Manifesting the Invisible: Thomas Merton's Vision of Contemplative Christianity in the Modern World




Soenen, Pablo Christian

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The American Cistercian monk Thomas Merton was a tireless contributor to the 20th century conversations of the role of the monastic contemplative life in the modern world. His concept of the contemplative life’ s openness to the world and service to modernity, and indeed his understanding of his own vocation, developed significantly throughout his life, to the point that some have found it helpful to distinguish between the “early Merton” and the “later Merton.” This thesis will track the changes in Merton’ s thought as a guide to answering the questions that captivated Merton throughout his life: what is the relationship between contemplative interiority and active struggle for justice? What is the role and function of spirituality in the modern world? Are changes in religiosity indicative of insufficiencies in the content or communication of religion? Can the contemplative life exist today as it has for centuries? I will argue that Merton’ s thought changed as he became immersed in a more secular modern society. The content of spiritual interiority remains the same, but its context must shift to the scene of modern alienation. Religious experience must be open to the modern collective consciousness, but the insights of modernity are not new: the mystics have always perceived God as absent, or at best mysteriously present. In the modern context, contemplative love will seek active expression in protest against the injustices of society if it is to remain authentic.


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