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Father Muench Says...

Profound influence of Thomas Merton

February 4, 2015

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

Thomas Merton would have turned 100 years old this year if he were still alive.

I hope that you remember Thomas Merton.  I write often about him – his writings have had a profound influence on me.  Merton was a Trappist monk who is well known because of his many books and writings on the spiritual life and contemplative prayer.

I was in high school when I first discovered Thomas Merton.  Someone encouraged me to read, “The Seven Story Mountain,” the first book Merton published, in 1959.  This was shortly after he had entered the monastery in 1951. 

Many were quite surprised that this book, about his young life, his entrance into the Catholic Church, and his entrance into the monastery, would become a best seller.  However, such it was – everyone was reading it.

Merton wrote many books over the years as well as articles and essays.  They are still good reading, pertinent to most everyone’s life despite the fact that Merton died in 1969. He also was a letter writer and carried on an extensive correspondence from the monastery. His letters that have been published fill several volumes.
I was quite taken by Merton way back in high school so I began investigating the Trappist Order and the life of a monk.

I remember talking my father into driving me out to visit the Abbey of the Genesee, a Trappist Monastery near Rochester.

I remember writing my high school senior term paper on the Trappist’s and Thomas Merton.  Miss Conklin was very surprised.

I want to share with you a few ideas that Merton wrote about.

To begin with, Merton often wrote about God’s great love for us all.  He writes this, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love.  Love is my true identity.  Selflessness is my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name.”

I have preached often on God’s love for us all. Merton sees that that means that we consider our whole existence is love. Our love gives us an identity, a true identity.  Love must be so much of who we are – that love is my name.

Merton writes a great deal about love and what love means. This monk was not isolated from the reality and importance of relationships mean life. 

He writes, "The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves and not to trust them to fit our own image.”

Am I open in my relationships – letting those who are close to me to be themselves?

Merton often wrote about his vocation as a monk which leads me to understand my own vocation.  I am certain that his writings had quite an influence on my own vocation. 

Merton writes this, “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.  Vocation does not come from a voice out there calling me to be something I am not.  It comes from a voice in here calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original self-given me at birth by God.”

Even at this age, I continue to try and understand my own vocation.  I have thought about why I became a priest over the years.  I have tried to make sense of it so that I could share it with others, in hopes that they might consider entering the priesthood or religious life. 

In this quote, Merton adds to the discussion of some important ideas.  Vocation is not some sort of call from a God who far away – an impersonal God off in space somewhere.  Rather it demands an understanding of how truly blessed a person is, helping him or her to see, “the treasure of their true self” a self that is already possessed.

That call that is vocation is God leading individuals to discover who they are – who they were born to be – a self-given person at birth by God. 

Thus, Merton adds, “A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live.

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