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The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton$

Monica Weis

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813130040

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813130040.001.0001

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Learning to See

Learning to See

Becoming Awake

(p.22) Chapter 2 Learning to See
The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton

SSJ Monica Weis

University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines Thomas Merton's early life, looking for examples of seeds: influences and patterns that contributed to his predisposition for ecological thinking. It specifically concentrates on Merton's gift of awareness and sense of place—from his infant days in Prades, France, to his entrance into the Trappist monastery in Kentucky and the turning point of June 27, 1949, when the abbot permitted Merton to pray beyond the confines of the monastery cloister. Three French landscapes in particular—Prades, Saint-Antonin, Murat—as well as the city of Rome show how vulnerable Merton was to the influence of geography and how deeply these places contributed in later years to his love of wilderness and his evolving ecological consciousness. Generally, June 27, 1949, represents the abbot's wise recognition of Merton's need to be in nature, his recognition of the potential for deeper prayer that contact with the wilderness can stimulate, and an official invitation to savor a new awareness of both outer and inner landscapes.

Keywords:   Thomas Merton, Prades, Saint-Antonin, Murat, Rome, ecological consciousness, nature, prayer

New eyes awaken …

And I am drunk with the great wilderness

Of the sixth day in Genesis.

—Thomas Merton, “A Psalm”

It’s all about seeing—not merely looking, but seeing. Seeing with new eyes. Awakening to one’s surroundings and cultivating awareness of both external and internal movements of grace. Yet the development from looking to seeing does not happen automatically; it requires conscious effort and focus—sometimes even training—and often results in a transformation of consciousness. Writers, prophets, and poets through the centuries have challenged us to develop the habit of seeing and the art of attention so that transformation might occur. Indeed, all major religions exhort their followers to engage in a process of becoming awake.

Buddhism, for example, traces its origin to Siddhartha Gautama, the one who woke up and urged his followers to do the same; Hinduism, with its reliance on the Vedic path to holiness (and specifically Upanishadic thought), encourages each person to reawaken the connection with God in order to discover Absolute Truth. Islam, from the Arabic word meaning “submission,” calls believers to continual awareness of God through prayer five times a day. Judaism professes faith in the coming of Shalom, or Peace, which will inaugurate a total transformation of human life and the natural world into justice and peace—a work of God and humans as cocreators to which one must (p.23) always be attentive. Christianity, Merton’s own adopted tradition, invites practitioners to awareness of God’s unconditional love by imitating Jesus, who models how to realize this divine potential. In Roman Catholic liturgy, for example, important feast days are preceded by a Vigil, which may involve a fast or special readings to encourage followers to be “vigilant,” watchful, awake; and the entire season of Advent invites Christians to become more attentive, more alert—to enter into the great Christian paradox: waiting for the One who is already here yet who is always coming to us. In centuries past, Bach and Handel captured this spirit of focused anticipation with the haunting cantata Wachet auf (Sleepers, Wake) and the soul-stirring oratorio Messiah.

Becoming awake—seeing with new eyes—is never a passive event. A human being is not a tabula rasa to be imprinted with sight and insight from some external and detached source. Becoming awake is meant to be a participatory endeavor that involves a response, namely, recognition of the deeper meaning of an event. To draw an example, again from Christian tradition: Christmas is not meant to be a stand-alone celebration of gaping fondly at a baby in a manger, but a prelude to the mystery’s fulfillment, poignantly symbolized by Mary Magdalene’s recognition of the resurrected Jesus in the garden and her mission to spread the Good News. Although we frequently hear the beautiful strains of Handel’s Messiah during the Advent season and mistakenly associate it with Christmas, this great oratorio’s Easter section completes the retelling of the Christian mystery. It must be noted that the mighty and well-loved “Hallelujah Chorus” occurs not in the Christmas section, but near the celebratory end of the oratorio as a response to the great feast and feat of the Redemption of humankind.1

Becoming Awake

So too, in normal human development, seeing with new eyes—becoming awake—requires us to respond with the vigor of recognition. Seeing anew, experiencing a new consciousness, is the prelude to expanded vision. This is not a completely novel notion. Literary artists and mystics in different ages have offered testimony to the power of (p.24) “attentive” seeing—that is, a kind of seeing that is more than mere looking. The British engraver and poet William Blake insisted that his childhood experience of seeing a tree full of angels guided him in his artistic expression and revisionist Christian theology. At the height of the American Transcendentalist movement in the 1830s and 1840s, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau urged us to see the natural world with new eyes and commit to a worldview radically different from the prevailing Calvinist attitude that regarded the wilderness as evil. Emerson’s famous lines about being alert to the spiritual world surrounding each of us immediately come to mind: “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…. I am a lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”2

“I become a transparent eyeball.” Certainly not a graceful metaphor, but one that makes its point. Becoming a “seer” means emptying oneself in order to recognize and receive the spiritual message inherent in created reality—something akin to the poet John Keats’s concept of “negative capability,” that is, an ability to empty oneself of all predispositions and preconceptions, and with intentional open-mindedness absorb totally the ambiguities and uncertainties of the moment.3 Likewise, in Walden, Thoreau’s 1854 published meditation on his retreat of two years, two months, and two days in the wilderness, the author is explicit about his purpose: to call his Concord neighbors to wake up. He proclaims himself a chanticleer urging greater alertness to the ever-new natural world surrounding us and concludes his carefully constructed and highly revised text with a call to action: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”4 The naturalist John Burroughs in his seminal 1908 essay, “The Art of Seeing Things,” makes the point that while some people appear to have “buttons or painted marbles” for eyes, (p.25) others—with either “practice or inspiration”—become metaphorical sharpshooters with a keen eye that “selects and discriminates.” For such fortunate humans, the “power of attention is always on the alert, not by conscious effort, but by natural habit and disposition.”5

