T. Merton: Contemplation and Struggle for Peacemaking


Thomas Merton (1915 -1968) has been a great and permanent teacher of spiritual life. He has opened new boundaries of spiritual life for novel era (Kathleen, Para 2). He has introduced himself to the lost souls of the twentieth century and has tried to understand human being’s existential quandary in the world (Kathleen, Para 4). He discovered the soul of the age death-bound (Kathleen, Para 4). He confronts and requests us to be human in this world where most of the people are inhuman and puts forward his views about the image of man which should be taken care of man himself as it is the image of God (Kathleen, Para 6).

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He conveys that problems in our life make us failed to be matured as a spiritual being and we are not able to understand that an unbounded God is living within us only (Kathleen, Para 6). Thomas Merton has tried to awaken our soul from its slumber. This he has done not only in prophetic way but also in some mystical way (Kathleen, Para 8).

Thomas Merton was both contemplative and a social critic. As a writer, he wrote about social problems from the perspective of contemplation. The more he matured, the more he was well-balanced between contemplation and social action. Therefore, through him Korean Protestants can find valuable wisdom for their current serious problems, that is, the unbalance of contemplation (or prayer) and action as well as the lack of sound strategies for peace and social justice.

Life of Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was born in Europe and lived his life in North America (Grayston, Para 9). His mother was American and father was New Zealander. They both were artists (Grayston, Para 9).Thomas lost his mother when he was just six and he lost his father when 16 year old. Physically and mentally, he was about to have a breakdown. Then he decided to live a new found Christian faith that took him to the Cistercian abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky. There he spent twenty seven years. In 1968 he went to Asia on a spiritual journey and on December 10 he died in an accident in Bangkok (Grayston, Para 11).

Thomas Merton was very much concerned with the realities of his life. That is why he was known as a monk, poet, spiritual theologian and Christian contemplative (Grayston, Para 11).

First, I will outline the starting point of Merton’s struggle for peacemaking, that is, his mature understanding of contemplation and the world. Then, I will research his understanding of war and peace. Also, from that understanding, I will describe his contemplative vision of peace. Finally, I will clarify his contemplative strategies for peacemaking. In each part, the focus will be the relationship between contemplation and social action.

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Through such a process, I will contend that Thomas Merton’s struggle for peace was based on his mature understanding of contemplation and action, and his vision and strategies on peacemaking can be largely summarized as to awaken people to Christian responsibility and nonviolent movement. Also, his vision and strategy on peacemaking are basically eschatological.

Merton’s Understanding of Contemplation and World

For Merton, contemplation is the reason of human existence. In his earlier writings, he deliberately accepts the primacy of contemplation over action from St. Thomas Aquinas. In What is Contemplation? (1948), his first book on contemplation, Merton accepts the traditional division between infused contemplation and active contemplation. The former indicates a pure or passive contemplation, while the latter indicates an acquired contemplation, which prepares the road to pure contemplation.

Also, Merton distinguishes pure contemplatives, who live in the Christian community and experience the pure contemplation, from quasi-contemplatives, who live outside the monastery and are united with God in their activities. He thought, however, the quasi-contemplatives may reach a high degree of sanctity (Merton, 25-37). In 1949, Merton writes, “The contemplative life, in its purest and strictest sense, is led in monasteries.

But in a broader sense every life can be dedicated to some extent to contemplation, and even the most active of lives can and should be balanced by a contemplative element” (Merton, 27). Though he considered that usually a pure contemplative life can be achieved in monasteries, he left some possibilities that the high level of contemplative life may be achieved even in activities. He states, “One may become a greater saint outside the ‘state of perfection’ [monastery] than in it, although ordinarily we might expect the religious life to lead on more quickly and safely to union with God” (Merton, 5).

As time had passed, however, Merton did not distinguish infused contemplation and acquired contemplation; instead, he began to integrate contemplation and (active) life.

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In “Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal” (1958), Merton writes, “In actual fact, true contemplation is inseparable from life and from the dynamic of life…It is the very fullness of a fully integrated life. It is the crown of life and of all life’s activities” (Merton, 87). This article is the revised version of his old work, “Poetry and the Contemplative life” (1947). Merton explains the reason why he should revise the original version that “the earlier problem was, largely, an illusion created by this division of life into formally separated compartments, of ‘action’ and ‘contemplation” (Ibid).

However, it was not an abrupt change which happened in 1958. Instead, it was a gradual change, which was accompanied by the gradual transition of his thoughts on the world (Kwon, 17-21). At the time when he entered into the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941, he thought that “the whole world, of which the war is a characteristic expression, is evil. It has therefore to be first ridiculed, then spat upon, and at last formally rejected with a curse”(Merton, 322).

Thus, he tried to secede from the world of his times. It was the matter of the great importance for Merton of the times. However, in 1948, in his first visit at Louisville after his entrance to the Gethsemani, he realized that the defects, which he resented about the world, when he left it, were his own defects that he had projected upon it. As a natural consequence, in later writings, Merton identified him with his world. He did not consider the world as an object, which exists outside of him. Instead, he found himself in the midst of the world. For him, the world exists, first of all, in his deepest self. Merton realized that he was deeply and personally involved to Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam and the Watts riots, i.e., his contemporary world (Ibid, 143, 152).

