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The Silent Life


Thomas Merton wrote The Silent Life (N.Y.: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1957) to help us understand the life of a monk, the life he chose to live.  The following quotes with page numbers are from his book.  He did not write it to encourage you to become a monk.  The book helps you understand the silent life of monks so that you can borrow some of their wisdom and enhance your own life.


"A monk is a man who has been called by the Holy Spirit to relinquish the cares, desires and ambitions of other men, and devote his entire life to seeking God.  The concept is familiar.  The reality which the concept signifies is a mystery.  For in actual fact, no one on earth knows precisely what it means to 'seek God' until he himself has set out to find Him.  No man can tell another what this search means unless that other is enlightened, at the same time, by the Spirit speaking within his own heart.  In the end, no one can seek God unless he has already begun to find Him.  No one can find God without having first been found by Him.  A monk is a man who seeks God because he has been found by God.


"In short, a monk is a 'man of God.'


"Since all men were created by God that they might find Him, all men are called in some sense to be 'men of God.'  But not all are called to be monks…It is permissible for others to seek God by a road less direct, to lead a good life in the world, to raise a Christian family.  The monk puts these things aside, though they may be good.  He travels to God by the direct path…He withdraws from 'the world.'  He gives himself entirely to prayer, meditation, study, labor, penance, under the eyes of God.  The monk is distinguished even from other religious vocations by the fact that he is essentially and exclusively dedicated to seeking God, rather than seeking souls for God…In a basically religious culture, like that of India, or of Japan, the monk is more or less taken for granted.  When all society is oriented beyond the mere transient quest of business and pleasure, no one is surprised that men should devote their lives to an invisible God.  In a materialistic culture which is fundamentally irreligious the monk is incomprehensible because he 'produces nothing.'  His life appears to be completely useless"  (pp. vii-viii).


In Western society this stands as the key challenge.  We are constantly surrounded by visions of materialism, visions that falsely lead us toward thinking that happiness can only be found, or best be found through possessions.  This dangerous illusion is what the silent life of the monk is designed to overcome.  Those who believe in God can still easily get caught up in the materialistic world.  This poses an ancient conflict that Mathew alerted us to two milleniums ago.


No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.  Ye cannot serve God and mammon.  Mathew 6:24


"The deepest law in man's being is his need for God, for life.  God is Life.  'In Him was life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not' (John 1:5).  The deepest need of our darkness is to comprehend the light which shines in the midst of it.  Therefore God has given us, as His first commandment; 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength.'  The monastic life is nothing but the life of those who have taken the first commandment in deadly earnest, and have, in the words of St Benedict, 'preferred nothing to the love of Christ'" (p. ix).


Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.  Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?  Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.  Are ye not much better than they?  Mathew 6:25-26.


The real question, then, is: Since we are not all called to be monks, how best should we approach this commandment?


"God is said to be 'found' by the soul that is united to Him in a bond as intimate as marriage.  And this bond is a union of spirits, in faith.  Faith, here, means complete fidelity, the complete gift and abandonment of oneself.  It means perfect trust in a hidden God.  It implies submission to the gentle but inscrutable guidance of His infinitely hidden Spirit.  It demands the renunciation of our own lights and our own prudence and our own wisdom and of our whole 'self' in order to live in and by His Spirit.  'He that is joined to the Lord,' says St Paul, 'is one Spirit' (1 Corinthians, 6:17)" (pp. 2-3).


"Monastic solitude, poverty, obedience, silence and prayer dispose the soul for this mysterious destiny in God.  Asceticism itself does not produce divine union as its direct result.  It only disposes the soul for union.  The various practices of monastic asceticism are more or less valuable to the monk in proportion as they help him to accomplish the inner and spiritual work that needs to be done to make his soul poor, and humble, and empty, in the mystery of the presence of God.  When ascetic practices are missed, they serve only to fill the monk with himself and to harden his heart in resistance to grace.  That is why all monastic asceticism centers in the two great virtues of humility and obedience which cannot be practiced as they ought to be practiced, if they do not empty a man of himself" (pp. 3-4).


