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The Silent Life

The Silent Life

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by Thomas Merton

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Thomas Merton wrote The Silent Life a decade after he took orders. In his Prologue, Merton describes the book as "a meditation on the monastic life by one who, without any merit of his own, is privileged to know that life on the inside . . . who seeks only to speak as the mouthpiece of a tradition centuries old." It is a remarkable work-one that combines a


Thomas Merton wrote The Silent Life a decade after he took orders. In his Prologue, Merton describes the book as "a meditation on the monastic life by one who, without any merit of his own, is privileged to know that life on the inside . . . who seeks only to speak as the mouthpiece of a tradition centuries old." It is a remarkable work-one that combines a lucid and informative description of the nature and forms of monasticism, communal and solitary, with a passionate defense of the contemplative's quest for God. The intense beauty of Merton's meditation, radiating from beneath its surface calm, makes The Silent Life a classic of its kind.

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The Silent Life

By Thomas Merton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1957 The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4523-3


Puritas Cordis [Purity of Heart]

We have defined a monk as a man who leaves everything else in order to seek God. But this definition is not going to mean much unless we also define the search for God. And that is not an easy matter. For God is at the same time, as one of the Fathers said, everywhere and nowhere. How can I find One Who is nowhere? If I find Him, I myself will also be nowhere. And if I am nowhere, how shall I be able to say that I am still "I"? Will I still exist to rejoice in having found Him?

How can I find Him Who is everywhere? If He is everywhere, He is indeed close to me, and with me, and in me: perhaps He will turn out to be, in some mysterious way, my own self. But then, again, if He and I are one, then is there an "I" that can rejoice in having found Him?

God, says philosophy, is both immanent and transcendent. By His immanence He lives and acts in the intimate metaphysical depths of everything that exists. He is "everywhere." By His transcendence He is so far above all being, that no human and limited concept can contain and exhaust His Being, or even signify it except by analogy. He is so far above all created being that His Being and finite being are not even said to "be" in the same univocal sense. Compared with God, created being "is not"; again, compared with created being, God "is not." For He is so far above His creation that the concept of Being, applied to Him, means something basically different from what it means when applied to everything else. In this way, God "is nowhere."

The monk is one who is called by God to enter into this dilemma and this mystery. But it is less complicated for him, because he is not usually a philosopher. He seeks God not by speculation, but by a way more likely to find Him — the obscure and secret path of theological faith.

The monk, then, is one who has heard God speak the words He spoke once through the Prophet: "I will espouse thee to me in faith, and thou shalt know that I am the Lord" (Osee, 2:20).

God is said to be "found" by the soul that is united to Him in a bond as intimate as marriage. And this bond is a union of spirits, in faith. Faith, here, means complete fidelity, the complete gift and abandonment of oneself. It means perfect trust in a hidden God. It implies submission to the gentle but inscrutable guidance of His infinitely hidden Spirit. It demands the renunciation of our own lights and our own prudence and our own wisdom and of our whole "self" in order to live in and by His Spirit. "He that is joined to the Lord," says St Paul, "is one Spirit" (1 Corinthians, 6:17).

To be one with One Whom one cannot see is to be hidden, to be nowhere, to be no one: it is to be unknown as He is unknown, forgotten as He is forgotten, lost as He is lost to the world which nevertheless exists in Him. Yet to live in Him is to live by His power, to reach from end to end of the universe in the might of His wisdom, to rule and form all things in and with Him. It is to be the hidden instrument of His Divine action, the minister of His redemption, the channel of His mercy, and the messenger of His infinite Love.

Monastic solitude, poverty, obedience, silence and prayer dispose the soul for this mysterious destiny in God. Asceticism itself does not produce divine union as its direct result. It only disposes the soul for union. The various practices of monastic asceticism are more or less valuable to the monk in proportion as they help him to accomplish the inner and spiritual work that needs to be done to make his soul poor, and humble, and empty, in the mystery of the presence of God. When ascetic practices are misused, they serve only to fill the monk with himself and to harden his heart in resistance to grace. That is why all monastic asceticism centers in the two great virtues of humility and obedience which cannot be practiced as they ought to be practiced, if they do not empty a man of himself.

