Contemplative Responsibility — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Contemplative Responsibility

Thomas Merton: Contemplation and Action

Contemplative Responsibility
Monday, November 23, 2020

Thomas Merton has been a primary teacher and inspiration to me ever since I read his book The Sign of Jonas as a teenager. He was one of the most influential American Catholics of the twentieth century. It was Merton who reintroduced the Christian contemplative tradition to the Western church in the 1950s and 60s. By living a contemplative life, Merton grew in love for God and all of God’s children and creation—so much so that he became committed to doing what he could for the common good. Amidst the societal disruptions of the 1960s, it was not enough for him to simply pray. He also devoted himself to action—writing, collaboration, and teaching—though he never lost his deep yearning for solitude and contemplation.

As Merton began to seriously wrestle with the injustices plaguing the United States and the world, he published Seeds of Destruction, a book urging Christians to reflect on their moral responsibility to take a stand on issues such as racism, war, and poverty. His words speak to our moment as well:

The contemplative life is not, and cannot be, a mere withdrawal, a pure negation, a turning of one’s back on the world with its sufferings, its crises, its confusions and its errors. . . . The monastic [that is, contemplative] flight from the world [or what I call “the system”—RR] into the desert is . . . a total rejection of all standards of judgment which imply attachment to a history of delusion, egoism and sin . . . a definitive refusal to participate in those activities which have no other fruit than to prolong the reign of untruth, greed, cruelty and arrogance in the world of people. . . .

The freedom of the Christian contemplative is not freedom from time, but freedom in time. It is the freedom to go out and meet God in the inscrutable mystery of God’s will here and now, in this precise moment in which God asks humanity’s cooperation in shaping the course of history according to the demands of divine truth, mercy and fidelity. . . .

Therefore it seems to me to be a solemn obligation of conscience at this moment of history to take the positions which . . . are, it seems to me, in vital relation with the obligations I assumed when I took my monastic vows. To have a vow of poverty seems to me illusory if I do not in some way identify myself with the cause of people who are denied their rights and forced, for the most part, to live in abject misery. To have a vow of obedience seems to me to be absurd if it does not imply a deep concern for the most fundamental of all expressions of God’s will: the love of God’s truth and of our neighbor.

Richard again: Thomas Merton knew that contemplation and solidarity with the universal suffering of creation (the planet itself, animals, humans) is to enter into the eternal suffering of God, what Dominican Gerald Vann called “the Divine Pity.” [1]

[1] Gerald Vann, The Divine Pity: A Study in the Social Implications of the Beatitudes (Sheed & Ward: 1946).

Adapted from Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1964), xi, xii, xiii–xiv. Note: Minor edits made to incorporate gender-inclusive language.

Adapted from Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love, ed. Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Orbis Books: 2018), 48; and

The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, disc 3 (Sounds True: 2010), CD.

Image credit: Solitude in the Woods. Moon Night (detail), Ladislav Mednyánszky, 1870, Slovak National Gallery, Slovakia.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: It is necessary for me to live here alone without a woman, for the silence of the forest is my bride and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love, and out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world. I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves. I cultivate this plant silently in the middle of the night and water it with psalms and prophecies in silence. It becomes the most beautiful of all the trees in the garden, at once the primordial paradise tree, the axis mundi, the cosmic axle, and the Cross. —Thomas Merton
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