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Merton’s Love of Nature

Thomas Merton: Contemplation and Action

Merton’s Love of Nature
Thursday, November 26, 2020
Thanksgiving in the U.S.

Part of Thomas Merton’s legacy, which I believe has been underappreciated, is his great love of nature. In the hills of Kentucky, he found his connection to God strengthened by every leaf, every tree, every sunrise. I felt it as well in my time at his hermitage. Theologian and GreenFaith fellow Sister Kathleen Deignan writes of Merton’s relationship to the natural world, which inevitably led to his activism on the earth’s behalf:

Curiously, what remains hidden or obscure in [Merton’s] very public discourse on matters of the sacred is the significance that the natural world played as the ecstatic ground of his own experience of God. But a close reading of his voluminous writings reveals his intimate rapport with and progressive espousal of creation as the body of divinity—at once veiling and unveiling the God he so longed to behold and be held by. [1]

[Merton] chose to live alone in the forest as refuge for his own existential pain, but also to make reparation for the violation of earth and earth peoples. Here he became a poet, a protester, a prophet . . .  [2]

Deignan’s selections from Merton’s journals demonstrate how his love for nature (he even calls the forest his “bride”) leads him to grieve and denounce nature’s abuse:

I love the woods, particularly around the hermitage. Know every tree, every animal, every bird. [3]

When I am most sickened by the things that are done by the country that surrounds this place I will take out the [Hebrew biblical] prophets and sing them in loud Latin across the hills and send their fiery words sailing south over the mountains to the place where they split atoms for the bombs in Tennessee.

There is also the non-ecology, the destructive unbalance of nature, poisoned and unsettled by bombs, by fallout, by exploitation: the land ruined, the waters contaminated, the soil charged with chemicals, ravaged with machinery, the houses of farmers falling apart because everybody goes to the city and stays there . . .

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. [4]

Richard again: It is passages such as these which let you know why I, like so many tens of thousands, consider Merton a primary teacher of the spiritual life. In our time, maybe the primary teacher. He puts it all together (and with such good words, too).

References:
[1] Kathleen Deignan, “Introduction: ‘The Forest Is My Bride,’” When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature by Thomas Merton, ed. Kathleen Deignan (Sorin Books: 2003), 22.

[2] Deignan, “Introduction,” 33.

[3] Thomas Merton, journal entry (March 23, 1967). See Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom, ed. Christine M. Bochen (HarperSanFrancisco: 1997), 208. Deignan, 168.

[4] Thomas Merton, “Day of a Stranger,” journal entry (May 1965). See Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage, ed. Robert E. Daggy (HarperSanFrancisco: 1997), 240. Deignan, 170, 171–172.

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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