Thomas Merton on Silence
An excerpt from A Way to God by Matthew Fox
Even though he passed away in 1968 at the young age of 53, the pioneering ideas that Trappist monk and social justice activist Thomas Merton shared throughout his lifetime are still very much alive. So much so that Pope Francis recently declared him one of four exemplary Americans who provide wisdom for us today — along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, and Dorothy Day.
Pope Francis is not alone in his deep regard for the contributions Merton made to the history of spirituality. In his new book A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey (New World Library, May 12, 2016), bestselling author and theologian Matthew Fox celebrates Merton’s work and explains how thirteenth century mystic Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced both Merton and Creation Spirituality, which Fox has long espoused and written about.
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book about Merton’s perspective on silence.
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What does Thomas Merton have to say about silence? A lot. Consider the following poem:
Listen to the stones of the wall
Be silent, they try
To speak your
To the living walls.
Are you? Whose
Silence are you?
Such an invitation! To listen to the stones of the living walls and learn who one is, to whom one belongs. I cannot read this poem without thinking of a sweat lodge where, thanks to the ancient wisdom of the indigenous peoples, a ceremony is created wherein the rocks themselves, the oldest beings on earth and our elders, speak to us when they are heated up and glowing. I do not know if Merton ever experienced a sweat lodge, but I remain profoundly grateful for the numerous ones I have been blessed to attend. And in them all, silence is honored.
Another poem by Merton speaks to silence as well.
World is secretly on fire. The stones
Burn, even the stones
They burn me. How can a man be still or
Listen to all things burning? How can he dare
To sit with them when
All their silence
Is on fire?
Here, too, Merton evokes a sweat lodge. But he is also speaking to a profound truth revealed in postmodern science, which is that every atom in the universe contains photons or light waves. Thus, all atoms and all beings are on fire. All beings are a burning bush. One does not have to travel to Mount Sinai to encounter the Divine in a burning bush — every bush is a burning bush, every leaf, every stone, every fish, every bird, and every person. We are all on fire. But we have to “sit with them” and be receptive to them. We have to dare to sit and to listen. We have to dare silence. That is the contemplative way. Merton says: “Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy.” All beings are, in Eckhart’s words, “words of God and revelations of God.” Merton knew this as well. But it takes silence to grasp it.
For Eckhart, emptying the mind is:
the most powerful prayer, one almost omnipotent to gain all things, and the noblest work of all is that which proceeds from a bare mind….A bare mind can do all things. What is a bare mind? A bare mind is one which is worried by nothing and is tied to nothing, which has not bound its best part to any modes, does not seek its own in anything, that is fully immersed in God’s dearest will and goes out of its own.
A bare mind dwells in the now. Merton advises us to “love winter when the plant says nothing.” Even nature enjoys darkness and solitude. Winter is that Via Negativa time of the year.
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Matthew Fox is the author of over 30 books including Meister Eckhart, The Hidden Spirituality of Men, Christian Mystics, and most recently A Way to God. A preeminent scholar and popularizer of Western mysticism, he became an Episcopal priest after being expelled from the Dominican Order by Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. You can visit him online at www.matthewfox.org.
Excerpted from the book A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creative Spirituality Journey. Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Fox. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com