Merton on “Spiritual Life”

The section of Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude entitled Aspects of the Spiritual Life consists of 19 “essays” or meditations on various topics. I would be hard pressed to summarize those ideas in any meaningful way, particularly when it comes to the religious ideas.

Perhaps the style and content of the book can best be conveyed by citing one of these “essays,” one that I found particularly interesting:

Spiritual life is not mental life. It is not thought alone. Nor is it, of course, a life of sensation, a life of feeling-“feeling” and experiencing the things of the spirit, and the things of God.

Nor does the spiritual life exclude thought and feeling. It needs both. It is not just a life concentrated at the “high point” of the soul, a life from which the mind and the imagination and the body are excluded. If it were so, few people could lead it. And again, if that were the spiritual life, it would not be a life at all. If man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit. Everything must be elevated and transformed by the action of God, in love and faith. Useless to try to meditate merely by “thinking”-still worse to meditate by stringing words together, reviewing an army of platitudes.

A purely mental life may be destructive if it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for actions. The activity proper to man is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.

To live as a rational animal does not mean to think as a man and to live as an animal. We must both think and live as men. Illusion to try to live as if the two abstract parts of our being (rationality and animality) existed separately in fact as two different concrete realities. We are one, body and soul, and unless we live as a unity we must die.

Living is not thinking. Thought is formed and guided by objective reality outside us. Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new.

I’ve often said that I’m interested in the spiritual side of life though I don’t consider myself religious. Much of the time I’m referring to my mental life, reading Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, the Taoists, Chan Buddhists, and Zen Buddhists. I’ve even suggested that my love of poetry took the place of going to church.

I consider my interests in nature an extension of the beliefs I’ve gathered from those areas. I suspect every long hike, every long backpack spent in the wilderness has been, at least in part, a spiritual experience. It’s probably no coincidence that birding trips are often scheduled Sundays because many birders feel closer to “God” when they are admiring his creations.

Whether I’ve actually lived my beliefs is a larger question, one I’m not sure I’m able to answer right now. I’d like to think so. I sometimes think I’ve succumbed to too many of my materialistic urges, sacrificed too much of myself to acquire things that seemed rather meaningless far too soon.

I don’t ask much more of a book than it make me think about things I haven’t considered enough, and this book has certainly done that.

2 thoughts on “Merton on “Spiritual Life”

  1. I’ve always enjoyed Thomas Merton. Interesting that so passionate and committed a spiritual enquirer should have so much to say to those like ourselves who are, to say the least, deeply sceptical about the territory.

    With our mutual experiences of challenging health issues in mind, this stood out: ‘Living is not thinking. Thought is formed and guided by objective reality outside us. Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new’.

What do you think?