Merton and the Via Creativa,
Part 2

Poet, writer, musician, calligrapher, photographer, lover of jazz and of painting, Merton wrestled deeply with a vocational dilemma having to do with what I understand as introvert meditation vs. extrovert meditation or art as meditation.  Labrie writes:

The altar in Thomas Merton’s hermitage. Photo by Bryan Sherwood on Flickr

“Merton’s acutest problems with writing were the result of his own anxieties about his dual vocation as both contemplative and author. It was not just that writing took time away from contemplation but that it seemed at a certain point to subvert it.”

Contemplation and action, mysticism and prophecy, were in a battle within his soul.

Merton wrote in his journal: “I am getting to dislike more and more the complacent emphasis of the term ‘contemplative,’ and its inherent capacity to encourage phariseeism.

In 1959, wrestling with his vocation, he wrote:

Thomas Merton in the garden at Gethsemani Abbey. Photo from THOMAS MERTON CENTER, Bellarmine University.

Perhaps what I really want is to get away from ideals and mental images of monasticism and simply live as best I can, just live. . . . The fact is, I do not want purely and simply to “be a hermit” or to lead a life purely and ideally contemplative. At the same time I want to break with all the fictions and pretense, all the façade and latent hypocrisy of the monastic community in which I live. Yet. I truly seek a very solitary, simple and primitive life with no special labels attached.

According to Labrie, “the problem remained intellectually insoluble for him until his death.” Remember too that for Merton his art was not only poetry and writing but music and photography and calligraphy and even teaching the novices basket weaving. 

In art, the Via Positiva and the Via Creativa come together, along with the Via Negativa and the Via Transformativa. Indeed, for Merton solitude and silence (Via Negativa) were a prelude to art and creativity (Via Creativa).

As Labrie put it:

“In Silence,” from The Strange Islands by Thomas Merton.
Photo by John Howard Griffin.

“it was this sensitivity to silence — to what lay behind the word — that motivated Merton’s art as well as his life as a contemplative. . . . The artist and the contemplative in him were in agreement on this matter.”

Merton came to the conclusion that an art experience can become “analogous to the purity of religious contemplation,” and experience lies beyond all art.

He said, “A poem is for me the expression of an inner poetic experience and what matters is the experience, more than the poem itself.” (M. C. Richards says that the greatest thing the potter produces is not the pot but the potter!)

Also, the artist and the prophet came together with Merton.  That is what got him assassinated, for he died a martyr to peace.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 108f., 214.

Banner Image: Thomas Merton’s Hermitage, Gethsemani Abbey. Photo by Bryan Sherwood on Flickr

Queries for Contemplation

Have you undergone art experiences that were “analogous to the purity of religious contemplation?”  If so, what were those experiences like?

Do you empathize with the tension between contemplation and art that Merton struggled with?  Or has the understanding of Art as Meditation assisted you to resolve that dilemma?

Recommended Reading

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.

Responses are welcomed. To add your comment, please click HERE or scroll to the bottom of the page.

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9 thoughts on “Merton and the Via Creativa, <br>Part 2”

  1. Avatar

    The Sisters of St.Agnes have hermitages on the property where they live (mother house) in Fond du Lac Wisconsin. None of us except for the few like Matt Fox are going to get to the understandings of Merton. This is of course because people are too busy with the world. So in order for the group (people) to get to the higher sanctity levels we need to provide this understanding in our public education. In this world of my imagination part of a teachers education would be spending a year alone in a hermitage. The student will spend a year or more in basic silence with periodic interactions with their supervisor and other students. This type of “vision quest” would permeate more sanctity into the populace. “Dream on dream on teenage queen…”

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Gary,
      I was inspired by your vision of requiring an extended time of solitude of both teachers and students. We humans are wired for this, and for a balance between doing tasks, connecting to spirit, and making art. Inside, underneath this culture, our souls are screaming for this birthright. My imagination also went to churches, how “busy with the world” are they? And yet, providing opportunities for spiritual growth is what they are supposed to be about.(IMHO) Westerners lack the support, the opportunity, and mentors for building up the spiritual side of their lives. It hardly occurs to us. And yet we live our of our spiritual assumptions every day.

