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The Silent Life Paperback – November 29, 1999

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition, 4th printing edition (November 29, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374512817
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374512811
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #657,754 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, is perhaps the foremost spiritual thinker of the twentiethcentury. His diaries, social commentary, and spiritual writings continue to be widely read after his untimely death in 1968.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1. Puritas Cordis [Purity of Heart]
We have defined a monk as a man who leaves everything else in order to seek God. But this definition is not going to mean much unless we also define the search for God. And that is not an easy matter. For God is at the same time, as one of the Fathers said, everywhere and nowhere. How can I find One Who is nowhere? If I find Him, I myself will also be nowhere. And if I am nowhere, how shall I be able to say that I am still “I”? Will I still exist to rejoice in having found Him?
How can I find Him Who is everywhere? If He is everywhere, He is indeed close to me, and with me, and in me: perhaps He will turn out to be, in some mysterious way, my own self. But then, again, if He and I are one, then is there an “I” that can rejoice in having found Him?
God, says philosophy, is both immanent and transcendent. By His immanence He lives and acts in the intimate metaphysical depths of everything that exists. He is “everywhere.” By His transcendence He is so far above all being, that no human and limited concept can contain and exhaust His Being, or even signify it except by analogy. He is so far above all created being that His Being and finite being are not even said to “be” in the same univocal sense. Compared with God, created being “is not”; again, compared with created being, God “is not.” For He is so far above His creation that the concept of Being, applied to Him, means something basically different from what it means when applied to everything else. In this way, God “is nowhere.”
The monk is one who is called by God to enter into this dilemma and this mystery. But it is less complicated for him, because he is not usually a philosopher. He seeks God not by speculation, but by a way more likely to find Him—the obscure and secret path of theological faith.
The monk, then, is one who has heard God speak the words He spoke once through the Prophet: “I will espouse thee to me in faith, and thou shalt know that I am the Lord” (Osee, 2:20).
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).
To be one with One Whom one cannot see is to be hidden, to be nowhere, to be no one: it is to be unknown as He is unknown, forgotten as He is forgotten, lost as He is lost to the world which nevertheless exists in Him. Yet to live in Him is to live by His power, to reach from end to end of the universe in the might of His wisdom, to rule and form all things in and with Him. It is to be the hidden instrument of His Divine action, the minister of His redemption, the channel of His mercy, and the messenger of His infinite Love.
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 misused, 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.
Humility detaches the monk first of all from that absorption in himself which makes him forget the reality of God. It detaches him from that fixation upon his own will which makes him ignore and disobey the eternal Will in which alone reality is to be found. It gradually pulls down the edifice of illusory projects which he has erected between himself and reality. It strips him of the garment of spurious ideals which he has woven to disguise and beautify his own imaginary self. It finds and saves him in the midst of a hopeless conflict against the rest of the universe—saves him in this conflict by a salutary “despair” in which he renounces at last his futile struggle to make himself into a “god.” When he achieves this final renunciation he plunges through the center of his humility to find himself at last in the Living 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. The victory of monastic humility is a triumph of life in which, by the integration of thought and action, idealism and reality, prayer and work, the monk finds that he now lives perfectly, and fully, and fruitfully in God. Yet God does not appear. The monk is not outwardly changed. He has no aureola. He is still a frail and limited human being. The externals of his life are the same as they always were. Prayer is the same, work is the same, the monastic community is the same, but everything has been changed from within and God is, to use St Paul’s expression, “all in all.”
By monastic humility, the monk ceases to swim against the stream of life, gives up the sinister unconscious struggle which he has always waged to assert himself against the will of others, to resist the desires of his superiors, to impose himself upon his brothers as a distinct and superior being. He now no longer speaks and acts in his own name, but in the name of his eternal Father. Like Jesus, he finds his meat and nourishment in doing the will of “Him Who sent me.” And with Jesus he can say: “He that sent me is with me, and he hath not left me alone, for I always do the things that please Him” (John, 8:29).
This does not mean that the monk becomes incapable of sin. Indeed, his weakness and helplessness have shown him that it is impossible for him to realize, on earth, a state of absolute moral perfection. Like St Paul he is compelled to say: “I am delighted with the law of God according to my inward man, but I see another law in my members fighting against the law of my mind” (Romans, 7:22-23). But also with St Paul he can declare: “I know that to them that love God all things work together unto good” (id. 8:28) and “Gladly will I glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful” (2 Corinthians, 12:9-10).
The victory of monastic humility is the full acceptance of God’s hidden action in the weakness and ordinariness and unsatisfactoriness of our own everyday lives. 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.
But for humility to take possession of his soul, the monk must finally and completely renounce all the worry and agitation with which he strives to hide his limitations from himself and disguise his faults as virtues. Perfection is not for those who strive to feel and look and act as if they were perfect: it is only for those who are fully aware that they are sinners, like the rest of men, but sinners loved and redeemed and changed by God. Perfection is not for those who isolate themselves in ivory towers of an imaginary fault-lessness, but only for those who risk the tarnishing of their supposed interior purity by plunging fully into life as it must inevitably be lived in this imperfect world of ours: life with its difficulties, its temptations, its disappointments and its dangers. Perfection, too, is not for those who live for themselves alone and occupy themselves exclusively with the embellishment of their own souls. Christian sanctity is not merely a matter of “recollection” or “interior prayer.” Sanctity is love: the love of God above all other beings and the love of our brother in God. Such love ultimately demands the complete forgetfulness of ourselves.
And yet, the monk is traditionally one who leaves the world, flies from the company of men and seeks to purify his soul by living alone with the angels. Does he not thereby run the risk of losing all contact with reality and falling away from the life-giving union with his brothers in Christ, by which alone he can be sanctified? Is not the monastic life, then, an escape into sterility, a flight from the responsibility of living? Does it not so completely diminish and restrict a man’s life that he ceases to live and spends his days vegetating in the throes of a pious delusion?
It must be admitted that every vocation has its professional hazards and the monk who loses sight of the meaning of his monastic calling may well waste his life in sterile self-preoccupation. But the meaning of the monk’s flight from the world is precisely to be sought in the fact that the “world” (in the sense in which it is condemned by Christ) is the society of those who live exclusively for themselves. To leave the “world” then, is to leave oneself first of all and begin to live for others. The man who lives “in the world but not of it” is one who, in the midst of...

