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Thinking Out Loud

Thomas Merton's Restless Heart

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 04, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Restless HeartThomas Merton wrote one of the most influential spiritual autobiographies in Christian history. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote the original. Though I am sure that Merton would be the first to say that Augustine's Confessions towers above his own The Seven Storey Mountain, there are many similarities between the two.

Both autobiographies were written for spiritual purposes. They are spiritual memoirs. They are not written in the vein of a modern "celebrity tell-all," a meticulously footnoted critical appraisal of a national leader, or a ghost-written self-advertisement. Both Confessions and The Seven Storey Mountain were written with searing honesty, to help other pilgrims find their way to God. Both were written by extraordinarily erudite, philosophically subtle and eloquent authors. Both display a humility that is profoundly moving. And both exhibit an aesthetic sensibility and love of beauty that shines through even the most densely reasoned theological points.

Merton and Augustine were larger than life. They sought after spiritual satisfaction, but had reveled in carnal pleasures before their surrender to God. Augustine famously prayed, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." And Merton's exploits with alcohol and women, especially while a student at Clare College, Cambridge, are well known. Perhaps the greatest similarity between the two was that which drove them or drew them toward the divine: a relentless restlessness.

Augustine gave this drive its classic formulation in the prayer with which he begins his Confessions:

“‘You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised' (Ps. 47:2): 'great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable' (Ps. 146:5). Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being 'bearing his mortality with him' (2 Cor. 4:10), carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you 'resist the proud' (1 Pet. 5:5). Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." [Augustine, St. Augustine’s Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 3.]


In “Book V” of Confessions, Augustine continues praying, reflecting on the nature of this restlessness, and the way in which it alienates one from oneself:

"The closed heart does not shut out your eye, and your hand is not kept away by the hardness of humanity, but you melt that when you wish ... and there is 'none who can hide from your heat' (Ps. 18:7). ... So from weariness our soul rises toward you, first supporting itself on the created order and then passing on to you yourself who wonderfully made it (Ps. 71:18; 135:4). With you is restored strength and true courage. ... Let them turn, and at once you are there in their heart - in the heart of those who make confession to you and throw themselves upon you and weep on your breast after traveling many rough paths. ... Where was I when I was seeking for you? You were there before me, but I had departed from myself. I could not even find myself, much less you." (Augustine, Confessions, 72-73.)


"Our heart is restless until it rests in you." Merton's Seven Storey Mountain reads like a commentary on this passage from Augustine. On page after page of Merton's autobiography we find a young man confessing, "I could not even find myself, much less you."

"There is a paradox," Merton writes of himself, "that lies in the very heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of man. The paradox is this: man's nature by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems." [Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: HBJ, 1948/1976) p. 169.]


Paul Tillich had said as much when he said that humanity is the question to which God alone is the answer. Both Merton and Augustine courageously probe a psychology of the spirit using themselves and their own lives as exhibit A, inquiring into the human creature's inability to know itself, to recognize what it is and what it was made for, until the light of God's grace blinds the creature into a new kind of sight. "In thy light we shall see light."

The various plots of the sinner's recovery are familiar to us all. One is based on the parable of the prodigal. The child wandered into a far country and squandered his inheritance foolishly and winds up dining with swine only to come to himself by grace. And, by grace, seeing himself anew and remembering his father's house where he was intended to feast, no longer is he a stranger in a strange land but again a child at home. Another common plot is the even more ancient one, the journey from one place to another to the unknown but promised land. Abraham and Jacob as well as Moses and Joshua are all originals for this story of the soul. And still another plot is the story of sickness and healing, near-death and health-restored, or death and new life. The plots of sickness and healing abound throughout the Bible, but especially in the gospels. All of these plots require that we pass through "dark nights of the soul," periods of disorientation, times of great discomfort and apparently God-forsakenness which (to our surprise) turn out to be occasions for overwhelming grace. In the dark night we come to rest in the God beyond all our conceptions.

Restlessness, movement of the heart, changes of mind, conversions of manners, are often involved in the life of faith because spiritual transformation requires displacement of the most profound sort. God places us in darkness and blinds us in light, sends us out into solitude and draws us into deep silence so we will pay attention.

"What has to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning are the same thing, for at the very core of our essence we are constituted in God's likeness by our freedom, and the exercise of that freedom is nothing else but the exercise of disinterested love - the love of God for his own sake, because he is God. The beginning of love is truth, and before he will give us his love, God must cleanse our souls of the lies that are in them." (Merton, Mountain, p. 372.)


Here is the promised healing, the journey's end, and the prodigal's true home appearing on the horizon at last.

At the close of Augustine's Confessions, we come upon his comments on Sabbath. Here we find his most beautiful reflections on rest. He writes:

"The seventh day has no evening and has no ending. You sanctified it to abide everlastingly. Even as we are promised a rest that never ends in God, in the end God will rest in us and through us, even as God works through us now.” (Augustine, Confessions, 304.)


I have often wondered at the astonishing literary productivity of both Augustine and Merton. Their pens never rested, even if their hearts did. But perhaps they had discovered the secret of running and not fainting, because it was no longer their restlessness that made them run.

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