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Thomas Merton’s Blueprint for a More Contemplative Life
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Thomas Merton’s Blueprint for a More Contemplative Life

This year marked the 75th anniversary of his seminal work, ‘The Seven Storey Mountain.’

Thomas Merton, author of 'The Seven Storey Mountain.'

By age 25, my grandmother had accompanied her mother in marching for women’s suffrage, lived through World War I, survived the Great Depression, and served in the Navy during World War II. After she died in 2009, a box of her favorite books passed down to me, her youngest grandchild. I imagined the box would be filled with stories matching the pace of her early life. Instead, it only contained books written by Thomas Merton, her favorite being The Seven Storey Mountain, the trappist monk’s spiritual autobiography.

What about the life a monk could appeal to a woman who lived through the 20th century’s most significant events? Subjects like spirituality and the interior life remain elusive by nature, but Merton’s story and works offer my grandmother’s generation and modern readers a guiding light on the journey for peace. As this year marked The Seven Storey Mountain’s 75th anniversary, it’s worth thinking through the life of a man whose influence would sprawl the likes of Dorothy Day, Evelyn Waugh, and who almost held a retreat with Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination.

Born in 1915, Merton had an upbringing that paralleled my grandmother’s (and was in fact born just a year after her). From his early years to his time at Columbia University, Merton witnessed some of the major political, intellectual, and artistic movements of the 1930s. He frequented fervorous spaces, from communist meetups to anti-war protests. Some of his closest friends—the poet Robert Lax, the editor Robert Giroux, and the painter Ad Reinhardt—went on to be influential in the New York art scene. Merton’s college years teemed with thrills, love affairs, and partying in New York. 

It’s tempting to romanticize this as a glamorous era, but Merton lamented this time of his life. “In devouring pleasures and joys,” he writes in The Seven Storey Mountain, “I had found distress and anguish and fear.” Despite his rich and varied experiences, Merton regarded this seemingly appealing life as an illusion: In gulping down the pleasures the world offered, he found himself still thirsty. 

As he matured, Merton went on to study English at Columbia University, enrolling in a doctoral program and later teaching English courses. A year at Cambridge along with his network from Columbia brought a slew of professional opportunities—and influence—in academia and industry. “This is what I really believed in: reputation, success,” Merton writes. “I wanted to live in the eyes and the mouths and the minds of men.”

Yet neither pleasure nor ambition fulfilled Merton. His longings—especially for spiritual peace—went deeper. At age 25, Merton left Columbia to join the Franciscan Order. (The English Department bid him farewell with “shaking heads,” he wrote.) Secretly, Merton had hoped for a call to religious life since his conversion to Catholicism a year prior. But after months with the Franciscans, a head priest suggested that he reconsider his application. Merton despaired, fearing he might never become a priest. 

Rather than return to Columbia, Merton taught for 18 months at St. Bonaventure, a university in the scenic Allegheny Mountains. There, hours of solitude filled his evenings along with a strong Catholic community, and Merton turned to solitude, seeking tranquility with new sincerity. Only after Merton’s retreat from the powerful circles and elite institutions of the world did the Trappist monastery in Trappist, Kentucky, whisper his name. Intentionally isolated from the clamor of modern life, Merton heard his call, staying at the Abbey of Gethsemani for 27 years until he died.

Merton’s authenticity stems from how, instead of turning his back on the modern world, he harmonized all the world has to offer for a spiritual life. Rather than retreating to religious echo chambers, Merton sifted through the ideas, worldviews, and art of his generation while remaining rooted in his faith tradition. A priest once jokingly introduced Merton by saying, “Here is a man who was converted to the faith by reading James Joyce.” Another writer who influenced Merton’s journey to spiritual life was William Blake. “Through Blake I would one day come in, a round-about way, to the only true Church, and to the One Living God, through His Son Jesus Christ,” Merton wrote of the British poet and artist with a mystical bend, whose Romantic and revolutionary works resonated with Merton when his father gifted him Songs of Innocence at young age. 

One may think Merton a hermit. But his ability to engage with modern thinkers, artists, and writers, helped him participate in the pressing moral issues of his time such as war, interior peace in a stimulating world, and other questions that plague us today. Fortunately for us, Merton emerged from the monastery with distinct answers.

Merton challenges readers of his time and ours because of his nuanced conception of moral issues such as war. In our generation, most people’s stance on war hovers between being fiercely opinionated or undisturbed by the bloodshed (to a point of detached apathy). Merton turned in a different direction entirely. While registering for the draft during World War II, Merton reflected on the war, “I myself am responsible for this. My sins are responsible for this … I have my share in it, too.” And later: “This war is what I earned for myself and for the world. I could hardly complain that I was being drawn into it.” World War II had a clear and deserving villain, yet Merton turned inward and considered how his own sin equates to responsibility for that war. Merton models how connecting one’s own sinfulness to world issues cultivates responsibility for the problems of the world.

In a world that viciously competes for our attention, Merton’s life demonstrates how one can focus attention toward meaningful ends, such as reflection on moral issues, the contemplative life, and seeking peace. War is but one example of Merton’s spiritual lens helping him understand the contours of an issue through a contemplative perspective. 

In the 1980s—years after Merton’s untimely death—my grandmother, then in her 70s, made a pilgrimage to the Abbey of Gethsemani to glean from Merton’s life. Inevitably, after seeing so much war, she searched for peace with diligence. For decades, Merton had been her companion on that journey. When she arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemani after driving more than 10 hours, the abbey remained closed to outsiders. Despite her dismay, her disappointing journey—and Merton’s entire life—remind us that the journey for peace lies riddled with closed doors, but the endeavor is worthwhile.  

It guided my own journey for peace, leading me back to the Catholic Church at age 25—there must be something about that age—after having left it. Merton’s decision to leave behind the center of influence and move toward out-of-the-way places provides a model for all seeking peace, truth, and beauty. It encouraged my decision to serve a year in AmeriCorps and volunteer in El Salvador as a teacher. Similar to Merton’s friends, my own friends and family questioned why I’d choose to be in some of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the world. While Merton’s contemplative writings sustained me through this time, his life is a tangible blueprint for seekers of peace.

The Seven Storey Mountain—indeed, Merton’s entire life—offered something to my grandmother, something to me, and something to all those who are on their own journey for peace. Prefacing the Japanese edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton reflected years later: “If you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both.” I can’t ask my grandmother what she loved about Merton today, but I believe those unwritten things kept her reading Merton, transforming her life and mine.

Patrick McNamara is a founder at a startup that supports food manufacturers in producing food safely. In his free time, he enjoys volunteering, reading, and time in nature in Chattanooga, Tennessee where he lives.