The New Man

The New Man

by Thomas Merton


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The New Man shows Thomas Merton at the height of his powers and has as its theme the question of spiritual identity. What must we do to recover possession of our true selves? By way of an answer, Merton discusses how we have become strangers to ourselves by our depence on outward identity and success, while our real need is for a concern with the image of God in ourselves. At a time of retrieval of our religious traditions, Merton's voice is both intelligent and spiritually compelling.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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374514440
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/29/1999
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 721,868
Product dimensions: 5.43(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

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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The New Man


1. Life and death are at war within us. As soon as we are born, we begin at the same time to live and die.

Even though we may not be even slightly aware of it, this battle of life and death goes on in us inexorably and without mercy. If by chance we become fully conscious of it, not only in our flesh and in our emotions but above all in our spirit, we find ourselves involved in a terrible wrestling, an agonia not of questions and answers, but of being and nothingness, spirit and void. In this most terrible of all wars, fought on the brink of infinite despair, we come gradually to realize that life is more than the reward for him who correctly guesses a secret and spiritual "answer" to which he smilingly remains committed. This is more than a matter of "finding peace of mind," or "settling religious problems."

Indeed, for the man who enters into the black depths of the agonia, religious problems become an unthinkable luxury. He has no time for such indulgences. He is fighting for his life. His being itself is a foundering ship, ready with each breath to plunge into nothingness and yet inexplicably remaining afloat on the void. Questions that have answers seem, at such a time, to be a cruel mockery of the helpless mind. Existence itself becomes an absurd question, like a Zen koan: and to find an answer to such aquestion is to be irrevocably lost. An absurd question can have only an absurd answer.

Religions do not, in fact, simply supply answers to questions. Or at least they do not confine themselves to this until they become degenerate. Salvation is more than the answer to a question. To emerge alive from a disaster is not just the answer to the question, "Shall I escape?"

Everything hangs on the final issue, in the battle of life and death. Nothing is assured beforehand. Nothing is definitely certain. The issue is left to our own choice. But that is what constitutes the dark terror of the agonia: we cannot be sure of our own choice. Are we strong enough to continue choosing life when to live means to go on and on with this absurd battle of entity and nonentity in our own inmost self?

The roots of life remain immortal and invulnerable in us if we will continue to keep morally alive by hope. Yet hope in its full supernatural dimension is beyond our power. And when we try to keep ourselves in hope by sheer violent persistence in willing to live, we end if not in despair in what is worse—delusion. (For in reality such delusion is a despair that refuses to take cognizance of itself. It is the merciful form which cowards give to their despair.)

Hope then is a gift. Like life, it is a gift from God, total, unexpected, incomprehensible, undeserved. Itsprings out of nothingness, completely free. But to meet it, we have to descend into nothingness. And there we meet hope most perfectly, when we are stripped of our own confidence, our own strength, when we almost no longer exist. "A hope that is seen," says St. Paul, "is no hope." No hope. Therefore despair. To see your hope is to abandon hope.

The Christian hope that is "not seen" is a communion in the agony of Christ. It is the identification of our own agonia with the agonia of the God Who has emptied Himself and become obedient unto death. It is the acceptance of life in the midst of death, not because we have courage, or light, or wisdom to accept, but because by some miracle the God of Life Himself accepts to live, in us, at the very moment when we descend into death.

All truly religious thought claims to arm man for his struggle with death with weapons that will ensure the victory of life over death.


2. The most paradoxical and at the same time the most unique and characteristic claim made by Christianity is that in the Resurrection of Christ the Lord from the dead, man has completely conquered death, and that "in Christ" the dead will rise again to enjoy eternal life, in spiritualized and transfigured bodies and in a totally new creation. This new life in the Kingdom of God is to benot merely a passively received inheritance but in some sense the fruit of our agony and labor, love and prayers in union with the Holy Spirit. Such a fantastic and humanly impossible belief has generally been left in the background by the liberal Christianity of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but anyone who reads the New Testament objectively must admit that this is the Doctrine of the first Christians. Indeed, Christianity without this fabulous eschatalogical claim is only a moral system without too much spiritual consistency. Unless all Christianity is centered in the victorious, living, and ever present reality of Jesus Christ, the Man-God and conqueror of death, it loses its distinctive character and there is no longer any justification for a Christian missionary apostolate. In point of fact, such an apostolate without the resurrection of the dead, has tended to be purely and simply an apostolate for western cultural and economic "progress," and not a true preaching of the Gospel.

