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Thomas Merton

“Though Thomas Merton died forty years ago, he remains one of the world’s most widely read and influential writers. The story of his conversion to Christianity, his joining the Catholic Church, and then becoming a Trappist monk is told in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. It’s a book still in print in many languages more than sixty years after its first publication. Merton got into hot water in the 1960s for his writings protesting racism, nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, and the war in Vietnam. His influence reached far beyond the Catholic Church or even Christianity in the larger sense. A few years ago his friend the Dalai Lama came by helicopter to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky just so that he could to sit in meditation on Merton’s grave” — Jim Forest, author of Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton, who provided these Merton quotes. —

Christian Need Not Fight

“The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [Lord of Creation] in mystery even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.”
(In the chapter “The Christian as Peacemaker” Peace in the Post-Christian Era, 27–33).

There is no explanation of most of what goes on in our own hearts

“The heart of man can be full of so much pain, even when things are exteriorly all right”. It becomes all the more difficult because today we are used to thinking that there are explanations for everything. But there is no explanation of most of what goes on in our own hearts, and we cannot account for it all. No use resorting to the kind of mental tranquillizers that even religious explanations sometimes offer. Faith must be deeper than that, rooted in the unknown and in the abyss of darkness that is the ground of our being. No use teasing the darkness to try to make answers grow out of it. But if we learn how to have a deep inner patience, things solve themselves, or God solves them if you prefer: but do not expect to see how. Just learn to wait, and do what you can and help other people. Often it is in helping someone else we find the best way to bear our own trouble.” — Thomas Merton from his Christmas letter, 1966

Where we are all going?

…. “I am sick up to the teeth and beyond the teeth, up to the eyes and beyond the eyes, with all forms of projects and expectations and statements and programs and explanations of anything, especially explanations about where we are all going, because where we are all going is where we went a long time ago, over the falls. We are in a new river and we don’t know it.”
(extract from a letter from Thomas Merton to Daniel Berrigan)

Violence embedded in culture itself

“The real focus of American violence is not in esoteric groups but in the very culture itself, its mass media, its extreme individualism and competitiveness, its inflated myths of virility and toughness, and its overwhelming preoccupation with the power of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, and psychological overkill. If we live in what is essentially a culture of overkill, how can we be surprised at finding violence in it? Can we get to the root of the trouble? In my opinion, the best way to do it would have been the classic way of religious humanism and non-violence exemplified by Gandhi. That way seems now to have been closed. I do not find the future reassuring,” — Thomas Merton edited with an introduction by Gordon C. Zahn (Boston, MA: McCall’s Publishing Company, 1971), p. 230

If you want to study modern history

If you want to study the social and political history of modern nations, study hell.-- Thomas Merton New Seeds of Contemplation, ch 17

worshiping the false self in place of God

“After all, what is your personal identity? It is what you really are, your real self. None of us is what he thinks he is, or what other people think he is, still less what his passport says he is… And it is fortunate for most of us that we are mistaken. We do not generally know what is good for us. That is because, in St. Bernard’s language, our true personality has been concealed under the ‘disguise’ of a false self, the ego, whom we tend to worship in place of God.” —Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe
Harcourt & Brace, 1949, p. 349

silence between words

“For language to have meaning, there must be intervals of silence somewhere, to divide word from word and utterance from utterance. He who retires into silence does not necessarily hate language. Perhaps it is love and respect for language which imposes silence upon him. For the mercy of God is not heard in words unless it is heard, both before and after the words are spoken, in silence,”
—Thomas Merton, “Philosophy of Silence,” in Disputed Questions
(NY: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1960), p. 181

ordinary tasks

[W]alking down a street, sweeping a floor, washing dishes, hoeing beans, reading a book, taking a stroll in the woods-all can be enriched with contemplation and with the obscure sense of the presence of God. — Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, William H. Shannon, editor, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003; p 66

blood-drinking gods

“Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death He opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death. But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardons and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.” — Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions, 1961, chapter 10 ‘A Body of Broken Bones’, pp 3–74


“Technically I am not a pure pacifist in theory, though today in practice I don’t see how anyone can be anything else since limited wars (however ‘just’) present an almost certain danger of nuclear war on an all-out scale. It is absolutely clear to me that we are faced with the obligation, both as human beings and as Christians, of striving in every way possible to abolish war”. (Thomas Merton in a letter to Jim Forest, Nov. 29, 1961.


