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The Pocket Thomas Merton edited by Robert Inchausti

August 3, 2011

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who wrote over 70 books in his lifetime. Like the other books in the “Pocket Classics” series, this is a compilation of short quotes from Thomas Merton’s writing. I kept it next to my bed for several years and would read a few pages here and there, trying to follow Merton’s advice: “As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart, you can put the book down because your meditation has begun” (admittedly, my meditation often resembled sleep).

For some reason, I incorrectly thought that Thomas Merton lived a couple hundred years ago. He didn’t. He lived from 1915-1968. So what was most surprising to me—how relevant I found his writings to today’s world—really shouldn’t have been that surprising. That said, there’s quite a bit of thought-provoking material in this little book, particularly his ideas about self-knowledge and open-mindedness. Here are just a few of the many passages I underlined:

“My idea of what I am is falsified by my admiration of what I do. And my illusions about myself are bred by contagion from the illusions of other men…Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone else seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all.”

“There is a great deal of busy-ness as people invent things to do when in fact there is very little to be done. Yet we are overwhelmed with jobs, duties, tasks, assignments, ‘missions’ of every kind…The more we seem to accomplish, the harder it becomes to really dissimulate our trifling, and the only thing that saves us is the common conspiracy not to advert to what is really going on.”

“If we love our own ideology and our own opinion instead of loving our brother, we will seek only to glorify our ideas and our institutions and by that fact we will make real communication impossible.”

“We believe that truth cannot be preserved except by the destruction of the enemy—for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error…Our task is not suddenly to burst out into the dazzle of utter unadulterated truth but laboriously to reshape an accurate and honest language that will permit communication between men on all social levels.”

“A test of our sincerity in nonviolence is this: Are we willing to learn something from the adversary? If a new truth is made known to us by him or through him, will we accept it?”

“One who is content in what he has, and who accepts the fact that he inevitably misses very much in life, is far better off than one who has much more but who worries about all he may be missing. For we cannot make the best of what we are if our hearts are always divided between what we are and what we are not.”

“The fruitfulness of our life depends in large measure on our ability to doubt our own words and to question the value of our own work. The man who completely trusts his own estimate of himself is doomed to sterility. All he asks of any act he performs is that it be his act.”

“There is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to the deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example.”

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