Humility detaches the monk first of all from that absorption in himself which makes him forget the reality of God. It detaches him from that fixation upon his own will which makes him ignore and disobey the eternal Will in which alone reality is to be found. It gradually pulls down the edifice of illusory projects which he has erected between himself and reality. It strips him of the garment of spurious ideals which he has woven to disguise and beautify his own imaginary self. It finds and saves him in the midst of a hopeless conflict against the rest of the universe — saves him in this conflict by a salutary "despair" in which he renounces at last his futile struggle to make himself into a "god." When he achieves this final renunciation he plunges through the center of his humility to find himself at last in the Living God.

The victory of monastic humility is the victory of the real over the unreal — a victory in which false human ideals are discarded and the divine "ideal" is attained, is experienced, is grasped and possessed, not in a mental image but in the present and concrete and existential reality of our life. The victory of monastic humility is a triumph of life in which, by the integration of thought and action, idealism and reality, prayer and work, the monk finds that he now lives perfectly, and fully, and fruitfully in God. Yet God does not appear. The monk is not outwardly changed. He has no aureola. He is still a frail and limited human being. The externals of his life are the same as they always were. Prayer is the same, work is the same, the monastic community is the same, but everything has been changed from within and God is, to use St Paul's expression, "all in all."

By monastic humility, the monk ceases to swim against the stream of life, gives up the sinister unconscious struggle which he has always waged to assert himself against the will of others, to resist the desires of his superiors, to impose himself upon his brothers as a distinct and superior being. He now no longer speaks and acts in his own name, but in the name of his eternal Father. Like Jesus, he finds his meat and nourishment in doing the will of "Him Who sent me." And with Jesus he can say: "He that sent me is with me, and he hath not left me alone, for I always do the things that please Him" (John, 8:29).

This does not mean that the monk becomes incapable of sin. Indeed, his weakness and helplessness have shown him that it is impossible for him to realize, on earth, a state of absolute moral perfection. Like St Paul he is compelled to say: "I am delighted with the law of God according to my inward man, but I see another law in my members fighting against the law of my mind" (Romans, 7:22-23). But also with St Paul he can declare: "I know that to them that love God all things work together unto good" (id. 8:28) and "Gladly will I glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful" (2 Corinthians, 12:9-10).

The victory of monastic humility is the full acceptance of God's hidden action in the weakness and ordinariness and unsatisfactoriness of our own everyday lives. It is the acceptance of our own incompleteness, in order that He may make us complete in His own way. It is joy in our emptiness, which can only be filled by Him. It is peace in our own unfruitfulness which He Himself makes immensely fruitful without our being able to understand how it is done.

But for humility to take possession of his soul, the monk must finally and completely renounce all the worry and agitation with which he strives to hide his limitations from himself and disguise his faults as virtues. Perfection is not for those who strive to feel and look and act as if they were perfect: it is only for those who are fully aware that they are sinners, like the rest of men, but sinners loved and redeemed and changed by God. Perfection is not for those who isolate themselves in ivory towers of an imaginary fault-lessness, but only for those who risk the tarnishing of their supposed interior purity by plunging fully into life as it must inevitably be lived in this imperfect world of ours: life with its difficulties, its temptations, its disappointments and its dangers. Perfection, too, is not for those who live for themselves alone and occupy themselves exclusively with the embellishment of their own souls. Christian sanctity is not merely a matter of "recollection" or "interior prayer." Sanctity is love: the love of God above all other beings and the love of our brother in God. Such love ultimately demands the complete forgetfulness of ourselves.