“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” — Thomas Merton

Communications and Not the Noise of Slogans

“Everything healthy, everything certain, everything holy, if we can find such things, they all need to be emphasized and articulated. For this it is necessary that there be communication between the hearts and minds of men, communication and not the noise of slogans or the repetition of cliches. Communication is becoming more and more difficult, and … speech is in danger of perishing or being perverted in the amplified noise of beasts…. There is, it seems to me, every reason why we should attempt to cry out to one another and comfort one another, in so far as this may be possible, with the truth of Christ and also with the truth of humanism and reason. For faith cannot not be preserved if … man is destroyed: that is to say if his humanity is utterly debased and mechanized, while he himself remains on earth as the instrument of enormous and unidentified forces like those which press us inexorably to the brink of cataclysm…”- Thomas Merton
from a letter to Paulo Alceu Amorosa Lima in Rio de Janiero
Cold War Letters, Orbis Books, p 12

Ascetic Self Discipline

“In general, it can be said that no contemplative life is possible without ascetic self-discipline. One must learn to survive without the habit-forming luxuries which get such a hold on men today. I do not say that to be a contemplative one absolutely has to go without smoking or without alcohol, but certainly one must be able to use these things without being dominated by an uncontrolled need for them.” — Thomas Merton New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Books, p 12

Courage to be Simple

“It takes more courage than we imagine to be perfectly simple with other men. Our frankness is often spoiled by a hidden barbarity, born of fear.

False sincerity has much to say, because it is afraid. True candor can afford to be silent. It does not need to face an anticipated attack. Anything it may have to defend can be defended with perfect simplicity.” — Thomas Merton. No Man is an Island (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955) pages 194–5
also in A Merton Reader, ed. by Thomas P. McDonnell, (New York: Image Books, 1989) page 123


“Nonviolence seeks to “win” not by destroying or even by humiliating the adversary, but by convincing him that there is a higher and more certain common good than can be attained by bombs and blood. Nonviolence, ideally speaking, does not try to overcome the adversary by winning over him, but to turn him from an adversary into a collaborator by winning him over.” — Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press: 1968, p 12

Cleaning Away the Mental Rubbish

The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think. — Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image) p 77


Detachment from things does not mean setting up a contradiction between “things” and “God” as if God were another “thing” and as if His creatures were His rivals. We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached form ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God. This is an entirely new perspective which many sincerely moral and ascetic minds fail utterly to see. — Thomas Merton
New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions, p 21

We live in a time of crisis…

“We live in crisis, and perhaps we find it interesting to do so.
Yet we also feel guilty about it, as if we ought not to be in
crisis. As if we were so wise, so able, so kind, so reasonable,
that crisis ought at all times to be unthinkable. It is doubtless
this “ought,” this “should” that makes our era so interesting
that it cannot possibly be a time of wisdom, or even of reason.
We think we know what we ought to be doing, and we see
ourselves move, with the inexorable deliberation of a machine
that has gone wrong, to do the opposite.” — Thomas Merton
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, New York: Image, page 66

Politics and Human Dimension

“The basic problem is not political, it is a-political and human. One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretend to arrogate entirely to themselves. This is the necessary first step along the long way toward the perhaps impossible task of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics themselves.”
— Letter from Thomas Merton to Jim Forest, August 27, 1962:

When the Angel Spoke….

When the angel spoke, God awoke in the heart of this girl of Nazareth and moved within her like a giant. He stirred and opened His eyes and her soul and she saw that, in containing Him, she contained the world besides. The Annunciation was not so much a vision as an earthquake in which God moved the universe and unsettled the spheres, and the beginning and the end of all things came before her in her deepest heart. And far beneath the movement of this silent cataclysm Mary slept in the infinite tranquility of God, and God was a child curled up who slept in her and her veins were flooded with His wisdom which is night, which is starlight, which is silence. And her whole being was embraced in Him whom she embraced and they became tremendous silence.