Yet American writers are not the only possessors of the secret of becoming awake and of seeing differently. In the third century, long before any literary or social movement had arisen, the Desert Mothers and Fathers recommended the practice of agrupnia, a spiritual discipline of wakefulness and self-emptying that often produced an experience of mysticism. As the theologian Belden Lane has noted, “The desert, as a place where one expects nothing, becomes the source of the hauntingly unexpected.”6 Medieval Christian mystics, as well, celebrated the power of seeing and recognizing the holy in all creation and the fundamental unity of all beings. Julian of Norwich reveals God’s intimate message as a call to intentional alertness; Hildegard of Bingen and Mechtilde of Magdeburg remind us that we know God through every created creature; and the scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas declares, “Every creature participates in some way in the likeness of the Divine Essence.”7 In more recent times, the twentieth-century mystic Simone Weil maintained that every true artist’s intimate contact with the world of sights and sounds is like a sacrament. Traditionally, sacrament has been defined as a visible sign that reveals and communicates grace.8 Yet, insists Weil, whether or not one finds God, the act of looking and waiting with open eyes is essential to realizing our full human potential. “Looking,” she says, “is what saves us.”9

Thomas Merton was not unacquainted with this transformative journey of learning to see with new eyes. In addition to what might be considered the normal trajectory of developing human consciousness, Merton possessed the ability to use moments of seeing as grist for expanding his consciousness. From his childhood days of trudging after his father, Owen, on painting forays, to his fascination with Byzantine mosaics in the churches of Rome, to his master’s thesis on the concept of beauty in the works of William Blake, to his final days in Polon-naruwa when, in the presence of the great Buddhas, he realized he was now “beyond the shadow and the disguise” (OSM 323), Merton (p.26) intentionally exercised his gift of awareness—a practice the artist and spiritual director Marianne Hieb calls “receptive seeing” and “contemplative gazing,”10 and one the writer Mark Nepo defines as the freshness and power of “first sight.”11 Each event and place expanded Merton’s belief in the value of seeing the uniqueness of each creature and acknowledging the sacredness of place. Merton understood in the depths of his being the importance of William Blake’s aphorism about the need to see clearly: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see man as he is, infinite.”12 A reader of Blake, Merton frequently alluded to this British Romantic poet’s wisdom. Blake’s oft-quoted dictum, for example—“Everything that is, is holy”—is a chapter title in Seeds of Contemplation (1949) and its revision as New Seeds of Contemplation (1962). Events, experiences, and places deepened a habit of awareness in Merton, enabling him in 1955 to assert in No Man Is an Island: “The first step in the interior life, nowadays, is not, as some might imagine, learning not to see and taste and hear and feel things. On the contrary, what we must do is begin by unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling, and so forth, and acquire a few of the right ones.”13 In Merton’s journal for May 31, 1961, we find an ongoing affirmation of the necessity of this dynamic process: “Again, sense of the importance, the urgency of seeing, fully aware, experiencing what is here: not what is given by men, by society, but what is given by God and hidden by (even monastic) society. Clear realization that I must begin with these first elements. That it is absurd to inquire after my function in the world, or whether I have one, as long as I am not first of all alive and awake” (TTW 123).

One is tempted to coin a new Eastern koan that Merton would enjoy ruminating over: If one is awake, can one become more awake? This paradox suggests that one can become more alert, more attentive, more awake to the external world as well as to the action of God holding us in being and nudging us toward fuller humanness. In “The Art of Seeing Things,” John Burroughs asserts, “Power of attention and a mind sensitive to outward objects, in these lies the secret of seeing things.”14 Mark Nepo declares: “First sight is the moment of God-sight, heart-sight, soul-sight. It is the seeing of revelation, the (p.27) feeling of oneness that briefly overcomes us when nothing remains in the way.”15 And Marianne Hieb reminds us that this kind of “receptive seeing will always hold out the possibility of surprise.” At its core, she writes, “noticing is a state of mind, a willingness to keep the questions open. Your noticing deepens the contemplative presence essential to all creative processes.”16 Discovering this secret of seeing and becoming more awake is what impels Merton to share his experience in poems such as “In Silence,” in which he counsels:

  • Be still.
  • Listen to the stones of the wall.
  • Be silent, they try
  • To speak your
  • Name.

And in that stillness, that deeper awareness, discover “All their silence / Is on fire” (CP 280–81). Discovering this secret is also what underpins Merton’s 1963 lament to Rachel Carson that human beings have lost their sight and are “blundering around aimlessly in the midst of the wonderful works of God” (WF 71).

In a recent book on Merton as a “master of attention,” Robert Waldron offers us a powerful vignette of the twenty-four-year-old Merton as art critic—one who sees outward objects and sees beyond the obvious. Citing passages from Merton’s premonastic journal describing the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City and in particular his response to Fra Angelico’s Temptation of St. Anthony and Bruegel’s The Wedding Dance, Waldron deems Merton’s perceptive critique of these masterpieces to be an act of pure attention. Merton, he argues, has discovered how to look; at the end of the passage on Fra Angelico Merton confesses: “Looking at this picture is exactly the same sort of thing as praying” (RM 53). Without directly quoting Duns Sco-tus’s philosophy on haecceitas, that is, the “thisness” of things, Merton demonstrates he is capable of zeroing in on the uniqueness of the artist’s vision. Waldron suggests that since Merton had no great art to look at after entering the monastery, he needs to find beauty (p.28) in the fluidity of Gregorian chant, the timeless ritual of the Catholic Latin Mass, the meditative slowness of lectio divina, and the natural beauty of the Kentucky hills.17 And, indeed those Kentucky hills were a distinctive gift that enhanced Merton’s spirituality. But this gift had several antecedents in Merton’s early life—specific geographies—that prepared him for the influence of nature on his monastic spirituality and experience of contemplation.

