Following the footsteps of a mystic and poet
Write. Day job. Write. Day job. Repeat.
When you are a writer and you have an unrelated “day job,” it can feel like you have a split personality.
This could have been the case with Thomas Merton(1915–1968). At many points before, and then living out his vocation as a Catholic Trappist monk, Merton thought that he would have to give up his other calling as a writer.
Instead, Merton “continued to write poetry in the monastery as a morning meditation, and he was given writing assignments by the abbot” (Merton, 2007, p. VIII).
One of Merton’s autobiographical essays became the international bestseller, The Seven Storey Mountain published in 1948. It was also listed on the National Review’s 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. In total, Merton wrote 50 books and numerous essays. Besides writing from a Christian viewpoint, Merton was a proponent of interfaith dialogue with figures such as the Dalai Lama, D. T. Suzuki, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Merton himself wrote about Zen, Taoism, and Confucianism.
Yet, in spite of his success as a writer, Merton continued to be troubled by his double life as a writer and his vocation as a monk. He wrote:
“The artist enters into himself in order to work, but to pass through the center of his soul and lose himself in the mystery and secrecy and infinite, transcendent reality of God living and working within him” (Merton, 1981, p. 350).
Merton, however, became more comfortable with writing as a dual vocation after reading the literature of mystics such as Saint John of the Cross.
With the work of his forebearers in mind, Merton continued to write devotions (see Seeds of Contemplation), essays, and poetry in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, Merton began to write social criticism, signaling his transformation from Catholic apologist to a cultural critic “whose essays built a bridge from the sacred to the secular and from the modern to the millennial mind” (Merton, 2007, p. IX).
Writing as vocation
And yet it seems to me that writing, far from being an obstacle to spiritual perfection in my own life, has become one of the conditions on which my perfection will depend. If I am to be a saint — and there is nothing else that I can think of desiring to be — it seems that I must get there by writing books in a Trappist monastery. If I am to be a saint, I have not only to be a monk, which is what all monks must do to become saints, but I must also put down on paper what I have become. It may sound simple, but it is not an easy vocation. (p. 14)
In describing his writing experience, Merton (2007) explains it best, in his own words, why his writing serves as both his spiritual expression and vocation:
I am finding myself forced to admit that my lamentations about my writing job have been foolish. At the moment the writing is the one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude. Also I find that it helps me to pray because, when I pause at my work, I find that the mirror inside me is surprisingly clean and deep and serene and God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if He had come close to me while I was writing and I had not observed His coming. And this I think should be the cause of great joy, and to me it is. (pp. 13–4)
As with most writers, Merton’s writings changed as he matured. For example, in commenting on his most popular work, The Seven Storey Mountain, 20 years after its publication, Merton felt it was written by someone he no longer recognized. Also, in looking at his work as a whole, he felt there were “two Mertons: one ascetic, conservative, traditional, monastic. The other radical, independent and somewhat akin to beats and hippies and to poets in general” (Merton, 2007, pp. 195–196).
For Merton, writing was a vocation that would not let him go. He had determined to give it up for monastic life if required, but he discovered that his writing gift was just as much of a calling and was one that touched many outside the walls of his monastic cell and forest. If embracing writing as a vocation can be true for Merton, so much so for the rest of us.
Merton, T., & Hart, P. (1981). Literary essays: The literary essays of Thomas Merton. New York, NY: New Directions.
Merton, T. (2007). Echoing silence: Thomas Merton on the vocation of writing. (R. Inchausti, Ed.) Boston: New Seeds.
Merton, T. (2015). The seven storey mountain. London: SPCK.