— Thomas Merton
The Ascent to Truth (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1951, p 317)

Everything I touch turns into distraction

Suppose that my “poverty” be a hunger for spiritual riches: suppose that by pretending to empty myself, pretending to be silent, I am really trying to cajole God into enriching me with some experience - what then?

Then everything becomes a distraction. All created things interfere with my quest for some special experience. I must shut them out, or they will tear me apart.

What is worst — I, myself am distraction. But, unhappiest of all — if my prayer is centered in myself, if it seeks only an enrichment of my own self, my prayer will be my greatest potential distraction.

Full of my own curiosity, I have eaten of the tree of Knowledge and torn myself away from myself and God.

I am left rich and alone and nothing can assuage my hunger: everything I touch turns into distraction.
Thoughts on Solitude (p 93)

I worry about birds and people

Someone will say: “You worry about birds. Why not worry about people?” I worry about both birds and people. We are in the world and part of it, and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves spiritually, morally, and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness, it all hangs together.
Turning Toward the World, The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 4 (1960–1963). edited by Victor Kramer (Harper SanFrancisco, 1997, p. 274f)

Merton On Happiness

Why can we not be content with an ordinary, secret, personal
happiness that does not need to be explained or justified?
We feel guilty if we are not happy in some publically approved way, if we do not imagine that we are meeting some standard of happiness that is recognized by all. God gives us the gift and the capacity to make our own happiness out of our own situation. And it is not hard to be happy, simply by accepting what is within reach, and making of it what we can.
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Image Books, p. 56.

A Tree Gives Glory to God by Being a Tree

A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God
means it to be it is obeying Him. It “consents,” so to speak, to
His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and
which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore
a tree imitates God by being a tree.
New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Books, 1961; p. 29.

Always divided and pulled in many directions

When we live superficially … we are always outside ourselves,
never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in many
directions … we find ourselves doing many things that we do not
really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing
things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we
secretly realize to be worthless and without meaning in our lives.
Love and Living

White Collar Murder Machine

We must not lose sight of the real problem, which is not the individual with a revolver but death and even genocide as big business … It is this polite, massively organized white-collar murder machine that threatens the world with destruction.
Essential Writings (Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis Books: 2000)

Danger of Education

The danger of education, I have found, is that it so easily confuses
means with ends. Worse than that, it quite easily forgets both and
devotes itself merely to mass production of uneducated graduates —
people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate
and completely artificial charade which they and their contemporaries
have conspired to call “life.”

A few years ago a man who was compiling a book entitled “Success”
wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a
success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a
success in any terms that had meaning to me. I swore I had spent my
life strenuously avoiding success. If it so happened that I had once
written a best seller, this was a pure accident, due to inattention and
naivete, and I would take very good care not to do the same again.
If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was simply this:
Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every
shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success.
Love & Living edited by Naomi Burton Stoine and Brother Patrick Hart (Farrer Straus Giroux. 1979) page 11 (in the chapter “Learning to Live”)

Christmas Reflection

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room
for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at
home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others
for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those
who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are
tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no
room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those
for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst … With
these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is
no room.
Raids on the Unspeakable

“Am I not arrogant too?”

[Septuagesima Sunday, 1967] … And, after all, am I not arrogant too?
Am I not unreasonable, unfair, demanding, suspicious and often quite
arbitrary in my dealings with others? The point is not just “who is right”
but “judge not” and “forgive one another” and “bear one another’s
burdens”. This by no means implies passive obsequiousness and
blind obedience, but a willingness to listen, to be patient. This is our task.
The Road to Joy, Robert E. Daggy, editor, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989): pp 96–97

Where is silence? Where is solitude? Where is love?

Ultimately, these cannot be found anywhere except in the ground
of our own being. There in the silent depths, there is no more
distinction between the I and the Not-I. There is perfect peace,
because we are grounded in infinite creative and redemptive Love.
Love and Living, Naomi Burton Stone and Br. Patrick Hart, editors (Harcourt, Inc., 1979) p 20

The reason why we have so little joy…

I think the chief reason we have so little joy is that we take ourselves too seriously.
The Sign of Jonas entry for February 5th 1950.

