’, the ‘this-ness’ of everyday objects. The essence of the Creator ‘shining out like shook foil’ in all creation.[10]


Awareness of Creation

This awareness of the present moment – ‘the power of now’ – leads to a wider cosmic awareness and our own place within creation. Faced with the ecological disasters of the late twentieth century we are forced more and more to reassess our place within creation and our commitments and responsibilities to the world around us. Merton in the late sixties talked about the need to address those problems ‘ which threaten our very survival as a species on earth.’[11] How prescient he was in this respect and how pressing now the task which is finally being taken up by contemporary theologians as explored so well above by John Chryssavgis and Mary Grey amongst others.



The seventh and final aspect of our ‘Christian spirituality for the Twenty First Century’ is the importance of openness to dialogue between the Christian denominations and the faiths. As we have seen in this volume, in the past decades, following the decrees of Nostra Aetate at the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has embraced ecumenical and interfaith dialogue with gusto under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II and now under Pope Benedict XVI. Slowly we talk to each other and slowly we edge towards healing the scandalous divisions of centuries. As we live at this precarious moment in our planet’s future the ecumenical imperative becomes even more important than ever. As with all our seven aspects of the spirituality for the new Millennium, Merton was again ahead of his time embracing dialogue with Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. The four chapters above have articulated in some depth the perils and promises that this new dialogue will be revealing in the coming decades of the new century.


Conclusion: ‘A New Role for Religion’

So then, our personal list of the seven aspects of the ‘Christian Spirituality for the Twenty First Century’, or better, an ‘Engaged Christian Spirituality for the New Millennium’ embraces contemplatio, an engaged social ethic, psychological insight, embodiment, God in the everyday, awareness of Creation and the ecumenical.

                   Reading the contributors to this volume there is always a sense of optimism. It is a sense that God the Father, through the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ is leading us into new paths and new ways that are unknown to us. We live in Meister Eckhart’s Now-Moment, the place of potential and renewal where the Eternal Creator gives birth to the Eternal Child within us if we will but let it happen.  As the great tenth-century Orthodox theologian, St Symeon the New Theologian, reminds us, the natural condition of Christians is to be caught up in the great Cosmic renewal of the Logos by birthright from baptism, what is extraordinary is that we have forgotten who we are and how we are related to the cosmos. In this new ecumenical spirit – the great spirit of renewal which blows through our churches at the present time – we are called and challenged once again to respond to the great tradition of 2000 years of Christian spirituality in a new positive spirit of optimism and humility.




Bibliography and Further Reading


Baker, R. and Henry, G. (1999), Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story. Louisville: Fons Vitae.


Pope Benedict XVI (2005), Deus Caritas Est. Accessible on


McCabe, H. (2002), God Still Matters. London: Continuum.


Merton, T. (1967), Mystics and Zen Masters, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

(1968a), Faith and Violence, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

(1968b), Zen and the Birds of Appetite, New York: New Directions.

(1973), Contemplative Prayer. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

(1985), The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, ed. William H Shannon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.




[1] McCabe, H. (2002), God Still Matters. London: Continuum, p.75.
[2] Merton, T. (1973), Contemplative Prayer. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, p.39.
[3] Merton,’ Lectures to Novices’, quoted in Baker, R. and Henry, G. (1999), Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story. Louisville: Fons Vitae, p.154.
[4] Merton, T. (1968), Faith and Violence, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, pp.78-79.
[5]Merton, T. (1985), The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, ed. William H Shannon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
[6] Griffiths, B. (2005), ‘Letter to Dr Mary Allen’  reprinted in the Bede Griffiths Sangha Newsletter. March 2005, Vol 8:1
[7] Pope Benedict XVI, (2005) Deus Caritas Est. Accessible on
[8] Merton, T. (1968a), Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New York: New Directions, p. 30
[9] Ibid.
[10] See also Pearson, P. (2003), The Paradox of Place: Thomas Merton’s Photography. Louisville, KY: Thomas Merton Centre at Bellarmine University.
[11] Merton, T. (1968a): 30.

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