The fulness of human life cannot be measured by anything that happens only to the body. Life is not merely a matter of physical vigor, or of health, or of the capacity to enjoy oneself. What is life? It is something far more than the breath in our nostrils, the blood beating in our wrists, the response to physical stimulation. True,all these things are essential for a fully human life, but they do not themselves constitute that life in all its fulness. A man can have all this and still be an idiot. And one who merely breathes, eats, sleeps and works, without awareness, without purpose and without ideas of his own is not really a man. Life, in this purely physical sense, is merely the absence of death. Such people do not live, they vegetate.

For a man to be alive, he must exercise not only the acts that belong to vegetative and animal life, he must not only subsist, grow, be sentient, not only move himself around, feed himself, and the rest. He must carry on the activities proper to his own specifically human kind of life. He must, that is to say, think intelligently. And above all he must direct his actions by free decisions, made in the light of his own thinking. These decisions, moreover, must tend to his own intellectual and moral and spiritual growth. They must tend to make him more aware of his capacities for knowledge and for free action. They must expand and extend his power to love others, and to dedicate himself to their good: for it is in this that he finds his own fulfilment.

In a word, for man to live, he has to become wholly and entirely alive. He has to be all life, in his body, his senses, his mind and his will.

But this life must also have a certain special orderand coherence. We often see people who are said to be "bursting with life" and who, in fact, are simply wrestling with their own incoherence.

Life, indeed, is meant to superabound but not to explode. Those who are bursting with life are often merely plunging into death with an enormous splash. They do not transcend death, they surrender to it with so much animal vitality that they are able to drag many others with them into the abyss.


3. In those who are most alive and therefore most themselves, the life of the body is subordinated to a higher life that is within them. It quietly surrenders to the far more abundant vitality of a spirit living on levels that defy measurement and observation. The mark of true life in man is therefore not turbulence but control, not effervescence but lucidity and direction, not passion but the sobriety that sublimates all passion and elevates it to the clear inebriation of mysticism. The control we mean here is not arbitrary and tyrannical control by an interior principle which can be called, variously, a "super-ego" or a pharasaical conscience: it is the harmonious coordination of man's powers in striving for the realization of his deepest spiritual potentialities. It is not so much a control of one part of man by another, but the peaceful integration of all man's powers into one perfect actualitywhich is his true self, that is to say his spiritual self.

Man, then, can only fully be said to be alive when he becomes plainly conscious of the real meaning of his own existence, that is to say when he experiences something of the fulness of intelligence, freedom and spirituality that are actualized within himself.

But can we really expect a man to attain to this kind of consciousness? Is it not utterly cruel to hold before his eyes the delusive hope of this "fulness" of life and of "realization?" Of course, if the nature of the hope is not understood, it is the cruelest and most mocking of delusions. It may be the worst of all spiritual mirages that torments him in his desert pilgrimage. How can a man, plunged in the agonia, the wrestling of life and death in their most elemental spiritual forms, be beguiled by the promise of self realization? His very self, his very reality, is all contradiction: a contradiction mercifully obscured by confusion. If the confusion is cleared away, and he fully "realizes" this tormented self, what will he see if not the final absurdity of the contradiction? The "real meaning of his existence" would then be precisely that it has no meaning.

In a certain sense, that is true. To find life we must die to life as we know it. To find meaning we must die to meaning as we know it. The sun rises every morning and we are used to it, and because we knowthe sun will rise we have finally come to act as if it rose because we wanted it to. Suppose the sun should choose not to rise? Some of our mornings would then be "absurd"—or, to put it mildly, they would not meet our expectations.

To find the full meaning of our existence we must find not the meaning that we expect but the meaning that is revealed to us by God. The meaning that comes to us out of the transcendent darkness of His mystery and our own. We do not know God and we do not know ourselves. How then can we imagine that it is possible for us to chart our own course toward the discovery of the meaning of our life? This meaning is not a sun that rises every morning, though we have come to think that it does, and on mornings when it does not rise we substitute some artificial light of our own so as not to admit that this morning was absurd.

Meaning is then not something we discover in ourselves, or in our lives. The meanings we are capable of discovering are never sufficient. The true meaning has to be revealed. It has to be "given." And the fact that it is given is, indeed, the greater part of its significance: for life itself is, in the end, only significant in so far as it is given.

As long as we experience life and existence as suns that have to rise every morning, we are in agony. We must learn that life is a light that riseswhen God summons it out of darkness. For this there are no fixed times.