At the Mercy of Peddlers of Happiness

If we are fools enough to remain at the mercy of the people
who want to sell us happiness, it will be impossible for us ever
to be content with anything. How would they profit if we became
content? We would no longer need their new product. The last
thing the salesman wants is for the buyer to become content.
You are of no use in our affluent society unless you are always
just about to grasp what you never have. The Greeks were not
as smart as we are. In their primitive way they put Tantalus in
hell. Madison Avenue, on the contrary, would convince us that
Tantalus is in heaven.
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 84

On Pornography

I detest pornography. I utterly loathe writing that seeks to work
on the passions and to exploit them, instead of releasing them
in a healthy form : laughter … The utterly sick and subhuman
reduction of ‘thought’ to nothingness: to something that appears
to be sensual but is not even that.
— letter to Etta Gullick, January 18, 1963, The Hidden Ground of Love, pp. 356–57.

Creation of Synthetic Passions

We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve
in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension,
to strain every human desire to the limit, and to create as many new
desires and synthetic passions as possible.
— writing shortly after World War II


Genuine contemplation involves no tension. There is no reason why
it should affect anyone’s nerves: on the contrary, it relaxes them. It
leaves you rested and refreshed in your whole being. There is no
strain in real contemplation, because when the gift is real, you do not
depend on it, you are not enslaved by the “need” to experience
anything. The contemplative does not seek reassurance in himself, in
his virtue, in his state, in his “prayer”. His trust is in God, not in
himself. The peace and “rest” of contemplation is the fruit of a living
faith in the action of divine grace. The contemplative is able to let go
of himself and everything else, knowing that everything that matters
in his life is in God’s hands, and that he does not have to “take
thought for the morrow.” He fully realizes the meaning of the Gospel
message of salvation by the grace of God and not by dependence on
human ingenuity.
The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation William H. Shannon, editor (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2003) p 113.

God’s Will

If you want to know what is meant by “God’s will”, this is one way to get a good idea of it. “God’s will” is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. …Everything that is demanded of me, in order that I may treat every other person effectively as a human being, “is willed for me by God under the natural law.” …I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when those who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice.
New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Press, 1961) p 76–77

Advice to Peacemakers

… They [referring to participants in a walk from San Francisco to Moscow plagued with many difficulties] are all concerned about the fact that their own human failings and incompatibilities came out a bit. That is all right, though. It has to be that way. Another form of poverty that we have to accept. We have got to be instruments of God and realize at the same time that we are very poor and defective instruments. It is important to resist the feelings of resentment and impatience we get over our own failings because this makes us project our faults onto other people, instead of bearing their burdens along with our own…
— from letter to Jim Forest, January 5, 1962, The Hidden Ground of Love, p 261

It is sometimes discouraging to see how small the Christian peace movement is, and especially here in America where it is most necessary. But we have to remember that this is the usual pattern, and the Bible has led us to expect it. Spiritual work is done with disproportionately small and feeble instruments.. And now above all when everything is so utterly complex, and when people collapse under the burden of confusions and cease to think at all, it is natural that few may want to take on the burden of trying to effect something in the moral and spiritual way, in political action. Yet this is precisely what has to be done.
— from letter to Jean & Hildegard Goss-Mayr, January 1962. The Hidden Ground of Love, p. 325.

Life Affirms Itself In Giving

The mature person realizes that life affirms itself most, not in acquiring things, but in giving time, efforts, strength, intelligence, and love to others. Here a different kind of dialectic of life and death begins to appear. The living drive, the vital satisfaction, by “ending” its trend to self-satisfaction and redirecting itself to and for others, transcends itself. It “dies” insofar as the ego is concerned, for the self is deprived of the immediate satisfactions which it could claim without being contested. Now it renounces these things, in order to give to others. Hence, life “dies” to itself in order to give itself away and thus affirms itself more maturely, more fruitfully, and more completely. We live in order to die to ourselves and give everything to others. …This “dying” to self in order to give to others is nothing more or less than a higher and more special affirmation of life. Such dying is the fruit of life, the evidence of mature and productive living. It is, in fact, the end or the goal of life.
Love and Living, Naomi Burton Stone & Patrick Hart, editors (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jonvanovich, 1985) p 102.

