One of four “great Americans” Pope Francis mentioned when he spoke to Congress, Thomas Merton entered the Church at age twenty-three and the monastery at age twenty-six. (The three mentioned were Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) He stayed at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist community, until his death in 1968. There he was known as Fr. Louis. Written at the urging of his abbot, his classic autobiography and conversion story The Seven Storey Mountain appeared in 1948, and has reportedly sold over a million copies in the sixty years since.
As a writer of dozens of books on many subjects Merton influenced the Church in America and was also widely read by non-Catholics. In addition to his writing on monasticism and the spiritual life, he wrote a lot about Catholic social witness and later in his life on eastern religions. Francis called him “above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
The insights are taken from diary entries in Merton’s The Sign of Jonas.
Dying Young, or Dying Old
I used to think it would be a good thing to die young and die quickly, but now I am beginning to think a long life with much labor and suffering for God would be the greater grace. However in concreto the greater grace for each individual is the one God wills for him. If God wills you to die suddenly, that is a greater grace for you than any other death, because it is the one He has chosen, by His love, with all the circumstances of your life and His glory in view.
Preparing for Death Badly
Yet there is a sinful way of being prepared to die: to live in the midst of life, at the source of life, and to feel in your heart that cold taste for death that is almost ready to refuse life — the dead rot of acedia that cast out your substance with discouragement and fear!
Care for the Dying
When Dom Gabriel Sortais (he is our new Abbot General) came back again last month and made another Visitation, he told us to make rooms opening on the infirmary chapel so that the partition can be rolled back and the very sick monks, the dying monks, can hear Mass from their beds. I do not stop to ask myself if I shall die in such a bed, or in any bed at all. It means another year of cement mixers and air compressors in the yard outside this window, where I no longer have time to write books and where my spiritual children come to talk about God. But if the cement mixers mean that someone who is dying can hear Mass in bed it is all right with me.
We tend to think of “the martyrs” as men of a different stamp from ourselves, men of another age, bred in another atmosphere, men somehow stronger and greater than we. But it turns out that we too are expected to face the same sufferings and confess Christ and die for Him. We who are not heroes are the ones God is choosing to share the lot of His great warriors. And one look into our own souls tells us that there is nothing there that invites the combats of the mighty saints. There is nothing magnificent about us. We are miserable things and if we are called upon to die we shall die miserably. There is nothing of grandeur about us. We are null.
And perhaps we are already marked for sacrifice — a sacrifice that will be, in the eyes of the world, perhaps only drab and sorry and mean. And yet it will end by being our greatest glory after all. Perhaps there is no greater glory than to be reduced to insignificance by an unjust and stupid temporal power, in order that God may triumph over evil through our insignificance.
The bier, the black open box with long handles in which we carry our dead out behind the Church and bury them, is parked in the drying room and I look at it on purpose every time I go by to remind myself of the happy day when, please God, I will go home.
The text of The Sign of Jonas can be found here. For an Evangelical’s appreciation of Merton’s life and work, see Alan Jacobs’ “Thomas Merton, the Monk Who Became a Prophet,” published in The New Yorker.