Speaking from Silence

December 17 2014 | by

“OUR JOB is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy,” thus wrote Thomas Merton, one of the most influential American Catholic authors of the 20th century.

In the twenty-three years after Thomas Merton’s 1968 visit with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, the leader of Tibetan Buddhists never forgot Merton, nor their encounter. In his autobiography, Freedom In Exile, (published in 1991) the Dalai Lama described Merton in these glowing words: “More striking than his outward appearance, which was memorable in itself, was the inner life that he manifested. I could see that he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity... It was Merton who first introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.’”

Many regard Thomas Merton as the most influential American Catholic writer of the 20th century. Before his premature death at the young age of 53, Merton would write a best-selling autobiography, dozens of books, hundreds of poems and scores of magazine articles, all exploring and expanding what it means to live an authentic spiritual life.


Wayward youth


Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, on January 31, 1915. His mother, Ruth, was an American and his father, Owen, a New Zealanader. Both parents were aspiring but struggling artists. When Thomas was 6, his mother died of stomach cancer (1921). Ten years later, his father also died after a brief illness. By age 16, Thomas Merton was completely orphaned and taken in by an aunt and uncle in London.

He received a scholarship to Cambridge. His first year, however, was not devoted to studies but to campus social life. Lured by alcohol and the friendship of women his grades suffered and his scholarship was not renewed. His family insisted he return to the United States, and made it possible for him to enrol at Columbia University, where he eventually earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English literature.


Trappist monk


While at Columbia, Merton was drawn to socialist and Marxist political theory, as well as to Roman Catholic theology. In 1938 he was formally received into the Catholic Church, culminating in months of serious study and reading of Catholic writers. Three years later he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky, where he joined The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (also known as ‘Trappists’). Merton took the vows of the Cistercians: poverty, chastity, stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. Contrary to common perception, the Cistercians do not take a vow of silence, but Trappist monks speak only when it is absolutely necessary. Small talk and idle chatter is discouraged. In 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood. and given the name of Father Louis. At the Abbey, Merton engaged in daily prayer, meditation, and labour. Recognizing his writing talents and believing they would be helpful to others seeking spiritual direction, Merton’s superiors insisted that he continue writing.


Action and mission


In 1948 he published his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain. It chronicled his conversion to Catholicism, and became an unlikely best seller appealing to a generation of post-war readers thirsting for spiritual values. The success of this book gave him access to a wide range of persons – poets, writers, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Sufis, social activists – with whom he began to meet and correspond. These activities kept him engaged with the world while at the same time living a monastic and contemplative life.

As important issues, such as civil rights and the Vietnam War emerged, Merton felt he needed to move from silence and solitude to action and mission. In a 1961 letter written to the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, he said: “I don’t feel that I can in conscience at a time like this, go on writing just about things like meditation, though that has its point. I cannot just bury my head in a lot of rather tiny and secondary monastic studies either. I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues.”


War is our enemy


Thus as the Vietnam War expanded and exploded on the American conscience, Merton could not remain silent, and he became an eloquent voice for peace and non-violence. In No Man Is An Island, Merton discounted the idea of an enemy writing: “Violence rests on the assumption that the enemy and I are entirely different: the enemy is evil and I am good. The enemy must be destroyed but I must be saved. But love sees things differently. It sees that even the enemy suffers from the same sorrows and limitation that I do. That we both have the same hopes, the same needs, the same aspiration for peaceful and harmonious human life. And that death is the same for both of us. Then love may perhaps show me that my brother is not really my enemy, and that war is both his enemy and mine. War is our enemy. Then peace becomes possible.”

As the Vietnam war intensified, so did Merton’s feelings about the insanity of that war, and of war in general. Writing for the Catholic Worker magazine, Merton challenged Christians to struggle against war: “What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself to the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief?... Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and ‘practical’ attitude about it and join in the madness of the warmakers, calculating how by a ‘first strike’, the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic communism for all time... The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed… work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness.”


Silence & prayer


In the last three years of his life he lived privately in a hermitage on the Abbey grounds in order to further deepen solitude in his life. Though he wrote and spoke out on social issues, Merton also valued meditation, contemplation, reflection and silence. Writing specifically to a group of students at the University of Louisville, he challenged them to discover the power of silence: “We are perhaps too talkative, too activistic, in our conception of the Christian life. Our service of God and of the Church does not consist only in talking and doing. It can also consist in periods of silence, listening, waiting… silence has many dimensions. It can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. Negative silence blurs and confuses our identity, and we lapse into daydreams or diffusive anxieties. Positive silence pulls us together and makes us realize who we are, who we might be and the distance between the two.”