"Humility detaches the monk first of all from that absorption in himself which makes him forget the reality of God…The victory of monastic humility is the victory of the real over the unreal---a victory in which false human ideals are discarded and the divine 'ideal' is attained, is experienced, is grasped and possessed, not in a mental image but in the present and concrete and existential reality of our life"  (pp. 4-5).


I know that to them that love God all things work together unto good. (Romans 8:28)


"It is the acceptance of our own incompleteness, in order that He may make us complete in His own way.  It is joy in our emptiness, which can only be filled by Him.  It is peace in our own unfruitfulness which He Himself makes immensely fruitful without our being able to understand how it is done" (p. 6).


"Light can only dawn in our hearts when we renounce our determination to rebel against the infinite will of God, accept reality as He has willed it to be, and place our wills at the service of His perfect freedom.  It is when we love as He loves that we are pure, when we will what He wills, we are free.  Then our eyes are opened and we can see reality as He sees it, and we can rejoice with His joy because all things are 'very good' (Genesis 1:31)" (p. 13).


"The inner, basic, metaphysical defilement of fallen man is his profound and illusory conviction that he is a god and that the universe is centered upon him…We are not, of course, foolish enough to imagine that we ought to find in ourselves the absolute omnipotence of God.  Yet in our desire to be 'as gods'…we seek what one might call a relative omnipotence: the power to have everything we want, to enjoy everything we desire, to demand that all our wishes be satisfied and that our will should never be frustrated or opposed.  It is the need to have everyone else bow to our judgment and accept our declarations as law.  It is the insatiable thirst for recognition of the excellence which we so desperately need to find in ourselves to avoid despair.  This claim to omnipotence, our deepest secret and our inmost shame, is in fact the source of all our sorrows, all our unhappiness, all our dissatisfactions, all our mistakes and deceptions.  It is a radical falsity which rots our moral life in its very roots because it makes everything we do more or less a lie.  Only the thoughts and actions which are free from the contamination of this secret claim have any truth or nobility or value in them" (pp. 13-15).


"The life of a pure soul becomes exceedingly simple.  But the impure soul is, and must be, most complicated" (p. 17).  Although it is not a great movie, the film Holy Man, starring Eddie Murphy, provides us with an excellent example of this point of simplicity versus complexity.  Mind you, your involvements can be very demanding and complex ones, while at the same time your life can be exceedingly simple if your soul is pure.  It is so simple because you are always asking and responding to God, rather than trying to figure out what will benefit yourself.  You have let go of your desire to be god.  When you let go of that desire, you let go of the complications.


"Fear is the 'impurity' of the soul that aspires to be omnipotent" (p. 18).

Fear is what makes the complications so stressful, so undermining of your biological, psychological, and spiritual well-being.  When you turn the decision making over to God, when you recognize that you are not god, that a higher power is in charge, your life becomes simple, pure, and without fear.  Now some of you may say: But I tried that and I still had fear!?  Like most important things that you are trying to make a part of your life, it is a habit forming, time-consuming process.  You must give it ever more of your energies for it to gradually take over your life.


"Delivered from illusions and selfish projects, saved from the painful necessity to serve his own inexorable will, the monk begins to see how sweet is the yoke of Christ's service and how light is the burden of divine liberty!" (p. 19).


"…the monk does not treat material creation with contempt. On the contrary, we find the humblest material things handled with reverence, one might almost say with love…respected and valued and even loved, not for their own sakes but for the sake of God to whom they belong" (pp. 26-7).


"The world of men has forgotten the joys of silence, the peace of solitude which is necessary, to some extent, for the fullness of human living.  Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally…If a man is…locked out of his own spiritual solitude, he ceases to be a true person…He becomes a kind of automaton, living without joy because he has lost all spontaneity.  He is no longer moved from within, but only from outside himself.  He no longer makes decisions for himself, he lets them be made for him.  He no longer acts upon the outside world, but lets it act upon him.  He is propelled through life by a series of collisions with outside forces" (pp. 166-7).


"Holiness is life lived in its fullness, in union with the Living God" (p. 168).



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