On the Monastic Life

This is an essay by Thomas Merton, a prominent Trappist monk whose work I’ve found quite inspiring. I hope that you would find it so as well.

Let us suppose the message of a so-called contemplative to a so-called man of the world to be something like this:

     My dear Brother, first of all, I apologize for addressing you when you have not addressed me and have not really asked me anything. And I apologize for being behind a high wall which you do not understand. This high wall is to you a problem and perhaps it is also a problem to me. Perhaps you ask me why I stay behind it out of the obedience. Perhaps you are no longer satisfied with the reply that if I stay behind this wall I have quiet, recollection, tranquility of heart. It is true that when I came to this monastery where I am, I came in revolt against the meaningless confusion of a life in which there so much activity, so much movement, so much useless talk, so much superficial and needless stimulation, that I could not remember who I was. But the fact remains that my flight from the world is not a reproach to you who remain in the world, and I have no right to repudiate the world in a purely negative fashion, because if I do that my flight will have taken me not to truth and to God but to a private, though doubtless pious, illusion.

     Can I tell you that I have found answers to the questions that torment the man of our time? I do not know if I have found the answers. When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of ‘answers.’ But as I grow old in the monastic life and advance further into solitude, I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions. And what are the questions? Can man make sense out of his existence? Can man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world begun and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? My brother, perhaps in my solitude I have bed one as it where explorer for you, a searcher in realms which you are not able to visit. I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanation no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts. An arid, rocky, dark land of the soul, sometimes illuminated by strange fires which men fear and peopled by specters which men studiously avoid except in their nightmares. And in this area I have learned that one cannot truly know hope unless he has found out how like despair hope is. The language of Christianity has been so used and so misused that sometimes you distrust it: you do not know whether or not behind the word ‘cross’ there stands the experience of mercy and salvation, or only the threat of punishment. If my word means to you, I can say to you that I have experienced the cross to mean mercy and not cruelty, truth and not deception; that the news of the truth and love of Jesus is indeed the true good news, but in our time it speaks out in strange places. And perhaps it speaks out in you more than it does in me; perhaps Christ is nearer to you than he is to me. This I say without shame or guilt because I have learned to rejoice that Jesus is in the world in people who know Him not, that He is at work in them when they think themselves far from Him, and it is my joy to tell you to hope though you think that for you of all men hope is impossible. Hope not because you think you can be good, but because God loves us irrespective of our merits and whatever is good in us comes from His love, not from our own doing. Hope because Jesus is with those who are poor and outcast and perhaps despised even by those who should seek them and care for them more lovingly because they act in God’s name.

     God is not a ‘problem’ and we who live the contemplative life have learned by experience that one cannot know God as long seeks to solve ‘the problem of God’. To seek to solve the problem of God is to seek one’s own eyes. One cannot see one’s own eyes because they are that with which one sees and god is the light by which we see-by which we see not a clearly defined ‘object’ called god, but everything else in the invisible One. God is then the Seer and the Seeing and the Seen. God seeks himself in us, and the aridity and sorrow of our heart is the sorrow of God who is not known to us, who cannot yet find himself in us because we do not dare to believe or trust the incredible truth that he could live in us, and live there out of choice, out of preference. But indeed we exist to solely for this, to be the place He has chosen for His presence, His manifestation in the world, His epiphany. But we make all this dark and inglorious because we fail to believe it, we refuse to believe it. It is not that we hate God, rather that we hate ourselves, despair of ourselves. If we once began to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.

     The contemplative is not the man who has fiery visions of the cherubim carrying God on their imagined chariot, but simply he who has risked his mind in the desert beyond language and beyond ideas where God is encountered in nakedness of pure trust, that is to say in the surrender of our own poverty and incompleteness in order no longer to clench our minds in a cramp upon themselves, as if thinking made us exist. The message of hope the contemplative offers you, then, is not that you need to find your way through the jungle of language and problems that today surround God; but that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present too you, lives in you, dwells In you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons. The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and dare to advance without fear into the solitude of your own heart, and risk sharing that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you and with you, then you will truly recover the light and capacity to understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations because it is too close to be explained: it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God’s spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth One Spirit. I love you, in Christ.