Inner Self

The inner self is precisely that self which cannot be tricked or manipulated by anyone, even by the devil. [The inner self] is like a very shy wild animal that never appears at all whenever an alien presence is at hand, and comes out only when all is perfectly peaceful, in silence, when he is untroubled and alone. He cannot be lured by anyone or anything, because he responds to no lure except that of the divine freedom.
The Inner Experience, page 5.

On Those Who Have “Lost Their Faith”

How many people are there in the world of today who have “lost their
faith” along with the vain hopes and illusions of their childhood? What
they called “faith” was just one among all the other illusions. They
placed all their hope in a certain sense of spiritual peace, of comfort, of
interior equilibrium, of self-respect. Then when they began to struggle
with the real difficulties and burdens of mature life, when they became
aware of their own weakness, they lost their peace, they let go of their
precious self-respect, and it became impossible for them to “believe.”
That is to say it became impossible for them to comfort themselves, to
reassure themselves, with the images and concepts they found
reassuring in childhood.

Place no hope in the feeling of assurance, of spiritual comfort. You may
well have to get along without this. Place no hope in the inspirational
preachers of Christian sunshine, who are able to pick you up and set
you back on your feet and make you feel good for three or four days —
until you fold up and collapse into despair.
New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Press, 1961) p 187

On Mercy

Mercy heals in every way. It heals bodies, spirits, society, and history.
It is the only force that can only heal and save.
Love and Living Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart, editors (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979) p 216

* * *

Though there is no use in placing our hopes on a totally utopian new
world in which everyone is sublimely merciful, we are obliged as
Christians to seek some way of giving the mercy and compassion
of Christ a social, even a political, dimension. The eschatological
function of mercy, we repeat, is to prepare the Christian
transformation of the world, and to usher in the Kingdom of God.
This Kingdom is manifestly “not of this world” (all forms of
millennial and messianic Christianity to the contrary), but it demands
to be typified and prepared by such forms of heroic social witness that
makes Christian mercy plain and evident in the world….

Christian mercy must discover, in faith, in the Spirit, a power strong
enough to initiate the transformation of the world into a realm of
understanding, unity and relative peace, where mankind, nations and
societies are willing to make the enormous sacrifices required if they
are to communicate intelligibly with one another, understand one
another, cooperate with one another in feeding the hungry millions
and in building a world of peace.
Love and Living Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart, editors (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979): p 219

Monastic Poverty vs. Poverty of the Poor

In winter the stripped landscape of Nelson county looks terribly poor. The houses of our neighbors between here and Bardstown are pretty miserable. We [Trappists] are the ones who are supposed to be poor. Well, I am thinking of the people in a shanty next to the Brandeis plant, on Brook Street, Louisville. We had to wait there while Reverend Father was getting some tractor parts. The woman who lives in this place was standing out in front of it, shivering in some kind of rag, while a suspicious looking, anonymous truck unloaded some bootleg coal in her yard. I wondered if she had been warm yet this winter. …The world is terrible, people are falling to pieces and starving to death and freezing and going to hell with despair, and here I sit with a silver spoon in my mouth and write books and everybody sends me fan mail telling me how wonderful I am for giving up so much. And what, I’d like to ask them, have I given up anyway except headaches and responsibilities?
Entering the Silence, Journals Volume 1, Jonathan Montaldo, editor (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997) p 264

The Only Way to Change the World

The only way to change the world is to change the thoughts and desires
of those who live in it.

