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Contemplation and Connection 
by John Laughlin, Ph.D. 

Is it strange that in this book on the active life the emphasis is not on energy and will power and action so much as on grace, and interiority? No, for these are the true principles of supernatural activity. An activity that is based on the frenzies and impulsion of human ambitions is a delusion and an obstacle to grace. It gets in the way of God's will, and it cre­ates more problems that it solves. We must learn to distinguish between the pseudo-spiritually of activism and the true vitality and energy of Christian action guided by the Spirit. [1]
During his 27 years at Gethsemani, Merton emerged from a self-righteous recluse to the center of Catholic consciousness as a champion of peace, the environment, monastic renewal, ecumenism and racial justice. Replying to criticism that he was leading a sheltered life, Merton admitted being out of touch with many areas of public life, but he could not keep up with everything and believed himself more important to people as a contemplative than a newspaperman. [2] The monk chooses a contemplative life not out of hate or fear of the world or people or pleasure, but because it transforms him into a more complete identity to live life true to himself, others and to God. The end of monastic practice is to bring one to what he called final integration, a term he took from the writing of Persian psychologist frequently referred to by Merton, Reza Arasteh:
The one who has attained final integration is no longer limited by the culture in which he has grown up. "He has embraced all of life." He passes beyond all these limiting forms, while retaining all that is best and most universal in them, finally giving birth to a fully comprehensive self. He accepts not only his own community, his own society, his own friends, his own culture, but all humanity. He does not remain bound to one limited set of values in such a way that he opposes them aggressively or defensively to others. He is fully "Catholic" in the best sense of he word. He has a unified vision and experience of the one truth shining out in all its various manifestations, some clearer than others, some more definite and more certain than others. He does not set these partial views up in opposition to each other, but unifies them in a dialectic or an insight of complementarity. With this view of life he is able to bring perspective, liberty and spontaneity into the lives of others. The finally integrated person is a peacemaker, and that is why there is such a desperate need for our leaders to become such persons of insight. [3]
His emphasis on the hermitic life gradu­ally changed to include a broader understanding of the relationship between monastic life and commu­nity. This change began dramatically one day while he was running errands in Louisville. Suddenly, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut he became overwhelmed with love for the people rushing about the shop­ping district. This mystical experience erased his elitist view of eremitic life and awakened in him a need for others. He found that God cannot be separated from the rest of reality, as if God created the world and then escaped from it. [4] He came to see the wisdom of the 6th century mystic, expressed in The Cloud of Unknowing:

"A soul that is wholly given to contemplation does. . .everything it can to make all men as whole as itself." [5]

As the great pioneer of the desert movement St. Antony of Egypt (251-356) emphasized that our life and our death are with our neighbor. [6] In a letter to the great Russian writer, Boris Pasternak, Merton wrote of an experience in 1958 that dramatically affected his world view. It began with a dream of a female wisdom figure named Proverb, whom he saw a few days later in the faces of the crowded streets of Louisville:
[I] suddenly saw that everybody was Proverb and in all of them some her extraordinary beauty and purity and shyness, even though they did not know who whey were and were perhaps ashamed of their names--because they were mocked on account of them. And they did not know their real identity as the Child so dear to God who, from before the beginning, was playing in His sight all days, playing in the world. [7]

