Thomas Merton is a saint for the non-believer, the skeptic, the ecumenical religionist. He started life as a non-Catholic and became a monk in one of Roman Catholicism’s strictest orders. He endorsed East-West religious dialogue, met the Dalai Lama, and was criticized for his opinions about the Civil Rights movement as unbecoming of a monk. He started his religious journey as a Catholic and wound up as a quasi-Buddhist—and, as author Monica Weis asserts, a spiritually aware environmentalist.
This is Weis’s second book about Merton (Thomas Merton’s Gethsemani: Landscapes of Paradise). With her special inroads into his life and his writings
(for Merton was a writer long before he was a monk), she has produced this well-researched book giving insight into Merton’s love of nature and the natural world.
This appreciation had its overt beginnings when Merton read Rachel Carson’s
Silent Spring in the early 1960s. Merton wrote Carson a lengthy letter in which he suggested the image of man “blundering around aimlessly in the midst of the wonderful works of God.” Weis characterizes this encounter with Carson’s work as an expansion of Merton’s high reverence for social justice, extended now to justice for plants and animals.
Subsequently, Merton became a more astute observer of nature. He watched and even longed to touch the deer that inhabited the woods around his hermitage and came to regard them as spiritually symbolic. He began to formulate a new spiritual picture based on “non-violence to the Earth.” Much of his poetry centers on observations of the natural world around his little hut.
However, Weis also traces Merton’s love of nature back to earlier days, citing a journal entry when he is considering becoming a Trappist Monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, in which Merton concludes that “there is nothing in the Trappist discipline to prevent you loving nature the way I meant it then.” Later, Merton was to assert that “I myself am part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place.” This sense of merging is not antithetical to his Catholicism, but it is an unusual expression of it. Merton was to write “the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.” Ultimately Merton would declare (to his woman friend known as “M”), “[T]his life in the woods is IT.” He even joined the Wilderness Society from Gethsemani.
Weis’s thesis is clear: had he lived longer (Merton died suddenly in 1968), he would have become known as a pioneer in the literature of ecological awareness. His writings promoting environmental conscience can serve as an inspiration to those pursuing a religious path who do not wish to relinquish their attachment to the beauty of nature and the responsibility that such beauty implies for spiritually minded human beings.