In the following poem Merton names the spiritual practice of silence and the fire that is enkindled in the deep silence of meditation, the via negativa of being still.

… The whole
World is secretly on fire.  The stones
Burn, even the stones
They burn me.  How can a man be still or
Listen to all things burning?  How can he dare
To sit with them when
All their silence
Is on fire?

Sweat lodge. Photo by Hvoenok, Adobe Stock

Merton sees into the stones and how they, like the rest of creation, are on fire.  He has learned this truth from sitting still and listening “to all things burning.”  He has learned this lesson from silence.  Even the silence burns.  The fire of stones speaks to his fire, for they burn him. 

This language of burning may be another way of speaking about encountering the Cosmic Christ, the light in all things.   Light burns.  To say the “whole world is secretly on fire” conjures up Moses’ experience of God in the burning bush.  Today’s science instructs us that every bush is a burning bush, all matter, contains photons or light waves, which in theological language can represent the light in all things, that which burns in all things.   But we must find stillness and focus to experience the Divine burning.

To me this imagery speaks of sweat lodge experiences when stones are burning red and on fire and take on shapes and speak to us.  Annie Dillard teaches that stones talk but it takes them 10,000 years to say one word.  Not so in a sweatlodge! 

“Meditation” by Le Minh Phuong, Unsplash

Are you burning also?  Are you sitting still to experience the secret fire in all things?  Merton warns that it takes daring.

Be still
Listen to the stones of the wall
Be silent, they try
To speak your
To the living walls.
Who are you?
Are you?  Whose
Silence are you?

Merton invites us to listen to the stones talking.  This requires silence and attention.  They are personal; they speak our name.  The walls live.  They ask us questions: “Who are you?”  and “Whose silence are you?”  The Bible speaks of the cornerstone of the wall that was rejected.  In Christian terms, the Christ is the corner stone.  Is that stone speaking to us also?  Is every being speaking to us if we dare to listen?

Adapted from Matthew Fox,  A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey
See also: Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, pp. 312, 313
Banner Image: “Sweat Lodge” by Kristof Zerbe, Flickr

Queries for Contemplation

Let Merton’s poetry wash over you and through and through you. Take a phrase or word from his poems and be still with it.  Repeat it as a mantra.  Be with the silence that follows.  Be with, be with….

How are Merton’s words speaking to you?

Do such burning stones speak to you?  If so, what do they teach you?  What are they saying?

Recommended Reading

The 365 writings in Christian Mystics represent a wide-ranging sampling of these readings for modern-day seekers of all faiths — or no faith. The visionaries quoted range from Julian of Norwich to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Thomas Merton to Dorothee Soelle and Thomas Berry.


Fox makes the point that religion has so often oversold the concept of “sin” that it has left us without language or power to combat evil. Through comparing the Eastern tradition of the 7 chakras to the Western tradition of the 7 capital sins, Fox allows us to think creatively about our capacity for personal and institutional evil and what we can do about them.

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3 thoughts on “Thomas Merton: On Silence and Burning”

  1. Avatar

    I would like to get second hand books on Thomas Merton… My pocket book is a bit low to buy new ones… Is there a place I might contact that you know about.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Maria,
      We are glad that you Matthew’s Daily Meditations have inspired you to learn more about Thomas Merton. We have no special source for used books. Perhaps your local library has some. Amazon also offers used books from third party sellers. If you start searching, I am sure you will find what you are seeking.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the DM Team

    2. Avatar

      I would like to recommend “Through the Year with Thomas Merton”, a yearly devotional, great pieces! (I just gave mine away, hahaha, that’s the deal with really good books…they are to be shared! 🙂

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