More About the Author

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has millions of copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.

After a rambunctious youth and adolescence, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism and entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order.

The twenty-seven years he spent in Gethsemani brought about profound changes in his self-understanding. This ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena, where he became, according to Daniel Berrigan, the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960's. Referring to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time, Merton was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he called "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." For his social activism Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk.

During his last years, he became deeply interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk's trip to the Far East in 1968, the Dali Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. It was during this trip to a conference on East-West monastic dialogue that Merton died, in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, the victim of an accidental electrocution. The date marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of his entrance to Gethsemani.

Customer Reviews

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The heart of monastic life is the same today as it was in 1957 when this book was written.
Meow Tomcat
This book's a good example of his already profound literary gifts, and an even better example of a man's purposeful race toward the God within.
Probably in some ways -- but because Merton gets at root causes and motives, I think it still stands well today.
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on June 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I first read this book at the age of 15 and was swept away by the lovely, intense prose, along with the photos that seemed so pure and perfect. This book led to a lifetime of reading (and, I hope, practice)that has always appreciated prayer and solitude. But really, this is an interesting book for anyone who wants a good description of what a monk is, why a monk is, and who a monk seeks, along with a description of different types of monks -- both those who live in community and those who stress solitude. Is the book dated? Probably in some ways -- but because Merton gets at root causes and motives, I think it still stands well today. I recommend this lovely book to anyone interested, or intrigued, by the subject.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By LuelCanyon on November 7, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Merton is among those writers who profoundly affirm Wallace Stevens' fixation on 'the determining presence of the personality of the artist', speaking of the component values of any literary work. Published in 1956, 'The Silent Life' discloses a still undistracted Merton, brilliant and pure like a god. His unseen life as priest and religious, and a personal and abiding inclination for an intense eremitic life (his ever seeking the hermitage was a desire never really requited for him), color the emotion of his discourse here. It burns like the prose of 'Sign of Jonas' and 'Waters of Siloe'. It's a later, wiser Merton opened and deepened that arrests and shows us ourselves, it really is; but reading this book you're made to wonder if Thomas Merton was ever again so ecstatically fastened to the Ideal of his fantastically converted heart. Such a language of love to serve the most clement scholarship! & best thing, it sings with all his determining love and confidence. Merton always expressed a particular affection for the pure hermits of Camaldoli, and the time he spends lovingly tracing their importance is one of the best parts of this book. Thomas Merton changed monasticism both by his devotion and his disaffection. This book's a good example of his already profound literary gifts, and an even better example of a man's purposeful race toward the God within.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 23, 2001
Format: Paperback