Growing Awareness of Place

Just as a habit of seeing and specific events can significantly influence our level of awareness, so too can geography or natural landscape (e.g., mountains, desert, seashore) have a lasting effect on our developing consciousness. The nature writer Barry Lopez offers persuasive testimony to this phenomenon, which, when applied to Thomas Merton, reveals new avenues of understanding about the transformative journey of becoming awake. On the basis of his extensive interaction with indigenous people, Lopez contends that geography or place is not a “subject” but a shaping force on imagination—our powers of awareness—especially encounters with geography at an early age.18 In a brief but noteworthy essay on the influence of place, Lopez explains how landscape, light, and even sound sculpt and mold our early consciousness, significantly contributing not only to our awareness, but also to our “sense of morality and human identity.” As Marianne Hieb observes about external landscape, “The stuff of your life becomes the portal into the adventure of inner journeying.”19 Judging from the details of his childhood years in The Seven Storey Mountain, and the frequency and affection with which Merton later mentions his years in France, it is clear that the elements of this geography fashioned in him a deep sense of intimacy with place that influenced his inner journeying and later development as a monk and as a writer. Three French landscapes in particular—Prades, Saint-Antonin, Murat—as well as the city of Rome illustrate how vulnerable Merton was to the influence of geography and how deeply these places contributed in later years to his love of wilderness and his evolving ecological consciousness.

(p.29) Prades

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world”—the opening lines of Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (SSM 3). Anyone who visits Prades, France, where Merton was born, will be forcefully struck by the quaintness of this village, dominated by its sacred, snow-capped Canigou Mountain, the monasteries tucked into the terraced hillsides, and the all-pervasive startling light that makes sunglasses and hat a necessity. Brilliant sunlight seeps down narrow, rambling streets and encircles the surrounding hills. The south of France, destination of painters for at least two centuries, is a chiaroscuro world of glaring light and looming shadow, glorious mountain air and finely honed colors. It is easy to imagine how baby Tom, just becoming aware of his world, might focus on light and color.

In Tom’s Book, the record his mother, Ruth Jenkins Merton, was keeping for the New Zealand grandparents, she records how much little Tom was enchanted by movement and color around him.20 In those early months, baby Tom “had already begun to wave his arms toward the landscape, crying ‘Oh color!’ (‘Color’ is the word he uses to mean landscape, his father’s pictures and all the paraphernalia of painting.)” Ruth Merton also provides us with a sample horarium of young Tom’s day, which included extensive time outdoors after his 7:30 A.M. breakfast until his bath at 10:30 A.M., and again after his 2:00 P.M. dinner until sunset. It is not unreasonable to believe that at least some of this outdoor time was spent near his father’s painting sites and that patterns of light and color—from nature and from the canvas—became part of Merton’s informal schooling. “When we go out,” writes his mother, “he seems conscious of everything. Sometimes he puts up his arms and cries out ‘Oh Sun! Oh joli!’ Often it is to the birds or trees that he makes these pagan hymns of joy. Sometimes he throws himself on the ground to see the ‘cunnin’ little ants’ (where he learned that expression, I do not know!)” (TB n.p.).

Light and color, however, are not the only shaping influence on (p.30) imagination. Barry Lopez reminds us that the “architecture” of our world is not only visual but olfactory, tactile, auditory, and linguistic as well; these sensible experiences form a “coherence” that creates a sense of belonging.21 Indeed, such budding coherence emerges in Ruth Merton’s record of little Tom’s interaction with his environment. As early as two and three months old, Ruth notices Tom saying “‘aye’ in many different and expressive ways,” even talking to a flower and trying to hit “a rattle swung on a string before his eyes.” And by the time he is eight months old, his mother records that whenever they went “on the bridge,” Tom “stood up in his p’ram, especially to see the river” (TB n.p.). Having walked across this same bridge over the Têt River, I can readily understand why an infant—especially a precocious child like Tom, growing ever more alert to sounds, smells, and textures—would be fascinated by the river. On my stroll, I heard the river before I saw it. Like all mountain streams in close proximity to their source, the Têt catapults itself from the Pyrenees Mountains, rushing over stones, creating a symphony of white-water music.

Learning to SeeBecoming Awake

Young Tom. (Photo by Ruth Jenkins Merton)


Learning to SeeBecoming Awake

Young Tom making a paper airplane, 1918. (Photo by Ruth Jenkins Merton)

(p.32) For little Tom, the rushing river must have been like mythic sirens calling to him with secret messages, imprinting a love for water in its many forms. Perhaps the sound of the swiftly moving water was preparing him for the festival of rain he loved to hear outside the hermitage, and his recognition that people walking on shiny streets are really “walking on stars and water.” Much later, in the hermitage years, Merton would write in his essay “Rain and the Rhinoceros”: “What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen” (RU 10–12).

