A spiritual reflection on the Centenary of Thomas Merton – Part 1

“In a word, to my mind the monk is one who not only saves the world in a theological sense, but saves it literally, protecting it against the destructiveness of the rampaging city of greed, war, etc. And this loving care for natural creatures becomes, in some sense, a warrant of his mission and ministry as a (person) of contemplation.”

Thomas Merton’s 1967 letter to feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Reuther


Photo of Thomas Merton by Eugene Meatyard

photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard




My life and work has been quite busy since the turn of the new year. Blogging has taken a back seat. 

Nonetheless, January has germinated a seed within me. Some readers may recall my December 26th post, Inter-being, where I quoted the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Fellow blogger Tanya, from New York, asked me this question.

“By the way, how would you describe your spirituality? Do you consider yourself part of any religion? I personally admire Buddhism (although I think Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion) and have incorporated some of its teaching into my life. I don’t practice all of its teachings, however,  so I can’t say I’m completely a Buddhist – some teachings are so hard to practice! I ask about your spirituality because I admire your way of seeing the world.”


merton quote - wow


Buudha in our wilderness garden - bruce witzel photo


For a few days I mulled over Tanya’s question, sharing it with my partner Francis. She gently suggested that I answer in a blog post. A month has past. Here is my reply.


A spiritual reflection on the Centenary of Thomas Merton


by  b. thomas witzel


January 31, 2015 was exactly one century since Thomas Merton’s birth. He died in Thailand in 1968. I and many people throughout the world still remember and celebrate the life of this humble man who was a prolific writer and a Catholic pacifist monk.

 dalai lama at thomas mertons grave, Abbey of Gethsemani , 1997 - photographer unknown 

The Dalai Lama visits the grave of Thomas Merton, Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky


Within this post, this stream of consciousness, I have taken the opportunity to discern and borrow liberally from Thomas Merton’s keen eye and lively nature. His wellspring of faith, love and hope goes deep. 


Stream of consciousness - bruce wtizel photo


“Action is the stream, contemplation is the spring,” Merton once wrote.

For me, spirituality is like this – the fountain that contains both. And so it goes in this composition. In the process I have brought back memories both good and bad. Opening the gate I bare my soul.



fence - photo by thomas merton

Thomas Merton photo


The question, “How do you describe your spirituality?” has challenged me in a good way. It has lain dormant within me for years. From the depths of my being, I am thankful to Tanya for asking.

I too, personally admire Buddhism. On the surface, it may simply be how I react when I encounter Buddhists.  

The kindness and contemporary wisdom of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is inspiring. In news reels, when I see the glint in his eye and his mischievous child-like smile, I can’t help but feel happiness.


Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama

Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama in India, 1968 


When I read or listen to Thich Nhat Hahn, Johanna Macy and others who witness to Engaged Buddhism, I feel so much hope, love and connection.

I haven’t studied in depth the actual Sutras and teachings, though I am aware of the four noble truths and the noble eight-fold path. My yearning is towards Zen, non-attachment and enlightenment.


clouds, trees, and ocean - bruce witzel photo



Life -brush painting by thomas merton

Brush drawing by Thomas Merton 


I do meditate once daily using a personal Mantra and occasionally a few other prayer phrases. This is within the Christian apophatic tradition of imageless non conceptual prayer – the way of unknowing or from words into silence.


thomas-merton no contradiction buddhisn and christianity


My spirituality is interfaith to its core, grounded in the roots of all world religion. I am also committed to the urgent need for ecumenical based Christian co-operation. Beyond this, my love and faith extends to all people of good will and in all the directions of mother earth . . . to the breadth and depth of the cosmos, to the very heart of creation. This is my universal spirituality.


brush drawing of celtic cross - by thomas merton

 Brush drawing of Celtic Cross by Thomas Merton


Historically speaking, I was brought up within the Catholic tradition and “practiced faithfully” until about two decades ago. Upon reflection, I am somewhat mystified about this because I now realize it is here that I remain on the ragged edges, but as a faithful non-conformist.


