Dom Michael Casagram, ocso
Prior of Gethsemani (USA)
Dom Thomas Merton,
Monk of Gethsemani
When I encountered Merton, Fr Louis, as a simply professed monk, I did not know what to expect, though I had read some of his books. Having entered originally at Holy Cross Abbey in Virginia in 1961, I only arrived at Gethsemani in August of 1964. My first encounters with him were with one immersed in the everyday life of the community, with one who was the novice director at the time.
Recently here at Gethsemani, we read at Vigils a selection from Merton’s writings on the Nativity Kerygma that I would like to quote:
In its prayer, the Church plunges us into the light of God shining in the darkness of the world, in order that we may be illuminated and transformed by the presence of the newborn Savior, and thus that he may be born and truly live in us by making all our thoughts and actions light in himself.
These words sum up for me the person of Merton and what I saw him trying to allow happen in all that he undertook or sought to accomplish. When one attended his conferences, which the junior monks did along with the novices, one quickly became aware of how engaging he was as a teacher. Not only was he well prepared through what he had read and taken careful notes of, he wanted all those present to experience what he had come to see and understand. He did this by asking pointed questions about his material. If no one responded and usually there were 20-30 listeners, he would give us a clue as to what the answer might be and wait. He was a master of opening minds and hearts to the wisdom he had come to make his own.
Having been given, not long after my arrival, the job of mimeographing his latest writing in the form of articles or new manuscripts, I was exposed to the freshness of his thinking. I remember a scholar friend of his saying that Merton did not know what he really thought about something until he put it on paper. In this sense Merton was clearly an extrovert in terms of getting it out there so that so as to formulate what was really going on in his mind and heart. Others have commented on how gifted Merton was as a writer and I believe this is one of the most telling or revealing aspects of his person, his masterfulness with the written word.
In September of 2016, Fr Bernardo Bonowitz, OCSO gave a talk at the Congress of Abbots during which he said:
The Word of God generates communion. The presence of the Word of God in the monastic church and the promise of its proclamation summon the monks to the church, to be with the God who reveals Himself. The reading of the Word of God in the liturgy is a unifying personal encounter; it unites us to Him who speaks and unites us to each other as those who love Him and wish to be present to hear Him. This unity in the listening of God reveals himself in His word and precedes all merely human and social considerations of communion. God in His Word is the source of our communion.
Merton had a profound sense of the power of the Word, the Word spoken in the Scriptures but also, that spoken by so many gifted writers of all time. Merton had been deeply formed by the inspired Word, a Word he found to be living and active in the outstanding writers not only in the long Benedictine/Cistercian tradition but in many of the 20th century. His appreciation of such writers as Albert Camus, Etienne Gilson, William Faulkner, Karl Barth, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Day, Jacques Maritain, to name only a few, is well known. Merton had a sense of the power of the word like few others I have ever known.
Such writers as Czeslaw Milosz saw the existential poverty of the human condition as above all “a poverty of enslavement to self-love, inevitably predatory and self-serving. Merton begins with a different revelation altogether. For him, what characterizes the human community before all else is ‘the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship.’ Merton calls this interior diamond light that hides in all things the hidden ground of love, le point vierge, that inner spark where all creation awakens the slumber of non-being to participate in the life-story of God.”
This closely aligns with the earlier quotation from Merton above, where he spoke of God coming to “be born and truly alive in us.” It is this experience of Merton that is, it seems to me, his finest contribution to our monastic communities and to all those exposed to his writings. It calls us continually to realize our own potential as children of God. Merton was not afraid to explore his own humanity in all its weakness and fragility, for mysteriously he found there the greatness of God’s love for him as the source of all that is true and authentic. To be still so as to know God is God seems to have been the mantra that governed Merton’s life. Certainly in the stillness of his own monastic life, he discovered far more than he had ever hoped or imagined.
He is inviting us today as much as he did in his own day, to let ourselves experience the “diamond light that hides in all things the hidden ground of love...where all creation awakens..to participate in the life-story of God.” We have only to be fully present to the moment, to let ourselves recall, as St Benedict reminds us, that we are always seen by God, that our actions “everywhere are in God’s sight and are reported by angels at every hour.”(RB 7:13)
Merton welcomed this communion with the divine through the whole of his life, imperfect as he was. By doing so he has opened this horizon of countless others.
 SEASONS OF CELEBRATION, by Thomas Merton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) pp. 108-09.
 Monastic Bulletin, Alliance for International Monasticism, 2016, No. 111, pp. 31-2.
 MERTON ANNUAL, 2015 Centenary Edition (Fons Vitae) Vol. 27, pp. 61-2.