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Center for Action and Contemplation
Discerning What is Ours to Do
Discerning What is Ours to Do

Engaged Contemplation

Friday, August 26, 2022

Author Sophfronia Scott draws on the wisdom and example of Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915–1968) to discern her own response to the world’s pain:

A hermitage is not where I’m supposed to be. Somehow I sense this. I’m supposed to be saying something, doing something. And yet I feel anything I could offer would get swallowed up in the noise—I’d be an infant crying out into a hurricane. I stand on the edge of an abyss, my hands in my pockets. . . . I feel as though Thomas [Merton] stands next to me in a similar stance. He helps me think about the possibilities. I think he’d say I have to get out there. I have to find a way to serve. He’d definitely say my hermitage idea is wrongheaded.

“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,” he writes. “The attempt itself would be illusory. No person can withdraw completely from the society of other people.” [1] When he entered the monastery after months of spiritual struggle, Merton described a lightness, as of . . . a leaving of the world. . . . His writings from his earlier years focused mainly on the cultivation of interior spirituality. . . . But as he matured, both emotionally and spiritually, he too sensed there was more—way more—he could be doing. The world, the very state of it, required that he bring his voice to the table. . . .

In 1961, he wrote his first article on peace, “The Root of War Is Fear,” and laid out the place for Christians in the struggle for peace. He writes, “The duty of Christians in this crisis is to strive with all their power and intelligence, with their faith, hope in Christ, and love for God and humankind, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war.” [2] . . .  

In the introduction to Merton’s book Passion for Peace, author William H. Shannon writes, “What had happened to him was that his solitude had issued into what all true solitude must eventually become: compassion. . . . This sense of compassion . . . moved him to look once again at the world he thought he had left irrevocably twenty years earlier, in 1941, when he had entered the monastery. He now felt a duty, precisely because he was a contemplative, to speak out.” [3]

Scott takes consolation from Merton’s reflections on contemplative life and the world:  

I only have to step forward in my own vulnerable, broken, unkind, silly humanity. And I need to keep writing. I feel, as Thomas once did, I’ve come to a starting point: “The conviction that I have not yet even begun to write, to think, to pray, and to live and that only now I am getting down to waking up.” [4]


[1] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964), xiii. Note: minor edits made to incorporate inclusive language.

[2] Thomas Merton, “The Root of War Is Fear,” in Passion for Peace: The Social Essays, ed. William H. Shannon (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1995), 12. Note: This quote is from Merton’s essay as published in The Catholic Worker 28, no. 3 (October 1, 1961): 7. Minor edits made to incorporate inclusive language.

[3] William H. Shannon, introduction to Passion for Peace: The Social Essays, Thomas Merton (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1995), 2, 3. Emphasis in original.

[4] Thomas Merton, journal, June 22, 1958, in A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life, ed. Lawrence S. Cunningham (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 207.

Sophfronia Scott, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton (Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2021), 101, 102, 111. 

 Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, Untitled (detail), 2020, photograph, Bellingham, used with permission. McKenna Phillips, Free Hands (detail), 2018, Unsplash. Jenna Keiper, Untitled (detail), 2020, photograph, Albuquerque, used with permission. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: What is next?  We may want to know, right now. We may want this suspended droplet of water to drop, right now, but it will take its own time. It is beyond our control. We are invited to trust the suspension of liminal moments.

Story from Our Community:

I am a Jewish subscriber to the daily meditations, having heard of the site from a cherished Catholic friend. The CAC and other online resources inspire me to begin walking paths that best fit my age, skill sets, resources, and priorities to work for loving action in the world. —Jill M.

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Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

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