When he was just a year old, writes his mother, Tom “takes great delight in his books, knowing in just which one is the picture of the Frog, the owl or the dog and finding them for you with pleasure.” After the family responded to the threat of World War I and moved to Ruth’s parents’ home in Douglaston, Long Island, Tom’s mother overhears him carrying on a bilingual conversation with “Monsieur Wind” and imitating not only the voice of the wind but also the “Dah-hou!” of the church bells of Prades. In addition to his remarkable “powers of association,” Tom, by the time he was two, had an astonishing vocabulary, astonishing even for a precocious little boy. His mother notes that he recognized and used, voluntarily and accurately, many of the names of birds and flowers such as kingfisher, chickadee, oriole, goldfinch, chrysanthemum, hollyhock, foxglove, pansy (TB n.p.).

It would not be rash to suggest that Thomas Merton was genetically predisposed to new ways of seeing because of his artistic parents, (p.33) that he was born with a keen eye that “selects and discriminates”; nevertheless, the serendipitous convergence of stunning light, natural beauty, colorful art, emerging fluency in two languages, and a mother who was consciously and conscientiously shaping and nurturing her son’s interaction with his environment was a singular blessing for Merton in those first years. Prades became for Merton a sacred place—a geography where seeds were sown—that created a backdrop for later experiences. A second visit to France approximately eight years later intensified Merton’s love for France and his evolving awareness of his surroundings.

Learning to SeeBecoming Awake

Prades, France, in a painting by Owen Merton


After Ruth Merton’s death from stomach cancer when Tom was six, his father valiantly tried to create educational and family experiences for Tom and his younger brother, John Paul. Leaving the younger son (p.34) with his in-laws, Owen Merton and ten-year-old Tom returned to the south of France, this time to the medieval city of Saint-Antonin. After the summer months of delight in his new location, young Tom was sent some twenty miles away to the Lycée Ingres in Montauban, happily returning to Saint-Antonin on weekends and holidays. Owen Merton, now enjoying some financial success from his painting, was intent on building a home in Saint-Antonin. When the house was ready, he planned to send for John Paul, hoping to create a family again. Using stone from a nearby ruined chapel, Owen concentrated on his construction project and his painting; Tom was free to roam the tiny village, getting lost in the “labyrinth of narrow streets” that all led to the church. In his autobiography Merton remarks about the power of this place, how here—though he was not a Catholic but was surrounded by the religious ambiance of the Middle Ages—he experienced the cen-trality of the Christian liturgy. Although he “had no understanding of the concept of Mass,” the regular, periodic church bells, the geography of the streets “and of nature itself, the circling hills, the cliffs and trees, all focussed my attention upon the one, important central fact of the church and what it contained” (SSM 36–37).

How significant that in these impressionable preadolescent years, Merton was confronted by a “whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire,” that seemed to proclaim a twofold purpose: to glorify God and to remind humans of their ultimate purpose. Here, Merton says, the landscape forced him to live as a “virtual contemplative” (SSM 37). If we accept Barry Lopez’s argument that awareness of geography, combined with a sense of place and unity with it, offers a fundamental defense against loneliness, perhaps it is legitimate to speculate that in Saint-Antonin Merton experienced—perhaps even savored—his first taste of real belonging, a taste that later awakened in him an appetite for contemplation and the solitude of the hermitage. Certainly, Merton was looking forward eagerly to the completion of the new house and the promise of becoming a family once again; perhaps in this sacred place he was also discovering at some deep unarticulated level of consciousness an awareness of a connection between external geography and the geography of the heart—between (p.35) the French landscape and his inner landscape of thought, desire, and imagination.

Learning to SeeBecoming Awake

Saint-Antonin, France, in a painting by Owen Merton


Merton’s happiness in Saint-Antonin contrasted with his discomfort at the lycée in Montauban where he boarded during the school years of 1926–1927 and 1927–1928. Although Merton found it difficult (p.36) to socialize with boys whose language and manners were earthy, and whom he regarded as a veritable “civilization of hyenas” (SSM 51), he did manage to earn several scholastic and athletic awards at the end of each of the school years.22 Nevertheless, the highlight of this experience was holiday time. During Christmas 1926 and summer 1927, while Owen Merton was painting in the Auvergne district and later in Paris, Tom stayed with the Privat family in Murat, a rustic village in central France, another landscape of “rich pastures” and mountains “heavy with fir trees” that nurtured Merton’s imagination and his habit of awareness (SSM 55–63). Although in his autobiography Merton expresses gratitude for the moral example offered by Monsieur and Madame Privat and treasures their simple and unconditional acceptance as a special grace, Merton also experiences the freedom to run wild in the woods and the mountains. In such a happy venue, Merton’s essential loneliness was somewhat assuaged and his infant pleasure with nature reawakened and nourished. Perhaps after moving to Surrey, England, the next year with his father, a budding sense of self helped Merton through his school days at Ripley Court and a not-so-pleasant fourteenth summer spent reading and wandering the English countryside while his father was ill with a brain tumor in a hospital in London. And perhaps this budding sense of self, tied to geography, came into play again for Merton five years later in Rome, when he was truly alone, his father having died two years before.


Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, with the blessing and monetary support from his legal guardian and Owen’s classmate and physician, Tom Bennett, the orphaned Merton departed from England for the Continent. Having walked through the French Riviera and suffered the humiliation of having to request more money from his guardian, Merton finally arrived in Rome, where he spent most of his time reading and visiting antiquities—as he describes it in his autobiography, free but miserable (SSM 106).

