Thomas Merton hardly seemed destined for a contemplative life when young. He was a carouser, fathered a child out of wedlock, even landed in jail a time or two. Yet three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he landed on the doorstep of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and spent the rest of his short life there. He left everything behind, even his name, becoming Frater Louis, then Father Louis after he was ordained as a priest. He gave away all his worldly possessions, leaving only a small box containing a pair of notebooks with his poems and reflections, along with a copy of writings by St. John of the Cross. There was no access to news of the outside world apart from personal correspondence, no newspapers or radio. Thereafter, Merton lived his life in silence.
While still wrestling with his vocation, Merton had resorted to a technique used by St. Augustine to obtain divine guidance for his decision. Merton opened the Bible at random – in this case, the Latin Vulgate – and alighted on the following verse: “ecce eris tacens”— (“behold, you shall be silent”) from the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke. This led him to the monastic Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, familiarly known as the Trappists. Contrary to a widespread assumption, Trappists do not take a vow of silence. But they do follow the Rule of Benedict (stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience) and avoid needless conversation. As St. Benedict expressed it, “There are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence.”
When Merton first visited the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941, he encountered silence so palpable he knew immediately that he had found his spiritual home. He later wrote, “I had entered into a solitude that was an impregnable fortress. And the silence that enfolded me, spoke to me, and spoke louder and more eloquently than any voice.” Paradoxically, he also found his voice as a writer and published a best-selling autobiography (The Seven Storey Mountain) and 70 other works on contemplative prayer and other topics. Much like the Desert Fathers in the early centuries of the church, Merton removed himself from the world, only to find the world clambering for his spiritual counsel. In the last years of his life, he withdrew even from the community of his fellow monks to find still greater solitude in a hermitage in a remote corner of the monastery grounds.
For Merton, the exterior silence he found at Gethsemani was a prelude to the silencing of interior thoughts and desires that are necessary to bring one into God’s presence. He wrote in Thoughts in Solitude: “There are few who are willing to belong completely to such silence, to let it soak into their bones, to breathe nothing but silence, to feed on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life into a living and vigilant silence.”
Spiritual adepts have long extolled silence as a pathway to God. “Nothing is so like God as silence,” wrote Meister Eckhart, a 13th-century German mystic. How so? One conjures images of Jehovah thundering from the mountaintop at Sinai while the Hebrew people cowered below. Perhaps more instructive is the example of Elijah, who fled into the wilderness of Sinai and sought God in the same wind and earthquake and fire that Moses had encountered there long before. But Elijah found God in none of these things; rather as a whispering in the depths of his own soul, a “still, small voice.”
To hear the voice of God, one must first learn to listen in silence. To seek God outside ourselves is to embark on a journey to nowhere. St. Paul said as much when he stood among shrines to every god imaginable on a trip to Athens. As a devout Jew, he was offended by this bald display of idolatry, but he chose to take another tack in addressing the locals. "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” Paul told them. But then he said, "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man." He quoted a line from Aratus, one of their own poets: "In him we live and move and have our being."
Elsewhere, Paul said, “Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?” What pilgrimage can bring us closer to the God in whom we live and move and have our being? What shrine can we build to a God who already dwells in us? And what can we say or do in God’s presence that has not already been said or done? Is anything left for us to do except to fall silent?
Alan Jacobs, “Thomas Merton, the Monk Who Became a Prophet,” The New Yorker (December 28, 2018)
1 Kings 19
1 Corinthians 3:16