Natural mysticism by Thomas Merton

provided by Andre Claessens MSC

Thomas Merton expert Kick Bras wrote a book about the natural mysticism of Merton. How has that changed his own view on climate, sustainability and nature? In the notebooks of the famous American Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) we discover a natural mysticism and an ecological ethics. These are not only reflected in the books Merton wrote, but also in his diaries published twenty years after his death. In lyrical terms, the monk describes how he experiences nature and what it means for his contemplative life.

The sources with Merton’s natural mysticism

At a young age, Merton was fascinated by nature. He took this fascination with him when he joined the Trappist monastery in the state of Kentucky at the age of 27. In his diaries we read that the permission his abbot gave him to regularly visit the silence of the woods around the monastery meant a lot to him. Later, a small bungalow was built in the forest where he was allowed to retreat and eventually even live permanently as a hermit. Out here in the woods, I can think of nothing but God.

Several sources inspired Merton to arrive at his ecological mysticism and ethics. He draws from Benedictine spirituality, the desert fathers and medieval Franciscan thinkers, but also from Celtic spirituality, insights from Zen Buddhism and also from the vision of American conservationists.

A mystical experience of nature

The research into these sources confirmed the conviction that a deep mystical experience of nature, supported by different religious traditions, is possible. And that it can be an important stimulus for our responsibility for a sustainable future. The core of nature mysticism lies in the experience of unity with nature and in it with the divine presence in nature. As Merton himself writes: “Out here in the woods, I can’t think of anything but God, and I don’t really think of him either. I am as aware of him as I am of the sun and the clouds and the blue sky and the thin cedar trees.

We see that nature has different meanings for Merton’s contemplative vision of life. Gradually he developed a lyrical, but at the same time deeply thought-out, spiritual vision of nature. Merton attributes this importance to nature in view of contemplative silence and solitude. But even those who do not go as far as the hermit existence can experience the deep benefits of silence in nature. That silence helps to clear the head, and to enjoy trees, flowers, birds and other animals with attention and admiration. And thereby come to prayer and worship.

Man as part of the ecological whole

Merton had strong experiences of unity and connectedness to all that is living around him. He speaks about this in appealing and deeply lived language, which helps to realize that man is part of an ecological whole. That we humans are connected to the rest of creation, not in a position of rulers who can afford anything, but as part of a whole for which we were given a special responsibility by our Creator. Then our experience of nature also becomes religious in nature.

A correction to the one-sided technological and rational worldview Merton practiced pure, contemplative perception of the divine essence in reality. The trees and animals he observed attentively gave him a deep sense of God’s immanence in his creation. This mystical union with the divine Spirit present in his creation leads to reverent and responsible dealings with nature. For Merton, such a religious vision is a correction to the one-sided technological and rational worldview that approaches and exploits nature as an object.

Ecological ethics

Merton’s ecological ethics can be placed in the context of his broader involvement in social problems, such as nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, racism and the reckless technological interventions in nature. At Merton, mystical nature experience and protest against nature destruction are united. His spiritual vision of nature eventually led to the propagation of an ecological ethic. Thus he writes: We belong to a community of living beings, and we owe our fellow members in this community the respect and honor they deserve… This ecological conscience can be summed up in the words of Albert Schweitzer: “Life is sacred… that of plants and animals as well as that of our fellow man.’

There is an enormous positive energy from such a nature experience.

What I myself learned from him is the importance of the mystical experience of nature, in which one experiences and acknowledges God’s presence in nature. Merton does not fall into a pantheistic deification of nature, but feels included in the one great hymn of the Creator through his creation. There is an enormous positive energy from such a nature experience. And we desperately need them in the fight against forces that threaten the survival of the planet.

Struggling with positive energy

A struggle that arises from anger, indignation, but also from insight into one’s own failure, is a struggle from negative energy. This is and remains important in the gigantic transition that we have to undergo. But without positive energy from a mystical enjoyment of nature, we cannot last. I have experienced Merton’s words as an injection of such positive energy. In this way, mysticism can give an important impulse to sustainable lifestyle and commitment to a sustainable society.

Kick Bras. Onuitsprekelijk paradijs – De groene spiritualiteit van Thomas Merton. Berne Media 2021. 176 blz. € 19,95.

Kick Bras. Unspeakable Paradise – The Green Spirituality of Thomas Merton. Berne Media 2021. 176 p. € 19,95.

The book Unspeakable Paradise – The Green Spirituality by Thomas Merton arose from lectures that Bras gave in July 2021 in the study week Mysticism of the Titus Brandsma Institute in Nijmegen, about nature mysticism and ecological ethics Thomas Merton. Titus Brandsma was canonized by Pope Francis