4. Man is fully alive only when he experiences, at least to some extent, that he is really spontaneously dedicating himself, in all truth, to the real purpose of his own personal existence. In other words, man is alive not only when he exists, not only when he exists and acts, not only when he exists and acts as man (that is to say freely), but above all when he is conscious of the reality and inviolability of his own freedom, and aware at the same time of his capacity to consecrate that freedom entirely to the purpose for which it was given him.

And this realization does not come into being until his freedom is actually devoted to its right purpose. Man "finds himself" and is happy, when he is able to be aware that his freedom is spontaneously and vigorously functioning to orientate his whole being toward the purpose which it craves, in its deepest spiritual center, to achieve. This purpose is life in the fullest sense of the word—not mere individual, self-centered, egotistical life which is doomed to end in death, but a life that transcends individual limitations and needs, and subsists outside the individual self in the Absolute—in Christ, in God.

Man is truly alive when he is aware of himself as the master of his own destiny to life or to death, aware of the fact that his ultimate fulfilment or destruction depend on his own free choice and aware of his ability to decide for himself. This is the beginning of true life.

Yet, once again, this is theory and ideal. What is the reality? Fallen man in whom life and death are fighting for mastery is no longer fully master of himself: he has no power left except to cry out for help in the void. Help, it is true, comes as an unaccountable answer to his cry, though never in the form that he expects. Can this be called "mastery"? Paradoxically, it is here and here alone that man has mastery over his spiritual destiny. It is here that he chooses. It is here that his freedom in its despairing struggle for survival, is "spontaneously and vigorously functioning to orient his whole being to the purpose which it craves." How careful we must be with these sanguine metaphors of power and self realization. Man's real power lies hidden in the agony which makes him cry out to God: and there he is at the same time helpless and omnipotent. He is utterly helpless in himself, and yet he can "do all things in the Invisible who strengthens him."

Circumdederunt me! ...

The sorrows of hell came up all around me death bundled me up in a netin my bitter struggle I cried out to the Lord and I called to my God and from His holy temple He heard my voice, my cry came up and He looked at it and it went in by His ears ... . He bowed down the heavens and descended with darkness under His feet. He rode upon the cherubs and flew, flew on the flying wind, and made Himself a hiding place in darkness darkness all around Him like a tent! ... He reached down from the far heights and took me, and pulled me out of the waterfloods.

[Psalm 17, from the Vulgate].

True life, in other words, is not vegetative subsistence in one's own self, nor animal self-assertion and self-gratification. It is freedom transcending the self and subsisting in "the other" by love. It is entirely received from God. It is a freedom which "loses its life in order to find it," instead of saving its own life and thereby losing it. The perfection of life is spiritual love. And Christianity believes so firmly in the power of love, in the Holy Spirit, that it asserts divine love can even overcome death. And it risks death in order to experience the fulness of life.

But the summit of life, in man, is also contemplation. Contemplation is the perfection of love and of knowledge. Man's life grows and is made perfectby those acts in which his enlightened intelligence takes hold of truth, and by those even more important acts in which his inviolable freedom as it were absorbs and assimilates the truth by love, and makes his own soul true by "doing the truth in charity." Contemplation is the coalescence of life, knowledge, freedom, and love in a supremely simple intuition of the unity of all love, freedom, truth and life in their source, which is God.


5. Contemplation is at once the existential appreciation of our own "nothingness" and of the divine reality, perceived by ineffable spiritual contact within the depths of our own being. Contemplation is the sudden intuitive penetration of what really IS. It is the unexpected leap of the spirit of man into the existential luminosity of Reality Itself, not merely by the metaphysical intuition of being, but by the transcendent fulfilment of an existential communion with Him Who IS.

This is what makes the mystic far more existential than the philosopher. For where the true metaphysician turns aside from the pure objective concept of being as such in order to grasp being subjectively by experience and intuition, the mystic goes further still and plunges into the dynamic infinity of a Reality which not only IS, but which pours forth from its own inexhaustible depths thereality of everything else that is real. The mystic, that is to say the contemplative, not only sees and touches what is real, but beyond the surface of all that is actual, he attains to communion with the Freedom Who is the source of all actuality. This Reality, this Freedom, is not concept, not a thing, not an object, not even an object of knowledge: it is the Living God, the Holy One, the One to Whom we dare to utter a Name only because He has revealed a Name to us, but Who is beyond all Names as He is beyond all Being, beyond all knowing, beyond all loving. He is the infinitely Other, the Transcendent, of Whom we have and can have no univocal idea. He is so far above being that it is in some sense truer to say of Him that He "is not" than that He is. Yet at the same time we best name Him Who is the fulness of life by saying that He IS. And He Who IS (or "is not," depending whether you look at it apophatically or cataphatically) dwells at the very heart of our own being. The pure summit of our own actuality is the threshold of His Sanctuary, and He is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.


