This is the fifth sermon in our Lenten series on the Christian mystics called “A Voice to Call Us Home.” An audio version of the sermon is available here.
It came as a surprise to me when, in my early 30s, I felt drawn to becoming a monk. I was, by then, partnered with Jerome and so knew I wasn’t going to really be a monk, but I felt drawn to that life — to its simplicity, to the silence, the solitude, to the focus on what mattered. I was blessed during that time to find Hesed, an urban monastery in Oakland started by a female Benedictine monk that was devoted to the practice and teaching of Christian meditation. I became an oblate, or a committed member, of Hesed. As part of my commitment, I took vows, just like monks do. One of my vows was to what is called, in Latin, conversatio morum — ongoing conversion throughout one’s life, ongoing receptivity to transformation by the Spirit of God— which is really the one thing necessary, to quote Jesus from our scripture for today. Throughout this time, the monk Thomas Merton was my spiritual guide, a man so completely unlike me but someone whom also longed for the one thing necessary, who had also taken a vow of conversatio morum.
Merton was born in England on the cusp of World War I, and he experienced a lot of loss in the first years of his life. His mother dies of cancer when he was 6. He’s shuttled back and forth between grandparents on Long Island and his painter father, who sometimes lives in Bermuda, sometimes France. His father enrolls Merton in a French boarding school when he is 11 and suffers a lingering death during Merton’s teenage years. Merton deals with this loss and lack of rootedness by engaging in alcoholic binges and sexual excess.
Not longer after his father’s death, an orphan at 18, Merton travels to Rome. As one biographer writes, “He is searching for meaning and stability after the trauma of losing both parents. He has been victimized in ways he finds confusing by his mother’s coldness and his father’s indifferent parenting.” And then one night, in his room, he senses his father’s presence. That presence “seems to summon him from a life of… self-indulgence to a life of deeper meanings and mystical connections…. He prays and weeps and reaches out for all that he has lost and for all he yet to gain.” This first “conversion” experience changes Merton. Although he does not know know how to fashion a life of deeper meaning, he is now on a spiritual quest.
At Columbia University in New York, Merton finds mentors and friends, who guide him into reading philosophy and theology. He begins attending a Catholic church and finds there the life of deeper meaning in community to which his father’s presence seemed to be summoning him. He converts to Catholicism. He teaches literacy in Harlem, composition at a Franciscan college. He contemplates becoming a Franciscan brother. He is, according to another biographer, Jane Brox, “ an unfailingly social soul, loving discussion and engagement in the world of ideas.” He has absolutely no interest in becoming a monk. The idea of silence was utterly foreign to him and he imagines monasticism as a cold, cruel kind of life lived alone.
But his mentor at Columbia encourages him to go to Gethsemani monastery in West Virginia and do a retreat there. At this point, he is 26 years old and exhausted by the uncertainty of his life, by its inability to take a shape that feels right to him. In addition, the world was on the cusp of World War II. It was a turbulent, chaotic time. He sits in mass for the first time at Gethsemani Abbey and has his next conversion experience — the one Sarah mentioned in her introduction. In the face of the chaos of his own life and of a world descending into war, he was “entranced by the… traditions and ceremonies that had been carried forward nearly unchanged since the Middle Ages; by the solemnity, the psalms, the ritual, the sense of the eternal that he found there” (Brox). There, Merton felt, was a way of life that seemed to offer him everything he was seeking — a peace the world could not give.
He goes home and dismantles his life. He gives everything he owns to charity, and throws his three finished and one half-finished novel into the incinerator. He comes to the doors of Gethsemani Abbey empty-handed. There, he hopes to dissolve into the silence, into God. There, he thinks, he will escape the “chaotic world for one of contemplation, introspection and calm” (Brox).
But Merton takes a vow of conversatio morum, a vow of being open to constant transformation by the Spirit of God. Instead of being the anonymous monk he longs to be, his Abbott — who recognizes that Merton has a gift for writing that could be a force for good in the world — encourages him to write. Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, becomes an unexpected huge bestseller in the late 1940s. It is still cited today as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Hundreds of young men — some of them psychically and physically ravaged by the war — flock to monasteries after they read his book. Merton’s story of his quest for meaning, for a life of simplicity in community, electrifies a society that was beginning to descend into post-war consumer capitalism and individualism, a society that had made the Soviet Union the big bad other and was stockpiling nuclear weapons, enough to blow up the world several times over.
Merton becomes one of the best known writers of his time and eventually writes over 50 books. He can barely keep up with all the letters spiritual seekers writing to him, all the articles that editors want him to write for various publications. In fact, his life as a monk becomes so pressured and so full of demands, he finds it hard to find the silence and solitude for which he originally entered the monastery. A decade after becoming a monk, he petitions his Abbot to allow him to become a hermit — someone who would live apart from community, in his own space. He is granted that petition, and he begins living in a small toolshed on the grounds of the monastery.
But from that toolshed, from that even deeper silence, he is drawn even more deeply into the heart of God, and from that heart, he is able to see even more clearly what is going on in the world around him, how it is not the world God intends. And he realizes that silence in the face of what he sees would be a form of complicity. Through the public megaphone his writing gives him, he begins to “openly criticize the buildup of the nuclear arsenal and Cold War tensions. He writes in support of Civil Rights” (Brox). He becomes a critic of the Vietnam War before even Martin Luther King Jr. He becomes drawn to the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism and begins participating in interreligious dialogue with monks from other traditions. This sounds tame now, but it was radical back then. The Christian church did not have a corner on religious truth. Shocking! Because he is a monk, all his manuscripts have to be screened by religious censors to make sure his writing doesn’t contain moral or doctrinal errors. The censors forbid him from writing about the Vietnam War and racial justice. So, Merton finds ways to elude the censors and still get his writing on these issues out through other means.