Of all my books this is my favortie. I bought a first edition where there are pictures of Trappists monasteries from Europe and USA. In those days these where rare gems. The final chapter the "Hermits life" is one step below the Sermon on the Mount. The pinacle union with God in the core center of our being where only God dwells, he pulls me into his creation to share. His description of seeking God becomes vivid. The end result being transcedent peace, when we finally see him face to face in the resurection. Although he talks about the various religious lifes and orders the real theme is Monastic spirutality and Merton is the Modern day prophet on this topic.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Susan Ruotsala Storm, Ph.D. on January 27, 2002
Format: Paperback
Following Epiphany, The Church (ekklaesia) returns to Ordinary Time. It is welcome for many of us after Advent preparations and the holy Octave Celebration of Christmas. As we consider the meaning of Christ born in us, we might enter into a solitude that is an impregnable fortress, the quiet world of the monk.
One of the Roman Catholic Church's most prolific monastics of the twentieth century, Trappist Thomas Merton, died in Thailand in 1968. Although books including his autobiography of faith, The Seven Storey Mountain, have been presented as his greatest, The Silent Life is a clear presentation of monasticism. It offers insight into Merton's reasons for leaving "everything else in order to seek God." (p 1) Despite travels due to the fame his writings inspiried and his Abbot approved, Merton kept his monastic commitment with the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky.
From Anchorites to Wrentham (the Cistercian convent),Merton presents in a very readable way a complete definition of monk. This rare excursion into Monastic Peace, the Cenobitic Life [those who follow the Rule of St. Benedict, the Benedictines, and Cistercians], and The Hermit Life [of the Carthusians and Camaldolese] brings the contentment and joy of Christ's Peace and Love to all seekers.
Monks, by definition, do not seek the world or its understanding. If you've never quite understood the differences among monastics or the purpose of monasticism, this clear outline explanation is for you.
This peek into the monastic life is unique to Merton who describes this book as "a meditation on the monastic life by one who, without any merit of his own, is privileged to know that life from the inside...who seeks only to speak as the mouthpiece of a tradition centuries old.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By SLeeP1960@AOL.COM on October 11, 1998
Format: Paperback
Though it has been many years since I read this book I am anxious to find another copy and read it again. It is mostly the history of the Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist orders, the Cistercian and Trappist orders being offsprings of the Benedictine Order. Written by Thomas Merton, himself a Trappist monk at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, it gives an indepth view of the reformations of the Benedictine order that led to the Cistercian and then the Trappist orders. A good read on the history of monastic life!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Steven H Propp TOP 100 REVIEWER on May 29, 2012
Format: Paperback
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, as well as a best-selling writer, poet, social activist, and student of comparative religion. He wrote many books, including The Seven Storey Mountain (Harvest/HBJ Book), Mystics and Zen Masters, etc. Tragically, he was accidentally electrocuted while in Thailand at a conference of Christian and non-Christian monks.

He wrote in the Prologue to this 1957 book, "This book is a meditation on the monastic life by one who, without any merit of his own, is privileged to know that life from the inside... In these pages, we shall consider some of the main aspects of the monastic life as such, and then go on to speak of the more important monastic Orders that flourish in the Church at the present day. Our intention is to give some idea of the monastic spirit as it is found among the cenobites ... and hermits..."

He says, "the monk has no standard by which to compare himself with other religious. His eyes are not turned towards the battlefields in the plain, they gaze out upon the desert where Christ will once again appear at the right hand of the Father..." (Pg. xiii) Cistercian (Trappist) asceticism is "simply the recovery of our true self, man's true 'nature,' created for union with God." (Pg. 22)

He suggests that every monk is, or should be, "a special kind of artist. Nothing is more alien to the monastic life than the cult of art for art's sake. The monk ought never to be an aesthete, but rather a 'workman,' a 'craftsman.'" (Pg.
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