American Economy

I am concerned…with the “good” people, the right-thinking people,
who stick to principle all right except where it conflicts with the chance
to make a fast buck. It seems to me that there are very dangerous
ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition.
I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized
selfishness and systematic irresponsibility… Some Americans are
not too far from the law of the jungle. If our affluent society ever
breaks down, what are we going to have left?
— December 1961, Cold War Letter # 10, Cold War Letters, pp. 27–28, The Hidden Ground of Love, p. 445


Contemplation should not be exaggerated, distorted, and made to seem
great. It is essentially simple and humble. No one should enter into it
except by the path of obscurity and self-forgetfulness. It implies also
much discipline, but above all the normal discipline of every day
virtue. It implies justice to other people, truthfulness, hard work,
unselfishness, devotion to the duties of one’s state in life, obedience,
charity, self-sacrifice. No one should delude himself with
contemplative aspirations if he is not willing to undertake, first of all,
the ordinary labor and obligations of the moral life. Contemplation is
not a kind of magic and easy shortcut to happiness and perfection. And
yet since it does bring one in touch with God in an I-Thou relationship
of mysteriously experienced friendship, it necessarily brings that peace
which Christ promised and which “the world cannot give.” There may
be much desolation and suffering in the spirit of the contemplative, but
there is always more joy than sorrow, more security than doubt, more
peace than desolation.
The Inner Experience (HarperCollins 2003), p. 116–117

Peace is not something you fight for.

Perhaps peace is not, after all, something you work for, or “fight for.”
It is indeed “fighting for peace” that starts all the wars. What, after all,
are the pretexts of all these Cold War crises, but “fighting for peace”?
Peace is something you have or you do not have. If you yourself are
at peace, then there is at least *some* peace in the world. Then you
share your peace with everyone, and everyone will be at peace. Of
course I realize that arguments like this can be used as a pretext for
passivity, for indifferent acceptance of every iniquity. Quietism leads
to war as surely as anything does. But I am not speaking of quietism,
because quietism is not peace, nor is it the way to peace.
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday, 1966, p 181)

How small the Christian Peace Movement is.

It is sometimes discouraging to see how small the Christian peace
movement is, and especially here in America where it is most necessary.
But we have to remember that this is the usual pattern, and the Bible has
led us to expect it. Spiritual work is done with disproportionately small
and feeble instruments. And now above all when everything is so utterly
complex, and when people collapse under the burden of confusions and
cease to think at all, it is natural that few may want to take on the burden
of trying to effect something in the moral and spiritual way, in political
action. Yet this is precisely what has to be done.

… [T]he great danger is that under the pressure of anxiety and fear, the
alternation of crisis and relaxation and new crisis, the people of the
world will come to accept gradually the idea of war, the idea of
submission to total power, and the abdication of reason, spirit and
individual conscience. The great peril of the cold war is the progressive
deadening of conscience.
— from a letter to Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayer The Hidden Ground of Love William H. Shannon. editor (New York: Farrar, St)

Marital Love

This whole attitude of abstraction, of hatred and denigration of the
body, has finally led to a pathological and totally unrealistic obsession
with bodily detail … [in consequence of which] love becomes no
longer an expression of the communion between persons…. Instead
of saying that an act is pure when you remove all that is material,
sensuous, fleshly, emotional, passionate, etc., from it, we will on the
contrary say that a sexual act is pure when it gives a rightful place to
the body, the senses, the emotions …, the special needs of the person,
all that is called for by the unique relationship between the two lovers,
and that is demanded by the situation in which they find themselves….
It is precisely in this spirit of celebration, gratitude, and joy that true
purity is found.
Love and Living (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979) pp 112–119

When people are truly in love, they experience far more than just a
mutual need of each other’s company and consolation. In their
relations with each other they become different people: they are more
than their everyday selves, more alive, more understanding, more
enduring… They are made over into new beings. They are transformed
by the power of their love.
Love and Living edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979) p 31

Anti-war Protest

The important thing about protest is not so much the short-range possibility
of changing the direction of policies, but the longer range aim of helping
everyone gain an entirely new attitude toward war. Far from doing this, much
current protest simply reinforces the old positions by driving the adversary
back into the familiar and secure mythology of force. Hence the strong
“patriotic” reaction against protests in the United States. How can one
protest against war without implicitly and indirectly contributing to the war
New Seeds of Contemplation

Danger of Activism and Overwork

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist …
most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of
modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,
to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects,
to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own
inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work,
because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday, 1966) p 73

Real Job

The real job is to lay the groundwork for a deep change of heart on the part of the whole nation so that one day it can really go through the ‘metanoia’ we need for a peaceful world.
The Hidden Ground of Love p 92

The Individual

I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me”; at times this even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on my death.