Gazing at the Buddha, I remembered another encounter eight years earlier with another masterpiece of sacred art, this time in the polluted air of Istanbul. Wishing to escape from the heat and smog, I stepped one morning into the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), and discovered a remarkable 11th-century mosaic of Christ Enthroned. Here, what strikes the viewer is the authority of Christ's bearing. He sits erect, his power residing in his very rectitude (in its original sense of verticality, a pillar linking heaven and earth). As a pillar, he becomes the support for the two monarchs who flank him--Emperor Constantine IX and Empress Zoe. Enrobed in silk and jewels, these monarchs exude earthly power, but Christ, clad in a simple sky-blue robe, surpasses them in both height and scale, the expansion and elevation of his form revealing the genuine hierarchy that in Christian cosmology governs both heaven and earth. This impression of the proper ordering of levels is confirmed by Christ's gaze: he looks with calm, disinterested mastery above and beyond the two earthly monarchs, whose eyes are turned towards him. Curiously, his right hand is raised in the same gesture as the Miroku Bosatsu, half a world away. The conclusion is inescapable: this is a portrait in chipped stone of a being in whom divine and human meet in perfect marriage; Christ as Logos, the mediator between God and man, heaven and earth; Christ as the fulcrum, the stability around which all else turns. [8]
After this experience, he took a giant step toward his own integration by reaching out to others through an extraordinary correspondences. His friendships grew, his perception of other religions and his own tradition widened: He came to appreciate that grace came and does manifest itself in all creation, in all cultures, in all religions. [9] He moved away from the life of a self-imposed exile, with all its implied distaste of the outside world, to one whose soli­tude was buttressed with relationships. Merton found that being a contemplative did not mean renounc­ing humanity. Such an affinity between contemplation and communion was cogently expressed by psychologist-priest, Henri Nouwen, who believes that polarities of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, and illusion and prayer have much to teach us despite their innate tension:
Maybe it is exactly the experience of loneliness that allows us to describe the first tentative lines of solitude. Maybe it is precisely the shocking confrontation with our hostile self that gives us words to speak about hospitality as a real option, and maybe we will never find the courage to speak about prayer as a human vocation without the disturbing discov­ery of our own illusions. Often it is the dark forest that makes us speak about the open field. Frequently prison makes us think about freedom, hunger helps us to appreciate food, and war gives us words for peace. Not seldom are our visions of the future born out of the sufferings of the present and our hope for others out of our own despair. Only few “happy endings” make us happy, but often someone's careful and hon­est articulation of the ambiguities, uncertainties and painful condi­tions of life gives us new hope. The paradox is indeed that new life is born out of the pains of the old. [10]
Merton remained steadfast to his true calling as a contemplative despite pressure from some activists to leave the monastery and join the real world of hard knocks, where he could do some­thing useful. His monastic vocation was criticized as irrelevant and he should abandon it. Such critics failed to comprehend that Merton's power and impact upon peace and social justice came because he was a monk, not in spite of it. Merton was a model and a mentor to many; leaving the monastery to join a peace march would have removed him from the place and the role that gave his life and teachings so much impact. These critics failed to see the monk's special contribution to the world, which Merton often tried to explain:
This is precisely the monk's chief service to the world: this silence, this listening, this questioning, this humble and courageous exposure to what the world ignores about itself-both good and evil. . . . He experiences in himself the emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity, the “lostness” of modern man, but he experiences all this in an altogether different and deeper way that does man in the modern world, to whom this disconcerting awareness of himself and of his world comes rather as an experience of boredom and of spiritual disorganization. . . . The monk faces the worst, and discovers in it hope of the best. From the darkness comes light. From death, life. From the abyss there comes, unac­counta­bly, the mysterious gift of the Spirit sent by God to make all things new, to transform the created and redeemed world, and to re-establish all things in Christ. [11]
Merton did not subscribe to an elitist view of monastic silence and solitude as a privilege granted to a few hermits. True, he saw everything through the eyes of a monk, but he was a monk who reached out to the world: The true solitary does not need to leave society, but transcend it. [12] Interi­ority is essential for everyone and can be available in the midst of crowds and distractions:
Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from being perfectly at one with his own true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting. For he cannot go on happily for long unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul. [13]
Merton never hid behind cloistered walls to escape great struggles. Spirituality, for him, was more a matter of who one is, not what one does. Before we can change the world around us, we must first change ourselves:
We are called to create a better world. But we are first of all called to a more immediate and exalted task: that of creating our own lives. In doing this we act as co-workers with God. We take our place in the great work of mankind, since in effect the creation of our own destiny, in God, is impossible in pure isolation. Each one of us works out his own destiny in inseparable union with all those others with whom God has willed us to live. . . .

