Regarding ecology, Merton spoke bluntly about the eco-devastation our species is engaged in:

Rescuers dash in as an endangered orangutan falls after trying to stop the earthmover clearcutting its forest home for palm oil. Photo: International Animal Rescue (IAR), published in The Dodo.

What a miserable bundle of foolish idiots we are! We kill everything around us even when we think we love and respect nature and life. This sudden power to deal death all around us simply by the way we live, and in total “innocence” and ignorance, is by far the most disturbing symptom of our time. . . .

A phenomenal number of species of animals and birds have become extinct in the last fifty years — due of course to man’s irruption into ecology. There was still a covey of quail around here in early fall. Now I don’t hear a single whistle or hear a wing beat.

Northern bobwhite quail, now seeing historically low populations due to predators, diseases, parasites, pesticides, and loss of habitat. Photo: Mississippi State University Extension.

Merton sees eco-justice as an imperative: 

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of Christian obedience to God today concerns the responsibility of the Christian, in a technological society, toward creation and God’s creation and God’s will for creation.

We hold the power “to frustrate God’s designs for nature…by misuse and blind exploitation, especially by criminal waste.”

A vicar is about to be arrested for blocking Whitehall during the Extinction Rebellion protests, London, UK October 2019. Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

The dualism of humans vs. nature haunts us: “How absolutely true, and how central a truth, that we are purely and simply part of nature.”  A “post-Cartesian technologism separates man from the world.”

These observations are not old or obsolete. One wonders where we would be today if they had been heeded when Merton first wrote them.  Merton’s ecological concern did arise in Pope Francis’s encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si, which appeared on Earth Day, 2015, forty-seven years after his death.

Merton scholar Monica Weis believes that reading Rachel Carson

…marked a turning point in the ecological consciousness of Thomas Merton — a day of revelation and revolution, when a significant spiritual insight effected a dramatic and permanent change in his attitude and behavior.

Pope Francis’ encyclical may be read or downloaded here

 It amounted to “an epiphanic event akin to other well-known and powerful moments of spiritual insight in his life.” This conversion or metanoia provides more evidence that he was moving from anthropocentric and Fall/redemption spirituality into a creation-centered one. Weis interprets his letter to Carson as “a revelation of his long-held incarnational vision that acknowledges the divine spark in all creation, making each creature holy and worthy of respect.”

Merton enlarged his vision, she says: 

Having focused his social justice writing on right relationship among people — topics of racism, the rights of indigenous people, the dangers of atomic energy and technology, as well as the moral imperative for making peace through nonviolent means — Merton is now articulating a new insight: responsibility for the Earth.

Adapted from: Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 117, 119.

Banner image: Simply being present in nature: boots on the autumn earth. Photo by from Pexels

Queries for Contemplation

The eco-crisis Merton recognized as the “most disturbing symptom of our time and we are told this news “enlarged his vision.”  How are our visions enlarging as we face the darkness of today’s news about the climate emergence we are facing today?  Ask that your heart and vision be enlarged.  Meister Eckhart: “God is delighted to watch your soul enlarge.”  An enlarged soul leads to courage (French for a “large heart”).

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.

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