Along with silence, prayer was an important spiritual discipline for Merton. When the Pakistani Sufi scholar Abdul Aziz corresponded with Merton and asked about his prayer life, Merton explained: “Strictly speaking I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love… my prayer tends very much toward what you call fana (annihilation of the self). There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence... it is not ‘thinking about’ anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible, which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is Invisible.”


Pastoral outreach


As a Trappist monk and a Roman Catholic priest, Merton reached out pastorally to individuals in need. For example, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on 4 April, 1968, Merton wrote this kind and tender pastoral letter to Coretta Scott King: “Let me only say how deeply I share your personal grief as well as the shock which pervades the whole nation. He has done the greatest thing anyone can do. In imitation of his Master he has laid down his life for his friends and enemies... he will go down in history as one of our greatest citizens. My prayers are with you and with him. May he find the rest and reward which God has promised to all who trust in His mercy. This morning my Eucharistic offering will be for him and for you.”

A similar letter of pastoral concern was written to Ethel Kennedy after the killing of Robert F. Kennedy on 5 June, 1968. “It is hard to say anything that is capable of measuring the shock and sorrow of Bobby’s tragic immolation. Nowadays we tend to expect almost anything, but there was something particularly awful and traumatic about this, just because Bobby represented a very real hope for the whole country and for the world... Naturally I have said Masses for Bobby and I remember all of you at the altar. More and more we are forced to realized that God is our only real hope in the stark mystery of what we are all up against... Courage and peace be with you. My love to all the family, and God bless you.”


Interest in Buddhism


Merton increasingly became curious about Asian religions, especially Buddhism, so he reached out to various Buddhist leaders such as Thich Nhat Hanh, D. T. Suzuki and the Dalai Lama. In November of 1968 he travelled to India, where he had been invited to speak at a meeting of Asian Catholic monks. He made arrangements to spend eight days in Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile and residence of the Dalai Lama, who was then a young man of 33. Merton spent his time there in prayer, meditation, and meetings with Tibetan masters. He was also given three hours to converse with the Dalai Lama, whom he described as deeply “monastic and mystical.” The Trappist monk and the Tibetan leader “spoke almost entirely about the life of meditation.”

It was obvious that Merton was intrigued and impressed by the spiritual similarities between the meditation of Tibetan monks and those of Christians practicing mediation in monastic settings. In a letter from Asia written to friends, Merton said that “my contacts with Asian monks have been very fruitful and rewarding. We seem to understand one another very well… they are specialists in meditation and contemplation. This is what appeals to me most. It is invaluable to have direct contact with people who have really put in a lifetime of hard work in training their minds and liberating themselves from passion and illusion.”


Sudden death


Sadly, Merton died while on that Asian trip. On 7 December,1968, he arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was accidentally electrocuted, the result of a defective wire on a fan. Merton was 53 years old. Editors of the New York Times felt that Merton’s impact and influence as a spiritual writer merited an obituary on the front page of their newspaper. His body was flown back to the United States on a military plane, and he was buried on the grounds of his beloved Gethsemani Abbey.



The International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) came into being in 1987 to promote a greater knowledge of the writings of Thomas Merton. It is governed by a volunteer board. The Society awards grants to researchers and scholarships to youth. It encourages a variety of activities such as Merton retreats. Local Chapters and global ITMS Affiliates reflect a wide range of personal interest and approaches to Thomas Merton.

Members of the ITMS receive information about events connected with Thomas Merton at international, national, regional, and local levels. Members receive The Merton Seasonal and ITMS Newsletter. Members can also purchase The Merton Annual at a special rate. Members have access to the rich collection of Merton manuscripts, photos, drawings, and memorabilia at the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth, the ITMS is hosting its biennial meeting at Bellarmine University, which is nearby Merton’s monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani. The conference, Merton 100: Living the Legacy, runs June 4-7, 2015. Plenary speakers include the Rt. Revd. Rowan Williams, Fr. Bryan Massingale, Christine Bochen, and James Finley. Members of ITMS receive a discount to attend. For more information, please visit: www.merton.org/2015. 

Updated on October 06 2016