Thomas_Merton big-2



For years I haven’t attended religious service more than a handful of times – weddings and funerals, one might guess. I still love to visit churches, especially when they are empty. I sometimes sing.  


Church in Oaxaca - Zapotitlan del Rio - Bruce Witzel photo 1990


Integral to my understanding of the Gospel and the teachings of Christ, I’ve always maintained a commitment to social and ecological justice. I believe that faith must be intertwined into daily life of the body politic and Gaia, the great mother earth herself. 


Somewhere in the Dakotas - bruce witzel photo


As toddling child of the early 60’s, I was partly formed at the birthing of the environmental movement when biologist Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring in 1962. Her extensive research documented the ecological catastrophe and human cancer being caused by the indiscriminate use of various chemicals (like  DDT) and hundreds of nuclear weapons tests that spread radioactive fallout throughout the globe.


After reading her expose, Thomas Merton wrote to her:

“The awful responsibility with which we scorn the smallest values is part of the same portentous irresponsibility with which we dare to use our titanic power in a way that threatens not only civilization but life itself. The same mental processing—I almost said mental illness—seems to be at work in both cases, and your book makes it clear to me that there is a consistent pattern running through everything we do, through every aspect of our culture, our thought, our economy, our whole way of life.”


Nevada Nuclear Test Site - public domain

courtesy of the Nevada Nuclear Test site – public domain



16 thoughts on “A spiritual reflection on the Centenary of Thomas Merton – Part 1

  1. Pingback: A spiritual reflection on the Centenary of Thomas Merton – Part 1 | Teacher as Transformer

  2. Beautiful post and wonderful insights. Some say we are here to be enlightened: to become fully aware of our illusion of separateness.
    Last year’s months have also been an awakening to what’s within me as it is what’s out there, so I feel this post of yours very close to my own experience.
    I was raised as an atheist and my own journey was a difficult one among an entire culture of Catholics…I’ve found engaged Buddhism to be the closer (if I need to put a name to it) to how I relate to the world and my own spiritual experience.
    I always enjoy your posts full of incredibly beautiful pictures and quotes. Take care.

    • Thank you Silvia.

      Yes, to our enlightenment, that all things are connected. At times, I feel disillusion, and when I do, I recall reading Thich Naht Hanh (years ago), when he said disillusionment isn’t necessarily bad – It’s getting rid of what is not real. Of course I need to move beyond wallowing in it, but it doesn’t mean I still won’t experience it. For me, It’s like that awakening you’re speaking about.

      I appreciate your comment and the sharing of your journey, both here and over on your blogs. I will take care, and you too.


  3. Wow! First of all, I’m so flattered that you found my question interesting and thought provoking enough to write a blog post in response. I have a few thoughts on it:

    – I grew up like you in that my childhood and early adulthood (up until around 21 or 22 years old) were spent being a devout Christian. But eventually, little by little, I became dissatisfied and disappointed with Christianity. This feeling started around the age of 19. Part of the reason for my unhappiness with it was that my Christian friends told me that in order to follow God, I’d have to let go of my bisexuality. I didn’t understand why God would have me be born as bisexual and then condemn me for it. I’ve never blogged about my sexuality before, but this post inspired me to. Anyway, my friend’s words, plus their pointing out to me the passages in the Bible that say homosexuality is a sin bothered me greatly. That experience led me to explore other denominations (the church I had been in during that time was the Church of Christ; I grew up Lutheran and went to Catholic schools), then other religions. I learned a lot about myself during that time. I learned that my love for science influenced my thinking, and that I disagreed with a lot of Christian teachings, including its ideas on homosexuality as a sin, and the many other illogical rules in the Bible. I found, and continue to find (at the age of 34) Christianity’s concepts of sin and hell as divisive, unfair, judgmental, and condescending toward other faiths. These are things I find disturbing and harmful to individuals, families, and society as a whole.