The man who lives in division is living in death. He cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person he believes himself to be is a bad dream….
New Seeds of Contemplation p 48

One Body

Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and “one body,” will we begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures and accidents in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors is not my own: for I am preparing the way for the achievements of another. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another, but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time. It is seen, above all, in my own integration in Christ.
No Man Is An Island (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955) p 16


Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no worth at all, if not perhaps, results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you will start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…

Lenten Advice

God is more glorified by a man who uses the good things in life in simplicity and with gratitude than by the nervous asceticism of someone who is agitated about every detail of his self-denial. The former uses good things and thinks of God. The latter is afraid of good things, and consequently cannot use them properly. He is terrified of the pleasure God has put in things, and in his terror thinks only of himself. He imagines God has placed all the good things of the world before him like a bait in a trap. He worries at all times about his own “perfection.” His struggle for perfection becomes a kind of battle of wits with the Creator Who made all things good. The very goodness of creatures becomes a threat to the purity of this virtuous one,who would like to abstain from everything. But he cannot. He is human,like the rest of men, and…like them he must see the sky, and love, in spite of himself, the light of the sun!
No Man Is An Island (Harcourt Brace & Co., New York, 1955) pp 114–115

Practice What You Preach

The word of the Gospel is understood only when it is obeyed. It is known to those who strive to practice it.
Seasons of Celebration (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950) p 217

Saints and Sanctity

True sanctity does not consist in trying to live without creatures. It consists in using the goods of life in order to do the will of God. It consists in using God’s creation in such a way that everything we touch and see and use and love gives new glory to God. To be a saint means to pass through the world gathering fruits for heaven from every tree and reaping God’s glory in every field. The saint is one who is in contact with God in every possible way, in every possible direction. He is united to God by the depths of his own being. He sees and touches God in everything and everyone around him. Everywhere he goes, the world rings and resounds (though silently) with the deep harmonies of God’s glory.
Seasons of Celebration (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950) p 137

Silence Within

May we all grow in grace and peace, and not neglect the silence that is printed in the center of our being. It will not fail us. It is more than silence.
— from a letter to Amiya Chakravarty and his students at Smith College April 13, 1967, included in The Hidden Ground of Love


He who follows words is destroyed.
— Chinese proverb as quoted by Thomas Merton to the novices in a talk given at the Abbey of Gethsemani (Merton went on to paraphrase it: “He who gets involved in statements will be completely lost.”)

Recovering the Divine Likeness

The doctrine of man finding his true reality in his remembrance of God in whose image he was created, is basically Biblical and was developed by the Church Fathers in connection with the theology of grace, the sacraments, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the surrender of our own will, the “death” of our selfish ego,in order to live in pure love and liberty of spirit, is effected not by our own will (this would be a contradiction in terms!) but by the Holy Spirit. To “recover the divine likeness,” to “surrender to the will of God,” to “live by pure love,” and thus to find peace, is summed up as “union with God in the Spirit,” or “receiving, possessing the Holy Spirit.” This, as the 19th-century Russian hermit, St. Seraphim of Sarov declared, is the whole purpose of the Christian (therefore a fortiori the monastic) life. St. John Chrysostom says: “As polished silver illumined by the rays of the sun radiates light not only from its own nature but also from the radiance of the sun, so a soul purified by the Divine Spirit becomes more brilliant than silver; it both receives the ray of Divine Glory and from itself reflects the ray of this same glory.” Our true rest, love, purity, vision and quies is not something in ourselves, it is God the Divine Spirit. Thus we do not “possess” rest, but go out of ourselves into him who is our true rest.
The Spiritual Father in the Desert Tradition — Contemplation in A World Action (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1971) p 287

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