Thomas Merton’s Desert

There are many faces of Thomas Merton, even if we are only looking at his considerable literary output: poet, mystical theologian, incisive social commentator, prolific correspondent, tireless diarist, inter-faith pioneer, gifted amateur photographer, translator and editor (Clement of Alexandria), writer of introductions (Fenelon), teacher and scholar of monasticism. This latter category may be one of his less well-known areas but is well represented in his excellent book of essays, Monastic Journey and in his more recently published novice conferences, where he shows an extraordinary and wide-ranging knowledge of early and medieval monasticism.

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Much better known is his excellent translation of a selection of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Wisdom of the Desert. It’s a notable book both for its early popularising of the desert tradition and for its two prefaces; the one he wrote and the one that didn’t make it past the censors by the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki. The latter showed his instinct for what is now rather clumsily called inter-spirituality – the meeting of religions at the point where they concern the disciplined exploration of unnameable things in silence. The Suzuki piece did eventually see the light of day in a later publication, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, but for today, the anniversary of Merton’s death in 1968, I want to offer a couple of small nuggets from Merton’s published introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert which get to the heart of Merton’s approach to the spiritual life.

Speaking of the key desert notion of ‘rest’ or ‘quies’, Merton describes this as being:

Simply the sanity and poise of a being that no longer has to look at itself because it is carried away by the perfection of freedom that is in it. And carried where? Wherever Love itself, or the Divine Spirit, see fit to go. Rest, then, was a kind of simple no-whereness and no-mindedness that had lost all preoccupation with a false or limited ‘self’. At peace in the possession of a sublime ‘Nothing’ the spirit laid hold, in secret, upon the ‘All’ – without trying to know what it possessed.

Wisdom of the Desert p. 8

Merton was keen to demystify this way of being in the world and saw ‘rest’ as a less convoluted or exalted way of talking about ‘contemplation’, affording ‘less occasion for spiritual narcissism or megalomania.’ For the desert monks, quies was a state of inner tranquility hard-won in the daily struggles of the desert and carried with them into every action in life – in their manual work and most vitally in their dealings with other people. This tranquil and non-judging attitude towards others is a constant feature of the Sayings and is well-expressed in the following, as translated by Merton:

A certain brother inquired of Abbot Pastor, saying: What shall I do? I lose my nerve when I am sitting alone at prayer in my cell. The elder said to him: Despise no one, condemn no one, rebuke no one, God will give you peace and your meditation will be undisturbed.

Wisdom of the Desert p. 40

Although himself a restless person in many ways, Merton was also one who sought to foster quies through unceasing prayer, solitude and conversion of heart. On the day he entered his heavenly resting-place, we honour this latter-day desert monk who explored the place of tranquility within, the point vierge that is ‘stillness, silence, the virginal point of pure nothingness that is the centre of all loves.’

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