How Beauty Saved Thomas Merton


There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

~Thomas Merton from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

As a commemoration of Thomas Merton’s 100th birthday on January 31, this past week, social media (at least the sites that I follow) was infused with much of Merton’s writings. Interestingly I see many connections between Evdokimov and Merton’s work. Further, I see that Merton’s conversion applies to Evdokimov’s understanding of the role of beauty as well as the salvific power of beauty.

In Merton’s premier work, Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiographical, best selling novel, Merton recollects how he is drawn into the mystery and beauty (eros) of the Catholic Church.  As a young scholar and a man of the world, in his early years Merton considered himself an atheist. His autobiographical work is likened to St. Augustine’s Confessions. As a lover of literature what initially drew Merton to the faith was reading “Nature and Art in William Blake.” As a break through of Merton’s material philosophy and brilliant, rational mind, poetry illumined the interior beauty within him dawning the mystical and supernatural. In Blake’s poetic writings Merton began to see through his transformed eyes the deeper hidden meanings of Blake, “The harlot’s cry from street to street, shall weave old England’s winding sheet.” The interior logos could now be seen by Merton in Blake’s poetic prose: love that was outlawed had become lust.

Before Merton’s conversion he thought of himself as a pagan. He believed that social structures and economics would save humanity. Not only did Merton see himself as a pagan, but as a social critic drawn to seek truth in the rational world. It is in this quest Merton met head on the salvific power of beauty. His awakening came about through the beauty of prose and divine love (eros). Merton’s conversion was a long bumpy road through contemplation and full immersion in the liturgical life of the Church. His awakening brought him to the full realization that the divine creation of the human was true beauty.

Similar to Dostoyevsky’s understanding, as Merton was contemplating the Kingdom, he was contemplating beauty. Dostoyevsky saw beauty as the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit is the direct seizure, grasping of Beauty.” Throughout Merton’s conversion he was continually drawn to the beauty of the Catholic Church, he recognized for the first time that he was feeling happy. The beauty that he was drawn to is eros or love. The feeling of eros was stirring with in Merton as he continued seeking.

According to Merton’s journals on the Sunday he finally decided to go to Mass for the first time at the Church of Corpus Christi he wrote, “God made it a very beautiful Sunday. ” Merton was drawn to the light, the beauty of the bells, and the mystery of grace. Months later after further searching and reading literature like that of James Joyce, Merton felt a stirring and a prompting to walk to Corpus Christi and seek becoming Catholic. Merton was seized by Beauty. The Spirit spoke to him, “What are you waiting for?”

In later years Merton’s conversion grew more deeply while in the Trappist Monastery. Found after Merton’s death in 1968, was his journal. Recorded on the date of Merton’s epiphany on the corner of 4th and Walnut he wrote, “I am keenly conscious, not of their beauty (I hardly think I saw anyone really beautiful by special standards) but of their humanity, their woman-ness. But what incomprehensible beauty is there, what secret beauty that would perhaps be inaccessible to me if I were not dedicated to a different way of life (Thomas Merton’s private Journal; 3.19.58)

Merton’s diary entry is later transposed in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander as seeing everyone as lights shining in the sun. Merton’ s epiphany is profoundly beautiful and akin to Evdokimov’s composition, “To be in the Light is to be in illuminating communion” (Loc 201). This is recognizing persons as icons which is similar to Merton’s enlightened experience. Merton attributes his awakening to the secret beauty of seeing beings of beauty shining as the sun, to his way of monastic and liturgical life.

Merton was a contemplative and lived deeply steeped in liturgical life. The sacred life of the monastery is silence. The daily life is sacramental. Contemplating the logos, “its interior word” and its “entelechy,” the object itself, would be a daily ritual.   “Their intimate interpretation, the secret coinciding, reveals itself in terms of light and beauty” (Loc 274). The contemplative can see hidden in a bush, as St. Maximus says, “the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of his beauty inside every thing” (Loc 274).

In Merton’s early years he was consumed in seeking positive or cataphatic knowledge of all sorts. Later in life he was drawn deeper and deeper into the realm where words lose meaning and the negative knowledge or apophasis takes on greater value. This contemplation includes the symbolism of the liturgy or the “symbolic realism” (Loc 311) calling deeply an epiphanic symbolism.

As one who lived a contemplative monastic and liturgically immersed life, one would think Merton would have lived as a saint. But, “A saint is not a superman but someone who lives his truth as a liturgical being” (Loc 346) Even though in Merton’s final publicly recorded message in Bangkok he said, “I’m going to fly out of here,” he was no Superman.  Just as Superman had a weakness with kryptonite, Merton had a weakness where he found beauty (eros) in a beautiful young nurse. Fortunately, Merton was able to return in union with the Light and restore his monastic vocation.

Evdokimov’s theologizing on light and beauty seem interconnected and actualized in Merton’s epiphany in Louisville on 4th and Walnut street. Again, as Merton said, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”


1 thought on “How Beauty Saved Thomas Merton

  1. Catherine,
    I love the post! It is interesting how we both chose so many of the same quotes from Evdokimov. Merton’s idea of eros towards God is very appealing; I feel like I can never tire of hearing that. It reminds me of Augustine’s saying “Dilige et quod vis fac” (“Love and do what you will”).

    Liked by 1 person

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