      There are some opportunities for vision quests for young people to pursue by volition, these days. Skylar Wilson, co-author of THe Order of the Sacred Earth with Matthew Fox and Jen Listug, has been leading wilderness rites of passage journeys(Vision Quests) for 16 years. He and his community of young adult leaders, Stepping Stones, have been leading rites of passage for teens in the bay area. You can find out more about his work at

      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  2. Avatar

    I can identify with Thomas Merton’s battles between his artistry, musicianship, contemplative and meditational abilities, and enough time to devote properly to any single one at any given time in order “to do justice to them” for himself and his own satisfaction. And yet, he didn’t want to be a hermit, alone with no friends!! Poor Thomas!! I do understand. People are always seemingly “after me” to write my memoirs, and I “remember” my long life very well, but I lack the energetic drive to attempt putting 86+ years into actual thoughts (now memories), much less moving them forward into words fit for reading by others ! It’s a true “battle” for sanity without guilt!!
    Peace and Blessings.

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Barbara,
      These overarching decisions about how we spent our lives are not easy! It does take some depth to stand back from your life and let its preoccupations offer revelations on what you have valued and where you have spent your time and energy. We can’t do it all. You, me, Thomas, and so many others will always be restless about our decisions because to choose anything, we have to let something else go. That’s life.

      Perhaps writing your memoirs would allow you to notice and appreciate the choices you’ve made throughout your life. I would imagine stepping back and taking a second look for the vantage of 86+ would reveal some patterns, pursuits, and values that you had not noticed before. Perhaps you actually did balance your relationships, artistry, your contemplative abilities, and your everyday tasks.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

    2. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Barbara,
      Than you for sharing your dilemma. We meet an interesting paradigm when we arrive at our elder years. Our self understanding leaps into a new stage as surely as babies learn to roll over when they get to 6 months. Elders see Life in a larger context, and our own lives as a finite bit within it. When I turned 65, I began to develop a kind of God’s eye view of creation. All people, including our greatest leaders, my dearest friends, and my loved ones, seemed part of a larger flow. My everyday actions were as much an outgrowth as a cause of creation’s algorithms.

      I have so many projects left undone, music to record, music to publish, books to write, prophetic projects to birth. Possibilities, like your book, are always presenting themselves. But these expressions are only worth pursuing if they serve the larger community of life. The peak of honoring our talents is not public recognition, but embodying the gift for one’s own generation and passing it on to the next. I am a singer. I voice the song of creation during my lifetime and then pass it on.

      You, Thomas Merton, and others have been entrusted with multiple talents. Each was of use at a different moment, moving some aspect of the greater story forward. At the same time, others had to be sacrificed in order to serve that same story, offering opportunities to practice letting go.

      If people are asking you to write your story, I wonder what wisdom they want to hear from you? Might they be asking you to frame your story with the wisdom of an elder so that they can live more authentically now? If you write, I hope you write in the context of the larger story, perhaps not a researched compilation of your life events, but something like a letter, short as you like to the generations that follow. I wish you wisdom in your decision.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  3. Avatar

    To answer the first inquiry Yes, many times I’ve experienced a timeless meditative state in playing the guitar in a manner of repeated patterns similar to what drumming will do. It becomes for me a nonverbal prayer

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Brent,
      Thank you for describing your meditative musical prayer. I believe the repetition you use is important. It balances the two sides of our brains between form and content, and it entrains our brains to divine vibrations which are themselves repetitions. There’s a relaxing, I’ve found, when we don’t have to worry what comes next. It is in that half-awake-lulled-into-openness that usually initiates deep meditation for me. I hope that you share your nonverbal prayers with others. Merton would be pleased.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

    1. Phila Hoopes

      Hello Carl,

      Thank you for asking….actually there has been plenty of evidence pointing toward Merton having been martyred. Matthew has spoken for years of elements in the official story that do not add up, and recently journalists Hugh Turley and David Martin have published a full-length investigation of the case: See Matthew’s review here:

      Phila Hoopes
      Blog Coordinator

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