We share with one another the creative work of living in the world. This active response, this fidelity to life itself and to God Who gives Himself to us through our daily contacts with the material world, is the first and most essential duty of man. . . .

Christianity does not teach man to attain an inner ideal of divine tran­quillity and stoic quiet by abstracting himself from material things. It teaches him to give himself to his brother and to his world in a service of love in which God will manifest his creative power through men on earth. . . .

The center of Christian humanism is the ideal that God is love, not infinite power. Being Love, God has given himself without reservation to man so that He has become man. . . .It is man, in Christ, who has the mission of not only making himself human but of becoming divine by the gift of the Spirit of Love. [14]
According to the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, a community is more than secular institutions, or contractual agreements, but the binding together of people by an interpersonal mysticism. [15] This is the message of Merton when he spoke in Calcutta of the need for communion among monks of different religious traditions:
The deepest level of communication is not communication, but com­munion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are. [16]

-- by John Laughlin, Ph.D.

[ John Laughlin, Ph.D. is a long time student of Thomas Merton, having done his dissertation on the relationship between Merton’s "true self" and Humanistic Psychology. Dr. Laughlin is a member of the International Thomas Merton Society and Cistercian Lay Contemplatives. He has led workshops on Thomas Merton. He is the author of many articles and a book on Thomas Merton entitled, "Thomas Merton: His Life and Work," written to aid readers navigate the rich and overwhelming written legacy of one of history’s most important and influential spiritual writers. Dr. John Laughlin and his wife, Dr. Pearl Hibbard, are partners in a private psychotherapy practice. ]


1. Merton, Thomas, Life and Holiness (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1990), ix-x.

2. Mott, Michael, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 474.

3. Merton, Thomas, Contemplation in a World of Action (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), 212.

4. Merton, Thomas, Love and Living (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), 68. Merton considered spiritual experience sought as an end-in-itself as just another idol. John of the Cross was very critical of this trap and thus was critical of the need for extraordinary visions and signs.

5. The Cloud of Unknowing, Ira Progoff (Translator) (New York: Delta, 1989), ch. 25.

6. Ward, Bendicta, Saying of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (London: Mowbrays, N.D.), 2. The earliest monks fleeing chaos camped in the desert or walled themselves in mountain retreats. But they realized that only a rare person could or should live solitude. They chose a communal lifestyle where members would respect and be accountable to each other.

7. Merton, Thomas, Six letters: Boris Pasternak, Thomas Merton. Naomi B. Stone, Editor. (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 1973), 11-12. Proverb is an example of Jung's contra sexual archetype, the anima. Perhaps Merton's most profound mystical experience occurred at the end of his life while visiting the reclining Buddhas of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka:

8. The Asian Journal, New York: New Directions, 1975. 9. Pennington, Basil, Thomas Merton My Brother: His Journey to Freedom, Compassion, and Final Integration (New City Press, 1996), 175.

10. Nouwen, Henri, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Image Books,1986), p. 11.

11. Merton, Thomas, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image Books,1992), 27-28.

12. Lentfoehr, Therese, “The Solitary,” Thomas Merton, Monk: A Monastic Tribute (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1983), 69.

13. Merton, Thomas The Silent Life (New York: Noonday, 1978). 167.

14. Merton, Thomas Love and Living, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. pp. 135-149.

15. Buber, Martin, Paths to Utopia (New York: Image Books, 1986). In a letter to his friend, Sufi scholar, Abdul Aziz, Merton wrote: The world we live in has become an awful void, a desecrated sanctuary, reflecting outwardly the emptiness and blindness of the hearts of men who have gone crazy with their love for money and power and pride in their technology.

16. Merton, Thomas, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1975), 308. The fall from paradise was a fall from unity into disunity and alienation from God: The return to God and the discovery of our identity in Him demand a long journey; and we have to start from where we are: our fallen state, our condition of alienation. Shannon, 158.

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