By Lisa Rosenlund,
Saint Brendan Parish Manager
Each week, we summarize a specific style, form, or approach to prayer, using the highly-acclaimed book by Robert J. Wicks, Prayer in the Catholic Tradition: A Handbook of Practical Approaches (Franciscan Media 2006). Part Four of Wicks’ book is entitled “Praying with Classic and Contemporary Spiritual Guides.” In this article, you’ll learn more about prayer in the tradition of Thomas Merton.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk considered by many to be the most significant Christian writer of the twentieth century. His bestselling spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, is the modern equivalent of that of Saint Augustine. Pope Francis has said that Merton was one of the great American spiritual teachers. (371)
Merton’s teachings about prayer only make sense in the context of his life as he changed and grew spiritually. Born in 1915, Merton had a traumatic childhood, having lost his mother at age six. His father, who died when Merton was sixteen, travelled frequently, leaving Merton and his brother with relatives. A year after Merton entered the monastery at age twenty-six, his brother died as well, leaving him alone in the world.
After his father died, Merton roamed around Europe, where he had two pivotal religious experiences. The first was in Rome when he was drawn into the beauty of the mosaics of Christ depicted in the churches. The second was a vision of his father when Merton was praying in his room one night. These experiences formed the spark that grew into a flame when Merton converted to Catholicism.
After his wanderings, Merton attended Cambridge and led a life of debauchery that most scholars believe produced a child born out of wedlock. He was sent to New York to finish out his studies at Columbia where he ultimately received a master’s degree in literature. Merton’s bad behavior continued at Columbia until he met a friend who guided him spiritually and later also became a priest. Merton was baptized as a Catholic in 1938 and became a monk in 1941.
Merton spent most of his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The first ten years were spent in solitude and traditional prayer. It was during this period that he produced some of his finest works. He yearned for even greater solitude, as he put it, “to disappear into God,” and at one point considered joining a more austere Order.
In 1951 Merton became a Master of Scholastics and gradually began to break away from his closed monastic structure to embrace the outside world. He was inspired by the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and came to a new awareness of God’s presence in other people. Merton also developed an interest in other religious traditions and his spiritual doctrine evolved to integrate Eastern and Western prayer practices.
Wicks sums up Merton’s practical approach to prayer in his directives to keep your mind silent, reflect on the awe of God’s creation as you encounter it in your everyday life, and stay close to God, who loves you and will never leave you to face your perils alone.
Saint Brendan Church in San Francisco. Check out our exciting featured news articles.