    – All that being said, I must say that I actually agree with most of what the Merton says. That may sound strange, so I’ll explain. It sounds to me like his thinking has very much been influenced by Buddhism, as his message is kind, inclusive, and gentle. That’s why I find his message appealing and positive. But I don’t believe most Christians follow this kind of Christianity, nor do they follow your kind of inclusive, nondenominational faith. I also find the political wing of Christianity, the conservative right-wing kind that demands that laws and society should be based on the Bible, without regard for an individual’s right to decide their own faith, is harmful to society because it leads to disrespect of other ways of life. I also feel that Christianity has led to our culture’s disregard and lack of respect for nature l, while Buddhism teaches respect and unity with nature and all living things. That’s much of the reason why I follow Buddhist teachings, including mindfulness meditation.

    So I’d say that I agree with you on most things, but I just find that most people’s idea of Christianity isn’t like yours, which is a shame. The Bible really does teach judgement of our fellow man.

    But I still have great admiration for your philosophy of life and continue to be inspired by it. I will write a blog post soon about my own beliefs, too.

    • I find myself sharing many points with you and Bruce. I am learning much from Buddhism, I am healing from years of a Christian perspective that put judgment and intolerance into action too often. Thank you both for being open in your quest, for including others in the journey through discourse.

      • Your welcome Priscilla.

        I have affinity for your experience of judgement and intolerance that has occurred (and occurs) far too often within Christianity. Sadly, I suppose this also universal to other traditions, and the human condition in general. Telling our stories to one another can help with our catharsis, and with metamorphosis. It is still difficult for me to share about this. The good part is one thing, but then there is the bad… and the ugly as well. Having said this, I am grateful for my heritage, and that which has formed me, complete with its ups and downs. . . .
        It’s such a paradox, this life, this world. . . Thank you so much for your comments.

        Also, I apologize for not dropping over to visit your blog more often. I head out this afternoon to a job in a relatively isolated area with almost non-existent internet. Plus, my work load is quite intense now. I will drop again, when I get a bit of a breather. Gee, I hate the boom-bust nature of our economic system.

        All the best, to you and Steve


      • Thank you for your considered and considerate response! I wish you safe travels and good work. Thank you for reminding me of the 60/40 blend that is experience, heritage, and all those formative forces. They are not good or bad; they are (or were). 🙂

    • Hi Tanya –

      I apologize for not responding to your comment/s much sooner. The issues of sexuality is so messed up – not only within churches (and I assume other places of worship), but in contemporary society at large! Thank you for sharing openly about your experience. My own experience in coming to terms with a healthy sexuality has been difficult and confusing at times, though ultimately rewarding.

      In regards to the bible and judgement, my experience with the divine has been more along the lines of a loving relationship (as per Jesus’ new commandment to love on another). I sadly understand this is often not peoples experience within Christianity.

      A bit of a clarification – I don’t adhere to non-denominational Christianity which I have most often have experienced as fundamentalist and narrow minded. i.e. – not open minded to other Christian or world viewpoints. I describe my Christian experience as ecumenical, or inter-denominational (like the Buddhist view of Interbeing).

      I believe that God’s primary revelation came (and comes) first though creation, all the cosmos and the natural world together, even before it comes through any sacred text like the Bible. I absolutely cringe when I hear someone say, “it’s all here in the Bible.” In the past when I have studied The Word, I have always been taught to look beyond the text, and deeper into the underlying message. In other words, I rarely have read the Bible literally. Except with Jesus’ teachings on love. The part about loving our enemies I usually fail at. But I do try. I think Christianity is sort of like Buddhism, in that it is difficult to practice.

      Again, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for asking the question and sharing your own experience.

      Sincerely – Bruce

      • You’re welcome Bruce! This has been an interesting dicussion. While I still feel that Christianity is quite negative, I appreciate that you choose to practice it in a more loving way that most Christians do.

        By the way, what are your thoughts on the Christian Right in America? Do you think that religion has a place in politics?

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