Eventually Merton found himself visiting old churches, fascinated (p.37) by the frescoes and Byzantine Christian mosaics, a world of art that celebrated Jesus as Logos, the Word spoken by the Father. These mosaics, he admits, “told me more than I had ever known of the doctrine of a God of infinite power, wisdom, and love Who had yet become Man” (SSM 110). As in his infancy, Merton was once again captivated by color, especially the startling mosaic of Christ coming in judgment in the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian across from the Forum. The “dark blue sky, with a suggestion of fire in the small clouds beneath His feet” must have yanked Merton’s memory to other natural and painted landscapes he had loved as a child. The contrast between the “vapid, boring, semi-pornographic statuary of the Empire” he had been looking at and this “art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power” was a moment of transformation (SSM 108). Merton admits he became a pilgrim to these churches, not yet seeking spiritual nourishment, but abandoning his adolescent malaise for the new awareness of and inner peace produced by religious art. His ability to see, to be awake to his surroundings, drew him to this world of Byzantine Christianity and its emphasis on Christ as Logos. With a nascent sense of homecoming, Merton began reading the Bible and extending his list of favorite churches—not yet experiencing a conversion, but laying the groundwork for another transforming moment of grace. That grace—a spiritual experience of his father, dead for more than two years—came one evening in Merton’s rented room.

In his autobiography Merton describes an awareness of his father’s presence in chiaroscuro terms that are reminiscent of the sharp contrasts of light and shadow in southern France. Merton recalls that the night was dark; the light in his room was on. Suddenly, the strong presence of Owen Merton “was as vivid and as real and as startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me…. I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul, and I was pierced deeply with a light that made me realize something of the condition I was in.” Through tears and prayer—for the first time ever “praying out of the very roots of my life and of my being, and praying to the God I had never known”—Merton begged God to “reach down towards me out of His darkness” to free him of (p.38) his shackles of selfishness. The next morning, impelled by the intensity of this experience, his “soul broken up with contrition,” Merton headed for the Dominican Church of Santa Sabina, one of his favorites, and walked “deliberately into the church with no other purpose than to kneel down and pray to God.” At the altar rail, with “all the belief” he had in him, Merton slowly recited the Our Father—a prayer he had not said since his childhood in Douglaston, Long Island. Then Merton looked about the church, revisited the room with a painting by Sassoferrato, and poked his head out the door overlooking a lovely garden “where the sun shone down on an orange tree.” Feeling reborn, Merton strolled to a nearby deserted church and a field where he sat “in the sun, on a wall and tasted the joy of my own inner peace” (SSM 111–13).

Why Santa Sabina for this dramatic moment of grace, one in a series of conversions that eventually led Merton to Catholicism and to the Trappist monastery? Having spent time looking at the setting and interior of this church, I want to suggest three possible reasons based on its natural geography and architecture: the intimacy of the Aventine Hill; the startling light in the nave; and the welcoming mosaics. The Church of Santa Sabina is reached by climbing a winding cobblestone street, suggestive of the seclusion offered by villages in southern France. Once inside the classical basilica with its original cypress doors, the visitor is immediately struck by the bright light from the clerestory—a startling contrast to the dark churches that dot the Roman cityscape. Both of these physical features may have been drawing cards for the orphaned and wandering Merton, evoking memories of Prades and the stirring light of southern France. In addition, the impressive fifth-century mosaics over the entrance doors are untainted by the later baroque influence on religious architecture. If, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry reminds us, it is only with the heart that one sees rightly, these mosaics depicting the Church of the Circumcised and the Church of the Gentiles may have been subtly signaling to Merton the welcoming possibility of inclusion and belonging. The art he had been enjoying for its color and light, combined with Merton’s “contemplative gazing” and receptivity to this hauntingly familiar landscape, (p.39) may have burst into new spiritual awareness—recognition of where his heart really needed to reside.

Barry Lopez’s preconditions for landscape to influence one’s imagination and create a deep sense of place are present in this startling episode: silence, intense feeling, and a recognition of the complex significance of an experience that goes beyond simple analysis.23 Surely Merton’s extended time by himself, as a child and now as a young man, orphaned and searching for focus, provided him with ample time for silence, awareness of his inner loneliness, and an affinity for the comfort of place. In Saint-Antonin Merton had begun to discover an inner spirituality, rudimentary, to be sure, but in Murat he learned to be a companion of place, achieving some inner relationship with and feeling for the hills. In Rome he experienced what Wordsworth called a “gentle shock of mild surprise,” an emotional intensity that both terrified and freed him because of its unexplainable and penetrating significance.24 In short, attentiveness to his surroundings—that is, being present and vulnerable to the details of landscape, the power of place—not only bolsters a habit of awareness, but also begins to create coherence between inner and outer geographies, between the external landscape and the landscape of the heart.

Prelude to the Monastery

This sequence of significant experiences of color, light, sound, and particular geographies became a handful of spiritual seeds germinating during Merton’s years at Columbia University. In New York City he was again immersed in color, shapes, and words. Frenetic activity and the late-night buzz of innovative ideas stimulated his thinking. In addition to classes and time spent drinking, listening to jazz, hanging out with friends—Bob Lax, Ed Rice, Ad Reinhardt, and Seymour Freedgood—Merton spent hours as a member of the literary and debating society, editor of the yearbook, and art editor for the Jester, the campus humor magazine. His cartoons of this period suggest a fertile mind, alive to shapes, contours, and quirks of the human animal.