And yet, the monk is traditionally one who leaves the world, flies from the company of men and seeks to purify his soul by living alone with the angels. Does he not thereby run the risk of losing all contact with reality and falling away from the life-giving union with his brothers in Christ, by which alone he can be sanctified? Is not the monastic life, then, an escape into sterility, a flight from the responsibility of living? Does it not so completely diminish and restrict a man's life that he ceases to live and spends his days vegetating in the throes of a pious delusion?

It must be admitted that every vocation has its professional hazards and the monk who loses sight of the meaning of his monastic calling may well waste his life in sterile self-preoccupation. But the meaning of the monk's flight from the world is precisely to be sought in the fact that the "world" (in the sense in which it is condemned by Christ) is the society of those who live exclusively for themselves. To leave the "world" then, is to leave oneself first of all and begin to live for others. The man who lives "in the world but not of it" is one who, in the midst of life, with all its crises, forgets himself to live for those he loves. The monastery aims to create an atmosphere most favorable for selflessness. If some of the monks make a bad use of their opportunity and become selfish, it is because they have physically left "the world" while bringing its spirit with them into the monastery in their hearts. They have not come to seek God so much as their own interests, their own profit, their own peace, their own perfection.

But now we have come to the true secret of the monastic life and the answer to the question, what does it mean to seek God?

It means to live in Christ, to find the Father in the Son, His Incarnate Word, by sharing, through faith and the gift of self, in the obedience and the poverty and the charity of Christ.

The monastic life is not only devoted to the study of Christ, or to the contemplation of Christ, or to the imitation of Christ. The monk seeks to become Christ by sharing in the passion of Christ.

Life in the monastery, says Cassian, is lived "under the sacrament of the Cross" {sub cruets sacramento).*

But to live in the mystery of the Cross is to live in union with Christ in His "obedience unto death, even the death of the Cross" (Philippians 2, 8-9).

Many details of the monk's austere life may be relaxed by his superiors. There may be modification in his daily prayer, his manual work, his fasting, his silence: but in one thing there can be no change — in the monk's fundamental obligation to be "obedient unto death." This means that he must relinquish, if not life itself, at least his stubborn will to "live" and exist as a self-assertive and self-seeking individual. To renounce the pleasure of one's dearest illusions about oneself is to die more effectively than one could ever do by allowing himself to be killed for a clearly conceived personal ideal. Indeed, we know it is quite possible for a man to lay down his life to bear witness to his own will and to his own illusions. But the true and complete renunciation of ourselves is demanded by the monastic life. Even if our superiors seek to spare our weakness God Himself will not spare us, if we are truly seeking Him.

However, to live "under the sacrament of the Cross" is to share in the life of the Risen Christ. For when our illusions die, they give place to reality, and when our false "self" disappears, when the darkness of our self-idolatry is dispelled, then the words of the Apostle are fulfilled in us: "Arise, thou that sleepest, and Christ will enlighten thee" (Ephesians, 5:14). And again: "God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness hath shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus" (2 Corinthians, 4:6).

This light of God shining in the humble soul that is empty of self, is what the Fathers called puritas cordis, purity of heart. Cassian said that the whole purpose of the monastic life was to lead the monk to this inner purity. All the monastic observances and virtues have this for their object.

In the words of Cassian:

It is for the sake of this purity of heart that we must do all that we do and seek all that we seek. For the sake of purity of heart we seek solitude, fasting, vigils, labors, poor clothing, reading and all the other monastic virtues. Through these practices we hope to be able to keep our heart untouched by the assaults of all the passions, and by these steps we hope to ascend to perfect love.*

He goes on to make a profound psychological observation. If, he says, we find that we are unwilling or unable to give up some particular practice or observance for the sake of some other worthy and necessary task, and if we find that when we cannot keep to our plan of observance we are sad, angry, indignant, or otherwise disturbed, it means that we are seeking these things for their own sakes and that we are therefore losing sight of our true objective which is purity of heart. For in this case the practices we follow are not purifying our heart of its selfish passions, but strengthening those very passions in our soul.