6. It is in this perfect self-realization by contact of our own anguished freedom with the life-giving Freedom of Him Who is Holy and Unknown that man begins the conquest of death in his ownsoul. This finding of our true self, this awakening, this coming to life in the luminous darkness of the infinite God, can never be anything but a communion with God by the grace of Jesus Christ. Our victory over death is not our own work, but His. The triumph of our own freedom, which must truly be our triumph if it is to save us from death, is nevertheless also and primarily His. And consequently, in all these meditations we will be talking of contemplation as a sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ. The Church sings, in the Easter Sequence, how "life and death met in an amazing battle," and how "the Prince of Life, Who died, lives and reigns."

Mors et vita duello Conflixere mirando Dux vitae mortuus Regnat vivus.

This victory of life over death which was won by the Author of Life is the very soul of the ancient and traditional existentialism of the Church—an existentialism so calmly and obviously existential that it never needed to be called by such a name.

Christian contemplation is existential not only in the sense that it experiences our own reality immersed in the reality of Him Who IS, but also in the sense that it is the participation in a concreteaction of God in time, the climax of the divine irruption into human history which, because it was an act of God as well as of Man, is capable of communicating itself spiritually and repeating itself over and over again the lives of individual men.


7. Contemplation is a mark of a fully mature Christian life. It makes the believer no longer a slave or a servant of a Divine Master, no longer the fearful keeper of a difficult law, no longer even an obedient and submissive son who is still too young to participate in his Father's counsels. Contemplation is that wisdom which makes man the friend of God, a thing which Aristotle thought to be impossible. For how, he said, can a man be God's friend? Friendship implies equality. That is precisely the message of the Gospel:

No longer do I call you servants, because the servant does not know what his master does. But I have called you friends, because all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and have appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you ... I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing ... If you abide in me, and if my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done to you. [John 15: 15-16, 5, 7.J

If we are the sons of God, then we are "heirs also," co-heirs with Christ our brother. The heir is one who has a right to his Father's possessions. Whoever has the fulness of Christian life is no longer a dog eating the crumbs under the Father's table, but a son who sits and banquets with the Father. This is precisely the lot of the mature Christian, for by the Ascension of Christ, as St. Paul says, "God has made us sit together with Him in the heavenly places." [Ephesians 2:6.]


8. Contemplation is a foretaste of the definitive victory of life over death in our souls. Without contemplation we indeed believe in the possibility of this victory, and we hope for it. But when our love for God bursts out into the dark yet luminous flame of interior vision, we are enabled, at least for an instant, to experience something of the victory. For at such moments "life" and "reality" and "God" cease to be concepts which we think about and become realities in which we consciously participate.

The reality of God is known to us in contemplation in an entirely new way. When we apprehend God through the medium of concepts, we see Him as an object separate from ourselves, as a being from whom we are alienated, even though we believe that He loves us and that we love Him. Incontemplation this division disappears, for contemplation goes beyond concepts and apprehends God not as a separate object but as the Reality within our own reality, the Being within our being, the life of our life. In order to express this reality we have to use symbolic language, and in respecting the metaphysical distinction between the Creator and creature we have to emphasize the I-Thou relationship between the soul and God. Nevertheless, the experience of contemplation is the experience of God's life and presence within ourselves not as object but as the transcendent source of our own subjectivity. Contemplation is a mystery in which God reveals Himself to us as the very center of our own most intimate self—intimior intimo meo as St. Augustine said. When the realization of His presence bursts upon us, our own self disappears in Him and we pass mystically through the Red Sea of separation to lose ourselves (and thus find our true selves) in Him.

Contemplation is the highest and most paradoxical form of self-realization, attained by apparent self-annihilation.

Life, then, is not only known, but lived. It is lived and experienced in its completeness, that is to say in all the ramifications of its spiritual activity. All the powers of the soul reach out in freedom and knowledge and love, and all converge again,and all are gathered together in one supreme act which is radiant with peace. The concreteness of this experience of reality is in the highest sense existential. And furthermore it is a communion—a perception of our own reality immersed in and in some sense coalescent with the supreme Reality, the Infinite Act of Existing we call God. Finally, it is a communion with Christ, the incarnate Word. Not only a personal union of souls with Him, but a communion in the one great act by which He conquered death once and for all in His Death and Resurrection.

Copyright © 1961 by The Abbey of Gethsemani

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