Merton was also reading broadly and deeply. In addition to pivotal (p.40) books by Etienne Gilson (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy) and Aldous Huxley (Ends and Means), which opened his mind to the logic and mysticism of Catholicism, Merton met Mahanambrata Brahmachari in January 1938, a Hindu monk who encouraged him to investigate his own spiritual roots. Expanding his reading to include classic texts of Catholicism such as The Confessions of St. Augustine and The Imitation of Christ, Merton was also attracted to the life and work of William Blake, eventually writing his master’s thesis on Blake’s avant-garde theory of art. Surely several of Blake’s paradoxical proverbs from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” could have been guiding principles for Merton’s college life: “Without Contraries, there is no Progression” and “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”25 Merton’s deeply embedded interest in words is evident, too, in his fondness for the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his intent to write a doctoral dissertation on Hopkins’s poetry. His fascination with words extended into his summers, often spent at Bob Lax’s family cottage in Olean, New York, where Merton and his friends were each trying to write the great American novel. The hills of southwestern New York that Merton came to love for their beauty and peace, and their contrast to the urban concrete of New York City, must have reminded him of those halcyon days in France when he was free to read, write stories, and roam the countryside.

At this same time Merton was attracted to the Franciscan spirit of unity with nature and its respect for Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Shortly after his conversion to Roman Catholicism and baptism in Corpus Christi Church in November 1938, Merton felt drawn to the priesthood and considered joining the Franciscans. But when this path became a dead end, he accepted a teaching position at St. Bonaventure College (now University)—not out of reach for a visit to the World’s Fair in New York City and the intensity of seeing he called a kind of praying. At St. Bonaventure, Merton could immerse himself in the natural beauty of the Alleghany hills, words, jazz, and his newfound love for the Breviary (or Divine Office, now referred to as Liturgy of the Hours), reciting psalms at appointed hours of the day in unison with the praying monastic church. Often, in the “deep untrodden drifts [of snow] (p.41) along the wood’s edge, toward the river,” Merton recited the Hours under a canopy of trees that formed a “noiseless, rudimentary church,” causing him to reflect about this sacred space: “What miles of silences God has made in you for contemplation! If only people realized what all your mountains and forests are really for!” (SSM 309–10).

But Merton was edgy, looking for something to fill the hole in his orphan’s heart. At the suggestion of Dan Walsh, his former teacher-mentor at Columbia, Merton made a Holy Week retreat in 1941 at the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky. Merton was captivated—captivated by the beauty of the liturgy and by the rigor of the Trappist lifestyle. He believed that loving God meant giving all to God. Back at St. Bonaventure, struggling with what direction his life would take, he heard in his imagination the monastery tower bell signaling the end of night prayer. “The bell seemed to be telling me where I belonged—as if it were calling me home” (SSM 365). But herein lay a conundrum: Could Merton relinquish his love of nature—what he thought of as his Franciscan spirit—to become a Trappist? Merton’s journal entry for September 4, 1941, reveals his disquiet and eventual resolve:

One thing seems to be clear: that, when I was at Gethsemani, I nearly ruined my retreat with wondering whether or not it was possible I could even have a vocation to be a Trappist—and, if so, if I would be able to stand the discipline all my life…. The only answer to that is: there is nothing in the Trappist discipline to prevent you loving nature the way I meant it then and do now: loving it in God’s creation, and a sign of His goodness and Love…. All things that are, are good, just because they have being. Their being is a gift, and it is therefore a sign of love: God so loves all things that He creates them, and so loves us He gives us being, and so loves us that though in our murderous ingratitude we murder our loving being with our pride, then He recreates us, making His own Son flesh to dwell among us. (RM 399–400)

Merton here is making a distinction between creation—the “production” of God—and nature: all life forms in general. In subsequent years he would come to realize that an artificial dualism of subject/object is inadequate for his prayer and embrace. Yet at this moment in a gesture (p.42) of giving all to God, even before he officially entered the monastery, Merton destroyed many of his writings, believing that his new life of denial would be one of exile from the world. Ironically, Merton believed that once he was received into the monastery, his writing would come to an end. Fortunately for us, Abbot Dom Frederic Dunne recognized Merton’s gift for writing and requested the not-yet-thirty-year-old monk to write an account of his life and conversion.

Published in 1948, The Seven Storey Mountain became an instant best seller, was translated into multiple languages, and still today is readily available in bookstores in America, Europe, and Asia. One might say that Merton’s writing career was launched at the same time as his monastic career. But Merton had much to learn in both arenas. In both writing and monasticism his inherited dualistic view was challenged. He soon discovered that the idea of the “four walls of my new freedom,” celebrated in the concluding section of The Seven Storey Mountain, is paradoxically true (SSM 372). It is true that Merton exchanged his previously wild and undisciplined life of late-night drinking, jazz, and women for a more regulated lifestyle of prayer, labor, fasting, and mortification. But it is also true that Merton had yet to discover that God’s love cannot be contained or restrained behind cloister walls, and that freedom involves not merely renunciation of past excesses, but an expanded vision—a new level of awareness, of being awake to embrace an entire universe.

Some of this transformation toward expanded vision appears early in Merton’s journals. From a young academic who in 1941 wonders if he can love nature as a Trappist, Merton becomes a vowed member of the Order of Cistercians who, by 1948, has made peace with this wonderful gift from God. Seeds sown in childhood blossom into a new attitude that reveals a notable degree of integration of nature into his spirituality. For example, in his journal entry for the Feast of the Visitation, July 2, 1948, Merton describes not only the liturgical ceremony of Vigils the previous evening, but also the scenery beyond the refectory walls.