The purity of heart which Cassian describes is not so much a psychological state as a new level of reality. It is the condition of a soul transformed in perfect charity. Such a soul is lifted above itself and out of itself. It not only thinks and acts on a higher level, but is itself a new being, nova creatura.

The Fathers of the Church explained this "new being" of the soul by their doctrine that man, created in the image of God, has lost his likeness to God by becoming centered on himself. In losing his divine likeness, man has plunged into unreality for he is no longer united to the source of his reality. He still exists. He is still the "image" of his maker. But he does not have in him the life of charity which is the life of God Himself — since God is charity. Since he does not have this life in him, he is unreal, he is dead. He is not what he is supposed to be. He is a caricature of himself. An image which is nevertheless unlike what it represents is necessarily a distortion. And this distortion is, in fact, a complete spiritual opposition to the will and love of God. Made to fulfill himself by a perfect resemblance to God Who is perfect love, man destroys his potentialities by centering all his love on himself. Made to bear witness to the infinite truth and power and reality and actuality of God, in Whom all things live and move and have their being, man denies reality and turns away from truth in order to make himself the center and the raison d'etre of the universe.

In order to become once again "real" man must purify his heart of the darkness of unreality and illusion. But this darkness overwhelms his heart as long as he lives by his own selfish will. Light can only dawn in our hearts when we renounce our determination to rebel against the infinite will of God, accept reality as He has willed it to be, and place our wills at the service of His perfect freedom. It is when we love as He loves that we are pure, when we will what He wills, we are free. Then our eyes are opened and we can see reality as He sees it, and we can rejoice with His joy because all things are "very good" (Genesis 1:31).

The "impure" heart of fallen man is not merely a heart subject to carnal passion. "Purity" and "impurity" in this context mean something more than chastity. The "impure" heart is a heart filled with fears, anxieties, conflicts, doubts, ambivalences, hesitations, self-contradictions, hatreds, jealousies, compulsive needs and passionate attachments. All these and a thousand other "impurities" darken the inner light of the soul but they are neither its chief impurity nor the cause of its impurities. The inner, basic, metaphysical defilement of fallen man is his profound and illusory conviction that he is a god and that the universe is centered upon him. Note that this conviction has a basis in truth, since he sees in himself the obscure image of God. What is this image? St Bernard says it is man's freedom. And so man, feeling in himself this deep, inalienable power for spiritual self-determination, this freedom to shape his own destiny by his own choice, feels himself to be indeed "godlike." This freedom comes to us from God our Father.

But although God our Father made us free, He did not make us omnipotent. We are not gods in our own right, capable of achieving everything that we desire, of creating and un-creating worlds, or commanding the adoration and service of every other spirit! We are capable of becoming perfectly godlike, in all truth, by freely receiving from God the gift of His Light, and His Love, and His Freedom in Christ, the Incarnate Logos. But in so far as we are implicitly convinced that we ought to be omnipotent of ourselves we usurp to ourselves a godlikeness that is not ours.


Excerpted from The Silent Life by Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1957 The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, is perhaps the foremost spiritual thinker of the twentiethcentury. His diaries, social commentary, and spiritual writings continue to be widely read after his untimely death in 1968.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is one of the foremost spiritual thinkers of the twentieth century. Though he lived a mostly solitary existence as a Trappist monk, he had a dynamic impact on world affairs through his writing. An outspoken proponent of the antiwar and civil rights movements, he was both hailed as a prophet and castigated for his social criticism. He was also unique among religious leaders in his embrace of Eastern mysticism, positing it as complementary to the Western sacred tradition. Merton is the author of over forty books of poetry, essays, and religious writing, including Mystics and Zen Masters, and The Seven Story Mountain, for which he is best known. His work continues to be widely read to this day.

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