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Thomas Merton on the Spiritual Life

The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived. Like all life, it grows sick and dies when it is uprooted from its proper element. Grace is engrafted on our nature and the whole man is sanctified by the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual life is not, therefore, a life entirely uprooted from man’s human condition and transplanted into the realm of the angels. We live as spiritual men when we live as men seeking God. If we are to become spiritual, we must remain men. And if there were not evidence of this everywhere in theology, the mystery of the Incarnation itself would be ample proof of it. Why did Christ become man if not to save men by uniting them mystically with God through his own sacred humanity? Jesus lived the ordinary life of the men of his time, in order to sanctify the ordinary lives of men of all time. If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives. Let us not fear the responsibilities and the inevitable distractions of the work appointed for us by the will of God. Let us embrace reality and thus find ourselves immersed in the life-giving will and wisdom of God which surround us everywhere.

Thomas Merton – Thoughts in Solitude

(Merton’s Thoughts on Solitude is available as our free book of the month through the end of the April.)

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“The Secret of All Joy”: Finding Mary in the Month of May

This post was written by Kathryn Hogan, acquisitions editor here at Verbum

The intriguing title of Thomas Merton’s essay, “A Woman Clothed with the Sun,” comes from St. John’s Revelations. Merton’s main point is that God tells us very little about Mary. Paradoxically, as Merton points out, the little we know about Mary proclaims exactly what God wishes us to know about her: she is hidden and obscure, and that is the key to her sanctity.


What I had never considered, before reading this essay, is that God wants it that way; and that, in fact, what Merton calls Mary’s “hiddenness” is a model for us in our search for holiness. Mary’s selflessness allows God’s will to be brought to fulfillment in her, above all the other saints. Merton argues that Mary’s emptiness allows her to act as a window that most perfectly lets the light of God’s grace into her soul and to amplify it in her life. We can find Mary “living in the midst of Scripture,” as Merton states, and we can be confident that her example will always lead us to her son, Jesus.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Merton’s prescient essay is that he discerns one of the biggest problems of our current age: the relentless and obsessive drive to expose ourselves, to seek recognition, and even renown, at all times, for even the most mundane aspects of our lives. In stark contrast, Merton identifies Mary’s example of being unknown, and being willing to be unknown, as the highest priority in spiritual life: “to vanish from the sight of men and be accounted as nothing by the world and to disappear from one’s own self-conscious consideration and vanish in to nothingness in the immense poverty that is the adoration of God.” Strong words—and he continues: “This absolute emptiness, this poverty, this obscurity holds within it the secret of all joy because it is full of God.”


At a time when our society seems to push us toward more and more self-revelation, to expose everything, from the trivial to the truly tasteless, on Facebook, selfies, and viral videos, it might be difficult to regard obscurity—not being known—as a benefit.

But Merton assures us that it is essential. The key to the essay, I think, is in a Latin quote from Proverbs, which Merton includes in the essay without comment or context:

For those who find me find life

and receive favor from the LORD (8:35).

The idea of “finding” threads through Scripture, from the parable of the man who found the pearl of great price to one of the most wonderful promises of Jesus: “Seek and you shall find.” Instead of revealing ourselves in a culture that exposes too much, and too much that is unimportant, let us instead find life by seeking what is hidden and consenting to be hidden, so that God’s will can be completed in us as it was in Mary.

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