The Creation Mystic: Thomas Merton’s Invitation to Know Living Things

(Photo: America Magazine)

By Carol Gonzalez

“Be a Gardener. Dig a ditch. Toil and sweat. Turn the earth upside down. And seek the deepness. Water plants in time. Continue this labor and make noble and abundant fruits to spring. Take this food and drink, and carry it to God as your true worship.” – Julian of Norwich, 14th c.

It’s been said that we’ll only save what we love, and Thomas Merton -like the medieval mystics before him – has helped generations of seekers to discover the sacred, living in loving communion with God, with the natural world, and with one another. Defying categories, “Merton is like a city with twelve gates, any one of those gates you could pass through,” observes Jim Forest of the scope and breadth of issues that Merton addressed in a vast body of work: war, racism, workers’ rights, poverty, theology, contemplative spirituality, as well as nature as a manifestation of the divine. If Merton were alive today, he’d be as focused on climate change realities as he was on the existential nuclear threat of his Cold War era.

At the heart of Merton’s ecological passion was the desire to be rooted in a place and to know “the vestige of God in [God’s] creatures” – that is, to know the reconciliation of all things in a place, to reveal the presence of God in creation. Merton sought to bring the whole of his being, his inner geography as a mystic, into reconciliation with the geography of the Kentucky landscape to which he had been called as a Trappist monk. Life in the monastery seeks to hold together two apparent opposites: a vocation to solitude and an interconnected community life of service to others.

This resonates with me as a farm girl who grew up with the earth, at play in creation, yet as a young adult discovered my mission or vocation in the context of an urban environment. Seeking the sacred as part of intentional Christian community – first in Buffalo, NY and then eventually in Manchester on Pittsburgh’s Northside – along the way buying an abandoned 1885 house to offer hospitality in the Catholic Worker spirit, I’ve found myself full circle engaged in communal urban farming as sacred work. The journey has included a rediscovering and valuing of ordinary day-to-day activities – making choices around food and water, energy, transportation, what we invest in, being an engaged citizen of the world, in a specific place – and in these discerned choices to rediscover that, as Merton writes, “in the end, it’s the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”


(Photo: Kentucky Monthly)

Awakening one’s love of the earth, as contemplative activists, we’re invited to understand what the bishops prophetically taught us years ago, and that Merton’s writing echoes: “The cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are one.” Seeking to further our contemplative experience of the divine in Creation while also addressing the underlying causes of the ecological crisis we face today, Merton’s writings – like Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ encyclical in our day – make it clear that “one of the greatest challenges of our time is inner conversion to a development that respects Creation.”

Reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was seminal for Merton, as he had long admired Carson’s devotion to science as an expression of our spiritual bond with nature. In Merton’s correspondence with Carson he commends her on the moral courage of speaking inconvenient truth to power. In Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis, is a beautiful testament to how interconnected the deepest truths of existence are, how they transcend all boundaries to bring us into intimate contact with reality itself – and with our responsibility to the web of life.

Merton writes:  “[Silent Spring] is perhaps much more timely even than you or I realize. Though you are treating just one aspect, and a rather detailed aspect, of our technological civilization, you are, perhaps without altogether realizing, contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization…. Your book makes it clear to me that there is a consistent pattern running through everything that we do, through every aspect of our culture, our thought, our economy, our whole way of life…It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them. Otherwise, our efforts will be directed to purely superficial symptoms only, and perhaps not even at things related directly to the illness. On the contrary, it seems that our remedies are instinctively those which aggravate the sickness: the remedies are expressions of the sickness itself.

“I would almost dare to say that the sickness is perhaps a very real and very dreadful hatred of life as such, of course subconscious, buried under our pitiful and superficial optimism about ourselves and our affluent society. But I think that the very thought processes of materialistic affluence (and here the same things are found in all the different economic systems that seek affluence for its own sake) are ultimately self-defeating. They contain so many built-in frustrations that they inevitably lead us to despair in the midst of ‘plenty’ and ‘happiness’ and the awful fruit of this despair is indiscriminate, irresponsible destructiveness, hatred of life, carried on in the name of life itself. In order to ‘survive’ we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends.”

Merton’s own nature writings have been selectively gathered together in a comprehensive reader compiled by Kathleen Deignan, When the Trees Say Nothing – Thomas Merton Writings on Nature, with chapters on seasons, the four elements, firmament (sky/sun/moon/planet/stars), creatures, festivals, presences, and sanctuary. Drawing on nine volumes of his journals and ten of Merton’s books, this collection offers wonderful insights into Merton’s sacramental vision of the world, while inviting us to a deeper attentiveness to our essential kinship with the whole cosmos-every meadow, bird, blade of grass, every person.

Invited to listen with the ear of the heart to the wide-open secret of the natural world around us, Merton recognizes that “there is in all visible things an invisible fecundity…a hidden wholeness.” He experienced, and invites us to know, the power of nature to call us back to authenticity, to come home to our self, to the deepest nobility of our own nature. The Jesuit Walter Burghardt frames this as a “long loving look at the real,” becoming who we are. As Thomas Berry (Passionist priest and expert on ecology and world religions) writes in the Foreword of When the Trees Say Nothing, “Everywhere we find ourselves invaded by the world of the sacred. Such was the experience of Thomas Merton. Such is the wonder that he is communicating to us. An absence of a sense of the sacred is the basic flaw in many of our efforts at ecologically adjusting our human presence to the natural world…We will neither love nor save what we do not experience as sacred.”

“To go out to walk silently in this wood-this is a more important and significant means to understanding, at the moment, than a lot of analysis and a lot of reporting on the things ‘of the spirit.’”

(Merton, Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom)

Carol J. Gonzalez is an educator, contemplative activist, and Ignatian guide.  She is a leader in CVX-CLC, an international, Ignatian community on mission in the world. Currently working at Ballfield Farm, Carol is an active Tree Tender, has served on the board of the Thomas Merton Center, led numerous Merton and Dorothy Day study groups (including CMU Osher courses), led spiritual support groups with incarcerated women, and has been active in community development on the Northside for decades.

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