(p.43) Since it was a fast day, we weren’t long in the refectory in the evening, got out early and the sun was higher than it usually is in that interval, and I saw the country in a light that we usually do not see. The low-slanting rays picked out the foliage of the trees and highlighted a new wheatfield against the dark curtain of woods on the knobs that were in shadow. It was very beautiful. Deep peace. Sheep on the slopes behind the sheep barn…. I looked at all this in great tranquility, with my soul and spirit quiet. For me landscape seems to be important for contemplation … anyway, I have no scruples about loving it. (ES 215–16)

No scruples about loving it. Landscape important for contemplation. These two comments indicate that change—more precisely, a deepening awareness—is taking root in Merton. Some of his early contradictory viewpoints are dissolving; the monastic ideal of unifying all aspects of one’s life is beginning to take hold in his evolving spiritual consciousness. Moreover, what we notice about Merton’s comment here and in other journal entries is that he is not only looking at the tranquility of nature, but also beginning to recognize, respond to, and articulate the silence of the place. As the twentieth-century poet John Moffitt phrases this challenge:

  • To look at any thing … you must
  • Be the thing you see … You must enter in
  • To the small silences between
  • The leaves,
  • You must take your time
  • And touch the very peace
  • They issue from.26

Along with the challenge of integrating prayer, work, reading, and silence into a coherent monastic spirituality, Merton is allowing his early childhood love of nature, as well as the monastery landscape, to be a constructive force in shaping his imagination, entering into “small (p.44) silences between” and ultimately developing a sharply defined sense of place. And then, June 27, 1949: one small permission given by the abbot propels Merton into more exciting levels of awareness that not only transform and deepen his spiritual life, but also summon him to greater solitude and his final years in the hermitage.

June 27, 1949—A Turning Point

By reading Merton’s journals, one discovers that less than a year after admitting that landscape is important for contemplation, this monk is given permission to go beyond the confines of the cloister to walk and pray alone in the surrounding woods. As Jonathan Montaldo notes in Entering the Silence, one of the published volumes of Merton’s journals, June 27 is a pivotal date in Merton’s spiritual development. After this date the “expansiveness and depth” of Merton’s prose “breaks out beyond a past mental and physical confinement” (ES 328n43). Readers of the journals will sense in Merton’s writing a new “liberation, contentment, and heightened awareness” of his surroundings.27

Certainly the very length of the journal entry for June 27 indicates astonishing freedom and mounting excitement. Previous notations in Merton’s journal extend for approximately half a page; this entry comprises five pages, and nothing else is written until July 10. One can reasonably presume that in the interim Merton was delighting in his novel possibilities for contemplation and exploring his new freedom beyond four walls. His June 27 journal entry offers a measure of validation for this conjecture. Previously, Merton had been commenting about the rain, his devotion at Mass, the composition of Seeds of Contemplation, a monastic visitation by the order’s European superior, and—quite grumpily—the extra manual labor required even on feast days. Now, taken by surprise by this permission to pray outdoors beyond the cloister boundaries, Merton relishes his taste of new freedom: “And so I took advantage of it in the afternoon, although there was a wall of black sky beyond the knobs to the west, and you could hear thunder growling all the time in the distance. It was very hot and damp but there was a good wind coming from the direction of (p.45) the storm.” Merton then mentions how before chanting the office of None, he had dreamed of what it might be like in the new landscape, yet discovers the reality is even more satisfying. “First I stopped under an oak tree on top of the hill behind Nally’s and sat there looking out at the wide sweep of the valley and the miles of flat woods over toward the straight-line of the horizon where Rohan’s knob is. As soon as I get away from people the Presence of God invades me. And when I am not divided by being with strangers (in a sense anyone I live with will always remain a stranger), I am with Christ” (ES 328).

Invaded by God? Quite a startling metaphor, yet one that captures the intensity of his spiritual experience and the risk of transformation. After some reflection about how he often feels lonely in the midst of people, but never lonely when he is literally alone, Merton resumes describing the landscape and, in particular, the monastery from this new geographic perspective, which gives him an expanded sense of place. “Gethsemani looked beautiful from the hill. It made much more sense in its surroundings. We do not realize our own setting and we ought to: it is important to know where you are put on the face of the earth” (ES 329). Merton continues rhapsodizing about this geography he regards as an overwhelming gift:

If we only knew how to use this space and this area of sky and these free woods…. But this place was simply wonderful. It was quiet as the Garden of Eden. I sat on the high bank, under young pines, and looked out over this glen. Right under me was a dry creek, with clean pools lying like glass between the shale pavement of the stream, and the shale was as white and crumpled as sea-biscuit. Down in the glen were the songs of marvelous birds. I saw the gold-orange flame of an oriole in a tree. Orioles are too shy to come near the monastery. There was a cardinal whistling somewhere, but the best song was that of two birds that sounded as wonderfully as nightingales and their song echoed through the wood. I could not tell what they were. I had never heard such birds before. The echo made the place sound more remote and self-contained, more perfectly enclosed, and more like Eden. And I thought—“Nobody ever comes here!” The marvelous quiet! The sweet scent of the woods—the clean stream, the peace, the inviolate solitude! And to think that no one pays any attention to it. (ES 329)

(p.46) Using polysyndeton, the effective rhetorical device of multiple “ands” to underscore his distaste for not seeing the amazing beauty of the landscape, Merton laments, “It is there and we despise it, and we never taste anything like it with our fuss and our books and our sign-language and our tractors and our broken-down choir” (ES 329). Instead, his ability to go beyond mere looking, to really see his environment with a loving, contemplative gaze, transforms this outward glance into an inward glance and recognition of grace: “Everything inside me was swamped in a prayer that could not be quite pure because there was necessarily so much natural exultation…. To say I was happy is to say how far short the prayer was of perfection, but I was consciously and definitely and swimmingly happy, and I wonder how I ever stayed on the ground at all. The black clouds meanwhile piled up over the glen” (ES 330).