Such changes of his thoughts on contemplation and the world arose from his deep experience of contemplation. In contemplation, he reached to a “sea of Love,” and he realized that in that sea, he was deeply united with God and the whole world (Merton, 48, 65). Also, this maturity in his understanding of contemplation and the world enabled Merton to think that as a contemplative he should see the world from the perspective of contemplation.

However, he did not leave the monastery to fight for social justice and peace. In 1964, he declares that “But the monastery is not an ‘escape from the world. On the contrary, by being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world” (Merton, 65). James Thomas Baker, who writes the first dissertation on Merton, points out Merton’s paradoxical attitude toward the world: “the more he learned to love man’s need to withdraw from it” (Baker, 53). Actually the more he involved in the world, the more he entered into a solitary life in his hermitage.

Consequently, Merton’s social participations were his responses to the extension of his understanding of contemplation and to the realization of deep connection to the world in God. Especially after 1958, his desire for contemplation and solitude led him to active involvement in his world. His deep experience of contemplation made him actively participate in the struggle for peacemaking.

Merton’s Understanding of Contemplation and World

The era in which Merton lived was the severest time of the twentieth century, tainted by great wars. He was born in France in 1915 when the European Continent was drawn into the whirlpool of World War I. Also, he saw the outbreak of World War II, in which his brother John Paul was killed, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Besides, he lived in the so-called Cold War Era. Therefore, he was naturally interested in war and peace before his conversion. Then, how did Merton understand war and peace from the perspective of contemplation. Also, what is his contemplative vision on peacemaking?

Merton’s Understanding of War

In his early journal of 1940, before becoming a monk, Merton expresses his thought on the war without pretending to understand it. He writes that “the wars are punishments from heaven upon us for our own sins because, if we loved God more and violence less, we would not have wars and revolutions” (Merton, 186).

Also, Merton had a sharp insight into human beings’ contradictory attitude toward war. The most ‘reasonable,’ and most frequently mentioned motive of war is peace. People tend to get rid of, in their thought, direct or potential threats to their own peace by resorting to force. Also, they are good at creating a scapegoat on whom people put all the evil in the world, and making some plausible excuses that a war is necessary for peace.

According to Merton, like “an alcoholic who knows that drink will destroy him but who always has a reason for drinking…[the human being] is so addicted to war that he cannot possibly deal with his addiction” (Merton, 129). This mysterious characteristic of man comes from fear of everything and hatred of ourselves, which are the roots of all war. In other words, war is serious alienation from true self and God. Because such a tendency to resort to violence exists not only in an individual but also in society, a few ‘eccentric’ people resist against the warmakers’ rationalization of war.

However, Merton thought that there is not the smallest logical reason that can make modern warfare, especially atomic war, legitimate. Though he theoretically accepted the possibility of the so-called Just War Theory (Forest, 1), he said, “in practice the Just War theory has become irrelevant” (Merton, 90). The continuous development of modern war technology and the related political interests make the principles of the Just War Theory practically unfulfillable. Therefore, for Merton, in the present era to engage in war under peacemaking is “a true war-madness, and illness of the mind and the spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world” (Passion for Peace, 24). Then, what is Merton’s contemplative vision on peacemaking? What is Merton’s understanding of peace?

Merton’s Understanding and Vision of Peace

In his earlier writings, Merton’s remarks on peace were usually focused on an interior peace, which can be found within one’s union with the will of God. In No Man is an Island (1955), he related inner peace with social peace. “All men seek peace first of all with themselves…A man who is not at peace with himself necessarily projects his interior fighting into the society of those he lives with, and spreads a contagion of conflict all around him” (Merton, 120-21).

Conversely, a man or woman who is at peace shares his or her own peace with one’s neighbors, and they will also be at peace. Therefore, the peace of society fundamentally arises from its members’ inner peace that can be attained in the union with God. In contemplation, in a sea of love, an illusion of war is disclosed, and human beings can overcome the fear and hatred, the roots of war, by love. Also, the false self, the estranged self, disappears, and the true self can be awakened. Therefore, contemplation is a very crucial way to build a peaceful society. The peace of society is a fruit of contemplation.

Merton’s Contemplative Vision of Peacemaking

Merton’s strategies on peacemaking reflect his grasp on world problems. As mentioned previously, he analyzed that the root of all war is fear and hatred. It means that he saw the world’s problems at the essential and spiritual level rather than at the superficial level.

He thought that the crisis of the world arose from human being’s alienation from the truth and one’s true self. His grasp penetrates superficial rationality and reaches to the deepest reality of human beings and the world. So, Merton’s strategies on peacemaking are essential, moral and spiritual that can be largely summarized as follows: (1) To awaken people, (2) Nonviolent movement and a third position.

To Awaken People’s Responsibility and True Self

In his many writings on peace and war, Merton tried passionately to awaken and encourage his readers to be peacemakers. Because he was a monk who lived in a cloister, to awaken people by writing is one of the most essential ways he could contribute to building a peaceful society. According to William H. Shannon, the founder of the International Thomas Merton Society, Merton felt that his task was “to help people see that peace is indeed a viable possibility in our world” (Passion for Peace, 14).

