Merton Finding the Ground of Being in Nature

Catholic monk Thomas Merton declared that every non two-legged creature is a saint. Furthermore,

Fellowship of the Saints at dawn. Photo by Luca Paul Dross from Pexels

every plant that stands in the light of the sun is a saint and an outlaw.  Every tree that brings forth blossoms without the command of man is powerful in the sight of God.  Every star that man has not counted is a world of sanity and perfection.  Every blade of grass is an angel singing in a shower of glory.  These are worlds of themselves.  No man can use or destroy them. 

He criticizes his and our inability to be grateful and present to the immediate joy of being when he chastises himself:

Dance in this sun, you tepid idiot.  Wake up and dance in the clarity of perfect contradiction.  You fool, it is life that makes you dance: have you forgotten?   

Much of Merton’s sensibility to the sacredness of nature no doubt comes from his Celtic roots as both his parents were of Welsh ancestry and it is the Celtic tradition that settled all the way down the Rhineland and so imbued Eckhart and Hildegard (raised in a Celtic monastery) as well as Saint Francis in north Italy with a respect for the sacredness of nature. 

“A Celtic Prayer” Video meditation assembled by Martin Nest.

Editor Kathleen Deignan writes that Merton “celebrated gratefully the Celtic spirit that coursed through his Welsh blood” and Celtic monasticism and how he

…shared a similar spiritual temperament with these masters of natural contemplation (theoria physike) who sought God less in the ideal essences of things than in the physical hierophanic cosmos.*  

It becomes readily clear that beginning with his move to the hermitage in 1960, a new part of his Celtic soul opened up. 

His engagement with nature as farmer and deforester was also tactile, athletic, even sensuous; like his father, he loved to walk barefoot in the woods, feeling the fragrant pine needles of Gethsemani beneath him.

“Thomas Merton.” Photo by Jim Forest on Flickr.

We are told that “the natural world played” a great significance “as the ecstatic ground of his own experience of God.”* 

Listen to his own words:

I live in the woods out of necessity.  I get out of bed in the middle of the night because it is imperative that I hear the silence of the night, alone, and, with my face on the floor, say psalms, alone, in the silence of the night….

The silence of the forest is my bride and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love and out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world.

Yes, nature is his bride. Deignan comments on this passage that

in time…his unique subjectivity opened to the cosmos in wonder and awe, sounding a silent interval of praise in the rapturous hymn of creation.

This was the mature Merton, washed in the creation spirituality of Meister Eckhart and his Celtic forebears.

*Kathleen Deignan, ed.,When the Trees Say Nothing: Thomas Merton Writing on Nature, pp. 32f., 22f.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 56f., 59f.

See also: Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times.

Banner Image: Dew in the grasses. Photo by Anton Atanasov from Pexels

Queries for Contemplation

Do you recognize every non-two legged creature as a saint?  And every plant as a saint and an outlaw?  And every blade of grass as an angel?  If not, what are we missing?  If we do, what follows from that?

Recommended Reading

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

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.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our Time

While Matthew Fox recognizes that Meister Eckhart has influenced thinkers throughout history, he also wants to introduce Eckhart to today’s activists addressing contemporary crises. Toward that end, Fox creates dialogues between Eckhart and Carl Jung, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Heschel, Black Elk, Karl Marx, Rumi, Adrienne Rich, Dorothee Soelle, David Korten, Anita Roddick, Lily Yeh, M.C. Richards, and many others.
“Matthew Fox is perhaps the greatest writer on Meister Eckhart that has ever existed. (He) has successfully bridged a gap between Eckhart as a shamanistic personality and Eckhart as a post-modern mentor to the Inter-faith movement, to reveal just how cosmic Eckhart really is, and how remarkably relevant to today’s religious crisis! ” — Steven Herrmann, Author of Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward

Upcoming Events

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4 thoughts on “Merton Finding the Ground of Being in Nature”

  1. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    If I am to be really honest, I have to admit that over the past few weeks as I watched the gypsy moth caterpillars devaste several different varieties of trees on my property and the surrounding forest… I didn’t see them as sacred, or saints or any other beautiful metaphor of which Thomas Merton speaks of. I wondered what possibly could be God’s purpose in this destruction of one of God’s created creatures upon another one of God’s creations. My heart wept for all of the trees. The why without an answer lay upon the ground, like all the dead particles of leaves, the trees now remnants of what they used to be. Was it all a metaphoric message reflecting the condition of humanity itself? Is this process unfolding before my eyes some kind of mystery regarding transformation… after all the caterpillar eventually turns into a moth… the moth then seeks the light? Does something have to die … so something else can live? Does one thing willingly sacrifice itself for another? I want to understand, to trust that God must have a purpose in what’s happening, that presently seems beyond my comprehension… and also beyond my control to change. All my questions, unanswered… leave me restless.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, I too have been bothered by what is called, “The Problem of Evil” for most of my life. After all, how could a loving, all-powerful God, stand by, and watch all of the bad things that go on in the world, and let them happen? The atheist would say its because God does not exist. And those of a deistic bent–as a number of the founders of our country were–believed that God made creation like a watchmaker–he put it together and then into motion, but God let it run on its own, with no more of God’s involvement. And then there is the holocaust and the death of Jesus–which God let happen (oh, but that’s different!) Jeanette, we live in a truly ambiguous world when it comes to the presence of both good and evil, and what we do with that knowledge is up to us. We can either let it push us towards deism or even atheism, or we can have faith–for as St. Paul wrote “for we walk by faith, and not by sight.”

  2. Avatar

    Thank you for the Celtic Prayer video. It was wonderful: the images, the rhythm, the voices. Also for the quote beginning, “The silence of the forest is my bride……”. Creation spirituality at its absolute best.

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