He realizes that there is no withdrawal from the world, no escape from it — not for any of us, not for him. He sees that his monastery is deeply implicated in the economic, political, and social structures of the world. But what the monastic life does give him is a spiritual separation from the lies of that world. He writes — and just think – this was in the 1960s, way pre-Internet! — “The contemplative (or mystical) life should liberate and purify the imagination which passively absorbs all kinds of things without our realizing it; liberate and purify it from the influence of so much violence done by the bombardment of social images. There is a kind of contagion that affects the imagination unconsciously much more than we realize. It emanates from things like advertisements and from all the spurious fantasies that are thrown at us by our commercial society. These fantasies are deliberately intended to exercise a powerful effect on our conscious and subconscious minds. They are directed right at our instincts and appetites and there is no question but that they exercise a real transforming power on our whole psychic structures. The contemplative life would liberate us from that kind of pressure, which is really a form of tyranny” (from Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations by Matthew Fox).
He sees that not even the activist — who sees the violence of the world — is immune from the lies of the world. He writes: “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
He writes, “The monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures, somebody who says, in one way or another, that the claims of the world are fraudulent” (Fox book). A monk is someone, rather, who keeps grounding their life in the one thing necessary: conversatio morum. As the monk goes deeper into the heart of God, they strip away their own attachments to false security, false safety, false fear, false ego. They free themselves more and more from the lies of the world, the world’s violence and materialism and competition and consumerism. They become more and more their True Self, to use Merton’s phrase. He believed that conversatio morum was a process of divesting ourselves from our false self so we could become our True Self — and as we became closer to that True Self, we came closer to the True God. Merton came to believe that this work of ongoing conversion, this pursuit of the one thing necessary was what everyone was called to, not just monks.
Or rather: Everyone is called to be a monk. We are called to incinerate all that keeps us from our True Selves We are called to come, empty-handed, to the place where we enter deeply into the heart of God. We are called to be separate from the world, from its lies, its violence, and to be immersed in the rhythms of the eternal. We are all called to take a vow of conversatio morum, to commit to the one thing necessary. May it be so, and may brother Merton guide us.
Children’s Story by Danny Gerard
Thomas Merton was a man dedicated to seeking God. When he was a kid, his life was chaotic. World War I was raging, and both his parents died before he grew up. All that pain and chaos left Thomas feeling confused about life and uncertain about his purpose. Eventually, he moved from England to New York, where he studied religion in college. During his studies, he decided to become a monk. When Thomas Merton became a monk, he made sacred promises to God. He promised to spend his life serving God and seeking spiritual truth. To help the monks focus on their mission, the monks lived separately from most people in a place called a monastery.
Living in a monastery was a lot to get used to. Silence was encouraged, but talking was allowed sometimes if you felt that you had something very important to say. This rule encouraged the monks to think carefully before they spoke. Even though the monks didn’t talk much, they did almost everything together. They ate their meals together, they prayed together, and they did their chores together. Silent or not, all the time spent with the other monks was stressful for Thomas Merton. He felt sure that God wanted him to write books, but most days he was too busy with his chores to write more than a few sentences.
One sunny day in early spring, Thomas finished the laundry early. He was all alone out in a field, surrounded by clotheslines that hung heavy with clean robes. He looked around, and for once, there was not a single monk in sight. Finally, he’d have some time alone to write. Across the field, there was an abandoned shed where nobody would look for him. Inside the shed, there was a desk made from sturdy oak that faced a modest window. It was the perfect place to write. Thomas Merton pulled out the tiny notebook that he carried everywhere and started to work.
He’d only meant to write for a few minutes, but once he started writing, he always lost track of time. He couldn’t help it. The monastery fell away as he stepped into a world of ideas. Images from the past and present swirled through his mind and took shape on the page.
Some time later, there was movement in the window, and Thomas looked up from his work. He saw a robed figure walking across the field, approaching his shed. It was the abbot! The Abbot was the priest in charge of the whole monastery, so Thomas Merton did not want him to see the writing and think that he was avoiding hard work. He looked around the shed for someplace to hide. There was an old sofa in the back corner, but it smelled weird and looked like it had been chewed up by an angry wolf. Perhaps it was better to face the abbot and be honest.
Thomas Merton stood up and walked outside to meet the abbot. He was surprised to see that the abbot was smiling.
“Do you like the shed?” the abbot asked.
“It’s pretty nice for a shed,” Thomas Merton replied.
“I’ve noticed you sneaking off to write,” the abbot said, “And I’ve decided that you should have a space where you can work alone. I put a new desk in this shed so you can make it your office. Writing is not a chore, but it is work that could help the monastery. If you write about God and the things that you’ve learned here, then writing could be a way for you to follow your vows. If you have a gift, you should use it to serve God.”
Thomas Merton was surprised and pleased. He was happy to finally have a space of his own, even if it was unconventional. He eventually wrote more than fifty books, and many of them became bestsellers. All the revenue from the book sales went back to the monastery, and the abbot was repaid many times over for his wise decision to encourage Thomas Merton’s writing. The silence of the shed helped him to focus and listen carefully for the wisdom of God.