Book review: The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton

by Rich Heffern

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By Monica Weis, SSJ
Published by the University Press of Kentucky, $32

Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote in his journal: “I myself am part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place … It is certainly part of my life of prayer.”

Author and Merton scholar Sr. Monica Weis, after reading Merton’s journals carefully, says she suddenly realized how profoundly weather had been shaping Merton’s spirituality over the years:

“Comments about the weather were not solely idle interjections into richer journal entries. They were not merely linguistic exercises, but a way of expressing an integral part of his inner and outer life. Weather was not some “other” to be enjoyed, ignored, or adapted to; rather, weather was somehow infused into Merton’s being. For him, the Western split between subject and object had dissolved. His quasi-flippant remark … “What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe” – take son en even deeper meaning, revealed the playfulness and hope of the ‘desert eccentric’ who, free form the tensions of a stifling city, understands the unifying experience of ordinariness.”

Weis charts a growing awareness in Merton of the importance of the natural world. A sense of nature was with him from his very beginnings, his childhood in Prades, France, where he watched his father paint landscapes. From his hermitage on the grounds of Gethsemani Abbey in rural Kentucky, he carefully chronicled the weather, the progression of the seasons, the happy encounters on his daily walks. . He engaged with nature in his writing, poetry, and photography.

Monica Weis share the fruits of her research into Merton’s ecological consciousness in detail in this new book.

She tags Merton’s life “an unfinished symphony,” asking his many readers to take on Merton’s task of becoming more awake, learning to look at the geography around us, reflecting on how it contributes to our identity, and discovering how, through contemplation, we are called to maintain its integrity.
Sister of St. Joseph Monica Weis is professor of English and director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Nazareth College in Kentucky. She is the author of Thomas Merton’s Gethsemani: Landscapes of Paradise.

A good description of Merton's ecological consciousness can be found in the following quote:

“When your tongue is silent, you can rest in the silence of the forest. When your imagination is silent, the forest speaks to you, tells you of its unreality and of the Reality of God. But when your mind is silent, then the forest suddenly becomes magnificently real and blazes transparently with the Reality of God. For now I know that the Creation, which first seems to reveal Him in concepts, then seems to hide Him by the same concepts, finally is revealed in Him, in the Holy Spirit. And we who are God find ourselves united in Him with all that springs from Him. This is prayer, and this is glory!”

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