Returning to the monastery for Vespers through a “screen of woods,” Merton experiences a profound spiritual insight: “One thing I must say: both in the wood and especially on my way back, crossing an open hillock, all that I had tasted in solitude seemed to have a luminously intelligible connection with the Mass … my prayer in the wood was eminently the prayer of a priest…. Could I end up as something of a hermit-priest, of a priest of the woods or the deserts or the hills, devoted to a Mass of pure adoration that would put all nature on my paten in the morning and praise God more explicitly with the birds?” (ES 331). Despite another mention of his desire for more solitude as a Carthusian, Merton concludes this lengthy journal entry with a sincere prayer: “Sacred Heart, give me the humility to see this and use your graces to be satisfied. Teach me to let You [underlined twice] sanctify me, and do not let me spoil it by trying to change all Your [underlined twice] plans with my own stupid ideas and feelings” (ES 332).

This long and poignant journal entry illustrates how Merton builds on his early contact with color, shapes, and sounds and allows the power of landscape to access and influence his inner landscape. Merton, having gained a father figure in the abbot and a spiritual family in the Trappist community—poignantly missing from his early life—finds that roaming in the woods and the uncultivated land beyond the cloister creates yet another sacred place that enlarges his imagination, (p.47) stretches his consciousness, and invites him into deeper awareness and contemplation. The monastery grounds become, in one sense, another Prades in which to celebrate “Oh Sun! Oh joli!”; another Saint-Antonin, its “landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire”; another Murat and Rome, with wild woods and invitations to spiritual homecoming. Indeed, the woods and outlying territory of the monastery seem to offer Merton a geographic and emotional stability he had been longing for all his life. His deep-seated longing was being transformed into a deeply felt sense of belonging. How else to explain his elated disclosure a little more than a decade later in the hermitage he named St. Mary of Carmel: “The pines are tall and not low. There is frankly a house, demanding not attachment but responsibility. A silence for dedication and not for escape. Lit candles in the dusk. Haec requies mea in saeculum saeculi [This is my resting place forever]—the sense of a journey ended, of wandering at an end. The first time in my life I ever really felt I had come home and that my waiting and looking were ended” (TTW 79–80). How else to unlock the profound wisdom of his comment from the early 1960s as elaborated in Conjectures : “I belong to this parcel of land with rocky rills around it, with pine trees on it. These are the woods and fields that I have worked in, and walked in, and in which I have encountered the deepest mystery of my own life. And in a sense I never chose this place for myself, it was chosen for me” (CGB 257).

June 27, 1949, also represents the abbot’s wise recognition of Merton’s need to be in nature, his recognition of the potential for deeper prayer that contact with wilderness can stimulate, and an official invitation to savor a new awareness of both outer and inner landscapes. Indeed, two incidents in nature, recorded in Merton’s journals in early 1950, and one reflective experience of the dawn birds in the 1960s, reworked for Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, merit expanded discussion because they aptly illustrate how the habit of awareness—of really seeing—and the ability to respond to a graced moment transform and deepen Merton’s spirituality.


(1.) Messiah by George Frideric Handel was originally performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, during the Easter season. When it was brought to colonial America, performances were scheduled during the Christmas season, which inaugurated the tradition of performances being held at that time.

(2.) Emerson, “Nature,” 24.

(3.) Keats, “Letter to George and Thomas Keats,” Selected Poems and Letters, 260–61; see also “Letter to Richard Woodhouse,” ibid., 279–80.

(4.) Thoreau, Walden, 264.

(5.) Burroughs, “The Art of Seeing Things,” in Leaf and Tendril, 1–25; reprinted in McKibben, American Earth, 146–59.

(6.) Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 187.

(7.) Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love. Thomas Aquinas is quoted in Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, 115.

(8.) O’Collins and Farrugia, A Concise Dictionary of Theology, 231.

(9.) Weil, Waiting for God, xxxi.

(10.) Hieb, Inner Journeying through Art-Journaling, 59, 87.

(11.) Nepo, The Book of Awakening, 54–55.

(12.) Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” 39.

(13.) Merton, No Man Is an Island, 33.

(14.) Burroughs, “The Art of Seeing Things,” in McKibben, American Earth, 151–52.

(15.) Nepo, The Book of Awakening, 54.

(16.) Hieb, Inner Journeying through Art-Journaling, 88, 33.

(17.) Waldron, Thomas Merton: Master of Attention, 25; Hieb refers to this commitment to transformation as a “contract with delight” in Inner Journeying through Art-Journaling, 87.

(18.) Lopez, “A Literature of Place,” 23–25.

(19.) Hieb, Inner Journeying through Art-Journaling, 22.

(20.) Ruth Merton, Tom’s Book, n.p. All quotations referring to this early period of Merton’s life are from this handset, unpaginated, and limited edition of Ruth Jenkins Merton’s account of her son’s early years.

(21.) Lopez, “A Literature of Place,” 24.

(22.) In June 2002 the principal of the Collège Ingres presented Donald Grayston with a photocopy of the program for the annual scholastic awards. At the end of the 1926–1927 academic year, Thomas Merton received recognition on the Tableau D’Honneur (honor roll) as well as prizes for English, gymnastics (first prize in his age group) and escrime (fencing). At the end of the 1927–1928 academic year, Merton received recognition on the Tableau de Satisfaction (a lower ranking than the previous year) and prizes for French language, history/geography, and dessin artistique et modelage (drawing and modeling).

(23.) Lopez, “A Literature of Place,” 25.

(24.) Wordsworth, The Prelude, book 5, line 382.

(25.) Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” 34–35.

(26.) Moffitt, “To Look at Any Thing,” 21.

(27.) Shannon, Bochen, and O’Connell, The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, 319.