The second main point that Merton tried to awaken in people is the Christian’s responsibility for peace. The Christian who is called as a peacemaker is “not only bound to avoid certain evils, but he is responsible for very great good” (Merton, 96). So, Christians have a grave responsibility to strive for the total abolition of war and for construction of a peaceful society. However, Merton claimed that though most Christians exhort each other to ‘pray for peace,’ they do not resist against spending billions of dollars on making atomic weapons.

He pointed out that the reason of such contradiction is the ‘moral passivity’ or “the ‘irresponsibility’ which would carry on even the most revolting of crimes under cover of ‘obedience’ for the sake of a ‘good cause” (Passion for Peace, 47). Therefore, Merton tried to awaken Christians not to passively cooperate with violent political leaders and frenzied mass movements. In this sense, Christian responsibility does not mean merely doing some ‘peaceful activities.’ It also includes the clear refusal to the use of power for the destruction of a whole nation and the forcible protest against it. Hence, for Merton, “conformity” is not a synonym for “love.”

Nonviolent Movement and a Third Position

Merton thought that nonviolence is a practical method for peacemaking, and prayer and sacrifice are the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war. He learned firstly the nonviolence from Mohandas Gandhi, whose life and political action, Merton thought, were consistent with the law of Christ. In his article “Blessed Are the Meek: The Christian roots of nonviolence,” he interprets the nonviolence from the Christian perspective.

Moreover, his understanding of the nonviolence goes further beyond the political and religious level. In his article “Danish nonviolent resistance to Hitler,” Merton highly appreciated the Danes’ nonviolent struggle to protect the Jews from the Nazis. He interprets that the Danes refused to cooperate with the evil and resisted the evil with nonviolent protest, because they were human rather than Christians (Ibid). In this sense, being a peacemaker means to be fully human.


The life of Thomas Merton, who was both monk and social critic, was a process of being well-balanced between contemplation and action. The mature Merton realized that a contemplative life is not isolation from the world, but active involvement with it. He understood the essence of war and peace from the contemplative perspective; He diagnosed that the roots of all war is fear of everything and hatred of ourselves, which come from serious alienation from true self and God. Therefore, the peace of society depends on the members’ inner peace which can be attained in contemplation, in which one is able to find true self and to the world.

Hence, Merton tried to awaken people, particularly Christians, to their true self and human responsibility for the peace of the world. Also, his struggle for peacemaking was based on nonviolence, which is fundamentally a way of life and liberates people from their inner violence. Such understanding of war and peace leads him to “a third position,” a position of integration, which can be discerned in contemplation.

I do not think that Thomas Merton has all the answers on peacemaking that I want to find. However, it is true that his vision and strategies on the struggle for peacemaking show some valuable directions that Korean Protestants should go. Recently, North Korea started again nuclear bomb tests, and the United States is expected to stipulate that they are providing South Korea with a nuclear umbrella.

Although Merton thought peace is indeed a viable possibility in this world, he did not expect that it will be easily accomplished. Instead, the struggle for peacemaking, which chooses nonviolence as its main method, is the most demanding of all forms of struggle.

Reference List

Baker, James T 1971. Thomas Merton, Social Critic: A Study. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

Forest, James H. 1975. Thomas Merton’s Struggle with Peacemaking. Erie, PA: Benet Press.

Grayston, Donald. 1984. Thomas Merton: The Global Future and Parish Priorities. Web.

Hyeokil Kwon. 2008. The Progress of Thomas Merton’s Thoughts according to His Experience of Contemplation: A Comparative Study of Seeds of Contemplation and New Seeds of Contemplation (master’s thesis, Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary) Ibid. Web.

Kathleen, Deignan. 2005. Thomas Merton: Soul of the Age. Web.

Merton, Thomas 1978. What is Contemplation?, Springfield, IL: Templegate, 25-37.

Merton, Thomas. 1949. The Contemplative Life: Its Meaning and Necessity. The Dublin Review 223.

Merton, Thomas. 1950. The Primacy of Contemplation,” Cross and Crown 2.

Merton, Thomas. 1958. Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal. Commonweal: 87.

Merton, Thomas. 1981. The Sign of Jonas (San Diego: Harcourt).

Merton, Thomas. 1972. Seeds of Contemplation. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions.

Merton. Thomas.1989. Honorable Reader: Reflections on My Work, ed. Robert E. Daggy. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Merton, Thomas. 1955. Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation, ed. Patrick Hart. New York: HarperCollins.

Merton, Thomas. 1985. Love and Living, ed. Naomi Burton Stone and Patrick Hart. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Merton, Thomas.1980. The Nonviolent Alternative, ed. Gordon C. Zahn. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Merton, Thomas. 1978. No Man is an Island. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

Merton, Thomas. 1961. Seeds of Destruction. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence. 2006. Edited by William H. Shannon. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Passion for Peace: The Social Essays. 1995. Edited by William H. Shannon. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

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