Thomas Merton on Spirituality

“The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived.”

But if so, then spirituality must be an engagement with ordinary life, not a withdrawal from it. Merton himself said, “Jesus lived the ordinary life of the men of His time, in order to sanctify the ordinary lives of men of all time.”

And to think that the most spiritual human of them all spent the greater part of his life being a carpenter rather than a preacher! Hands-on engagement with life rather than abstract contemplation of it – that is spirituality.

“The spiritual life is not, therefore, a life entirely uprooted from man’s human condition and transplanted into the realm of the angels … If we are to become spiritual, we must remain men.”

Spirituality, then, is a form of humanism; an acceptance of one’s humanity, not a denial thereof. After all, we are human beings, not angels. This does not mean that we tolerate the sins done in and through the body; it means that this weak human flesh can be an instrument of righteousness – if we present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1).

Where to Find Solitude

Solitude is not found so much by looking outside the boundaries of your dwelling, as by staying within. Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.

– Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p. 262

Lucid Silence

The best thing for me is lucid silence that does not even imagine it speaks to anybody. A silence in which I see no interlocutor, frame no message for anyone, formulate no word either for man or paper. There will still be plenty to say when the time comes to write, and what is written will be simpler and more fruitful.

– Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p. 258

Solitude as Vocation

It is clear to me that solitude is my vocation, not as a flight from the world but as my place in the world, because for me to find solitude is only to separate myself from all the forces that destroy me and destroy history, in order to be united with the Life and Peace that build the City of God in history and rescue the children of God from hell.

– Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, pp. 257-58

To Belong to No One But God

Standing on rock. Present. The reality of the present and of solitude divorced from past and future. To be collected and gathered up in clarity and silence and to belong to God and to be nobody else’s business…

To belong to God I have to belong to myself. I have to be alone – at least interiorly alone. This means the constant renewal of a decision. I cannot belong to people. None of me belongs to anybody but God. Absolute loneliness of the imagination, the memory, the will…

Now my whole life is this – to keep unencumbered. The wind owns the fields where I walk and I own nothing and am owned by nothing and I shall never even be forgotten because no one will ever discover me.

– Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p. 253

When You Make a Mistake

The thing to do when you have made a mistake is not to give up doing what you were doing and start something altogether new, but to start over again with the thing you began badly and try, for the love of God to do it well.

– Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p. 242

Renouncing a Vocation

Somehow, I have to give up this thing that I love above everything else on earth because the love of God is greater… to renounce the purest of all vocations simply because it is not the one God has chosen for me – to accept something in which it seems likely that my highest personal ideals will be altogether frustrated, purely because of His love, His will. He who loves me prefers it this way, and to accept His love is to send up to Him the incense of the purest prayer, the sweetest praise, without pleasure for myself – and yet in the end it is a supreme joy!

— Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas

Beautiful Grace

From Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas:

But it is beautiful to see God’s grace working in people. The most beautiful thing about it is to see how the desires of the soul, inspired by God, so fit in and harmonize with grace that holy things seem natural to the soul, seem to be part of its very self. That is what God wants to create in us – that marvelous spontaneity in which His life becomes perfectly ours and our life His, and it seems inborn in us to act as His children, and to have His light shining in our eyes.