In the silent halls of Benedictine monasteries, there is often an elephant in the room whenever Thomas Merton is mentioned. It goes something like this: Merton had the same kind of thoughts every monk has, he just took the time to write them down and got famous.
Of course, Merton’s writings played a key part in driving me to enter monastic life, so the value of his writings shouldn’t be taken for granted. Likewise, his adventurous personality and sensual appetites no doubt match up much closer to my own proclivities than the average monk’s steadfast consistency.
Merton’s prodigious literary output, too, across mediums and topic areas, is something difficult for any writer, living or present, to match.
However, let’s not forget to give thanks for all of the silent monks across the globe, who have developed a depth of experience no less valuable than the one Merton shares in his contemplative writings, yet have disappeared into the holy history of Silence unnamed.
I have sometimes found less verbal monks to be more profound with their spiritual wisdom than anything I’ve read in Merton’s books, and their wisdom may well be a direct result of their lack of talking and constant writing. Henri Nouwen encountered part of this phenomenon as well, in his classic tome, The Genesee Diary: Report From A Trappist Monastery, when a monk catches him off-guard with his comments in regards to Merton.
Apparently, according to one hermit Nouwen meets, who lives a life a silent solitude, Merton had very little solitude, comparatively speaking. He was always writing, giving speeches, and travelling outside his hermitage, while other Cistercian hermits were truly hermits: that’s why we’ve never heard of them.
However, Merton himself struggled with his own vocation and success, and he frequently noted the pendulum swing between words and silence, perhaps realizing that words were limiting his mystic ascent. It was often his monastic superiors that had to persuade him to use his gift and write; before monastic life, he was in grad school in literature – something that can make anyone become exhausted with words.
The tension between words and silence is a key challenge for anyone interested in the contemplative way. There have been plenty of times when I haven’t wanted to open my mouth or lift a pen ever again. And even when I experience a good amount of vocal silence, solitary writing can increase the volume of the words within.
In writing-intensive times, it often becomes much more difficult to commit myself to silent prayer and meditation. And when I finally do return to the silence, it takes me longer to actually find the Silence. Words seem to echo in my head for hours, and in the midst of a churning inner dialogue, I have to sometimes work hard to convince myself to continue in contemplation. The instinct is to stop meditating and write down all the ideas coming to me. At a certain point, the talk, both inner and outer, must be turned off in order to hear the sacred quiet, which is the doorway into God’s Palace. This can be a challenge, even when no one else is in the room.
A well-balanced collection Merton’s writings on contemplative life, faith, and Christian Mysticism can be found at the link below.