Thomas Merton`s Paradoxical Contemplation and Social Action

Thomas Merton’s Paradoxical Contemplation and Social Action:
A Model for Pastoral Counselors
Christine Orlowski
Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, IN
Thomas Merton was a monk who paradoxically longed to be a hermit yet could not
keep himself from writing and communicating his ideas, both in books and in letters, to
people around the world. Although he was a contemplative, he contributed a great
deal to the peace movement of his time. In this poster, I will examine both aspects of
his life and demonstrate how Merton’s example is extremely relevant to pastoral
counselors today.
What was contemplation to Thomas Merton?
Contemplation is when “we enter into ourselves, find our true self, and then pass
‘beyond’ the inner ‘I,’” and “we sail forth into the immense darkness in which we
confront the ‘I AM’ of the Almighty.” (Inner, p. 11)
“Contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within all that
is real.” (New Seeds, p. 2-3)
We awaken to our “inner self,” which is “the life by which everything else in us lives and
moves.” (Contemplative Prayer, p. 6)
Contemplation is not an “escape from time and matter, from social responsibility and
the life of sense, but rather, as an advance into solitude and the desert, a confrontation
with poverty and the void, a renunciation of the empirical self.” (Raids on the
Unspeakable, p. 17)
• The contemplative, by embracing his own inner poverty, is able to embrace the
poverty of everyone in the world.
Merton distinguishes between active contemplation (human effort, through the mind,
will, meditation, liturgical rhythms, readings, etc), which includes natural
contemplation (finding the divine in nature), versus passive/acquired/infused
contemplation (the highest form, where there is no human effort—God reaching for
the human). (Inner Experience, Chapters 5-6)
Social action springs forth from contemplation
Through contemplation, we come “face to face with the sham of the false self that
seeks to live for itself alone” (Contemplative Prayer, p. 24)
A contemplative must “confront [their] own humanity at the deepest and most central
point where the void seems to open out into black despair” … And having done so,
they may participate in “creative and healing work” (p. 25)
“The ‘contemplative’…is not simply a person who…is juridically isolated and
cloistered….On the contrary, it would seem that today a certain openness to the world
and a genuine participation in its anguish would normally help to safeguard the
sincerity of a commitment to contemplation.” (Mystics and Zen Masters, p. 204)
• Contemplation serves to renew the spirit and gives inner resources for social action.
In order to continue to confront the poverty of the world, one must continuously
return to one’s own inner poverty.
Merton’s monastic and contemplative lifestyle is what
propelled him to take the particular, peculiarly active role
that he did in Cold War era American society.
Through contemplation, Merton understood his own human nature and his
connection with all people. A compassionate understanding of others compelled
him to share these insights.
Merton’s Roles in Society
• Merton longed to live as a hermit but experienced pressure from his abbot to
continue to write books for the general public. He wrote 70 books over the
course of his 53-year life. Later on in his career (1962-64), he was severely
censored in his article/letter/book writings because he was so bold in speaking
out for peace, disarmament, and calling things as he saw them.
Correspondent with social activists/peacemakers
• The Hidden Ground of Love (1985) is a 656-page volume full of excerpts of
letters he wrote.
• “He offered [peace workers] his support, but it was a critical support that
sought to prod us to become more sympathetic toward those who were
threatened or antagonized by our efforts.” (James Forest, 1978, p. 35)
• At the time, Merton boldly took stances about peace and morality that others
were not taking. “I have been taken to task for yelling so loud that this is a
perverse generation…by its very essence it is against Christ.” (Hidden, p. 14)
• Merton on peace: “Of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the
most grievously afflicted… Christians must lead the way on the road to nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war.” (22)
Contemplative Monk
• This identity evolved over time. After a “rambunctious“ youth (Thomas Merton
Center), he entered the monastery with a great spiritual thirst. His interests
became more ecumenical over time and he was very interested in Eastern
religions at the end of his life. He died in Asia after having what seems to have
been a mystical experience, after visiting ancient Buddha statues.
Merton willingly chose obedience to his monastic order, even when they
censored him, but this did not mean he simply mouthed the party line.
• Regarding his being silenced, he says, “It reflects an astounding
incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious
aspect… [supporting peace] might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute
for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet” (Forest, p. 27)
Parallels with Pastoral Counselors
Although we may not all have a passive experience of infused
contemplation or a mystical experience, pastoral counselors can
be seen as having a parallel role with Thomas Merton.
Counselors go through an extensive training process that involves
looking inward, compassionate self-examination, and awareness
• This is similar to contemplatives, who become very self-aware
of the “sham of the false self,” but also of the possibility of the
true, inner self
Counselors’ self-awareness allows them to be fully present and to
deeply listen to the stories of others
• This is similar to what Merton was able to do in his
correspondence with activists.
By being fully present, counselors learn what issues are most
pressing to clients and parishioners. Every day, they experience
“openness to the world” and “participation in its anguish.”
Furthermore, they are able to see patterns among
clients/parishioners to see what is affecting people and how
society plays into that.
• An important part of Merton’s call to social action was his
correspondence with activists. He wrote letters, contributed to
the Commonweal magazine as well as other print sources, and
formally supported peace-making organizations.
• What are YOU called to do?
Sources / For further information
• Forest, James. 1978. “Thoma Merton’s Struggle with Peacemaking.” In Thomas
Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox, edited by Gerald Twomey, 15-54. New York,
NY: Paulist Press.
• Merton, Thomas. 1964. Raids on the Unspeakable. New York, NY: New Directions.
(Orig. pub. 1960).
Merton, Thomas. 1967. Mystics and Zen Masters. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
(Orig. pub. 1961).
• Merton, Thomas. 1971. Contemplative Prayer. Garden City, NY: Image Books.
• Merton, Thomas. 1972. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York, NY: New Directions.
(Orig. pub. 1961).
• Merton, Thomas. 1985. The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on
Religious Experience and Social Concerns. Edited by William Shannon. New York, NY:
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
• Merton, Thomas. 2003. Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation. Edited and with
an Introduction by William Shannon. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
• Wilkes, Paul. 2006. “Merton’s Enlightenment: What He Found in Asia.” Commonweal
(June 2): 12-14. Accessed March 10, 2014.
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