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Can I Trust Thomas Merton?

January 2, 2013 by  
Filed under Can I Trust?, Dan Burke, PseudoSpirituality

Q: Dear Dan, I read your post on the Holy See’s concerns about Anthony de Mello, and I wondered as well about Thomas Merton. Some of his writings are helpful to me, but some make me very uncomfortable. Do you recommend his spiritual writings?

A: Dear Friend, I am grateful to hear you are investing so much energy into your spiritual reading. You will find immeasurable rewards in your efforts to continually delve into the great wealth of spiritual sustenance provided within the pure expression of our tradition.

With respect to Thomas Merton, there has been no official concern specifically expressed about his writings that I am aware of. However, the Vatican has specifically addressed the exploration of the integration of Eastern and Western faith systems (in which Merton was wholeheartedly engaged during the latter part of his life) in the following documents (well worth reading):

As well, on this site, Bishop Gregory Mansour wrote a few posts for us on spiritual direction, and in one of them he quotes Merton. At that time, I was aware of concerns about Merton, particularly from Alice Von Hildebrand and others. That said, I had also heard from others I respect who held Merton in high regard.

Since then, along with reading Merton, I have done a bit of research and have found one resource that is particularly fair and insightful on Merton. It was written by Anthony E. Clark for This Rock Magazine and titled, Can You Trust Thomas Merton? Clark is a Catholic author and professor of Chinese History and is uniquely qualified to address the issues that surfaced in Merton’s later writings. The bottom line is that there are two periods in Merton’s life and writings as categorized by Clark below (my headings).

The Early Period

These works represent the early era of Merton’s monastic life, when his views were still quite orthodox. These books are beautifully written; they are what made Thomas Merton Thomas Merton (note that this is Clark’s opinion, not mine. I give mine at the end of the post).

  • The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948
  • The Tears of the Blind Lions, 1949
  • Waters of Siloe, 1949
  • Seeds of Contemplation, 1949
  • The Ascent to Truth, 1951
  • Bread in the Wilderness, 1953
  • The Sign of Jonas, 1953
  • The Last of the Fathers, 1954
  • No Man Is an Island, 1955
  • The Living Bread, 1956
  • The Silent Life, 1957
  • Thoughts in Solitude, 1958

The Slip Into the East (Read with Caution)

By 1966, Merton’s writings began to take an eastern turn toward Chinese and Japanese religious traditions. Starting with Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, his books begin to criticize the West and find answers in the East. Following are only a few examples of his more questionable works.

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1966: Here Merton begins the part of his life that is critical of the West. While his criticisms of Western materialism and pragmatism ring loudly, especially in today’s world, one senses here a new interest in Eastern religion—and this is where his works become most problematic.

Mystics and Zen Masters, 1967: This is Merton’s first plunge into Eastern thought and religion. Its strength is its mostly cogent description of Chinese Daoism and Zen Buddhism, but one begins to discern Merton’s attitude shifting toward his later-developed notion that Eastern religion is a necessary supplement to Catholicism.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite, 1968: By now Merton is swimming in Zen—this work is a comparative consideration of Buddhism and Christianity. It’s beautifully expressed, but his overall goal is to erase the lines between two very distinct religious beliefs.

The Way of Chuang Tzu, 1969: This is one of Merton’s most problematic works. It valorizes the relativistic teachings of Zhuangzi, the Zhou dynasty Daoist. This is Merton’s final interweaving of Eastern and Western thought.

The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, 1973: Here we find his final writings, and they are full of cathartic angst. At the end of this journal, one senses that Merton has knowingly wandered from clear Church teaching. While in Bankok, a Dutch abbot asked him to appear in a television interview, for “the good of the Church.” But Merton writes that, “It would be much ‘better for the Church’ if I refrained.”

My advice?  The Church is in no way lacking in solid and perfectly trustworthy writings on the spiritual life. I personally don’t know why anyone would want to carefully sift through this kind of literature when it is clear that Merton had serious issues even during the his “orthodox” period. It seems a bit like sifting through the refuse at the back of a good restaurant. You will no doubt find much that is of nutritional value, but why not just go take your seat at the table for the best and purest meals available? I would encourage you to stick with the spiritual doctors of the Church. To name a few, the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Francis de Sales will more than meet your needs for spiritual guidance and you need not worry that you might be led down a path that leads away from the Heart of the Church.

PS: I recognize that many have found that through Merton’s writings, they have grown to more fully love and serve Christ. My thoughts here don’t in any way deny that reality or possibility. My intent here is to answer the question asked by the reader. The fact that God uses many means and instruments, including very flawed instruments, to lead people to Himself is assumed and appreciated in a very personal way.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the founder of Catholic Spiritual Direction, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and author of the award winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God. Beyond his “contagious” love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN’s Journey Home program and numerous radio programs. If you have an interest in having Dan come speak at your parish or Catholic event or group, contact us at or call 818-646-7729.

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  • Paul Rimmer

    Why not simply read the Bible for spiritual wisdom?

    • Dan Burke

      This is a protestant sensibility not shared by Catholics who recognize the inexhaustible wealth of the work of the Holy Spirit both within and outside of scripture in and through the lives of the saints and theologians of the ages.

      • MarcAlcan

        While I do agree that there is a wealth of insight that we can gain from the great saints, I think Paul has actually pinpointed a great poverty amongst Catholic – the rather palpable ignorance of the Bible.
        If one does Lectio Divina, faithfully, this will have a profound effect on the spiritual growth of the person, for here, we have God Himself guiding us, speaking to us. I love St Teresa of Avila and St Ignatius of Loyola but in the end we really need to immerse ourselves in Scripture but with the guidance of the Catechism.

        • Dan Burke

          Well said.

    • ryansmeeks

      Why bother coming to a website like this, if that is your view?

      • Dan Burke

        Ryan – have you ever seen a dog tilt its head after hearing a strange noise? This is my reaction to your comment. I don’t understand…

        • LizEst

          ; o))

      • sanfordandsons

        Often times you can get spirituality from a little old lady across the street who has never read the bible.

  • mrsoriordan

    Another thing about Thomas Merton (Lord rest his soul) that put me on alert was my love for the Lives of the Saints had grown – I found them to be particularly uplifting and most especially their death. Merton’s sudden death worried me! – Rene

  • steve syvan

    Gibran’s piece “…your children come through you not from you..” i am Byzantine Catholic and we have a different perspective on Scripture. Read the Philokalia and you will see it is light years ahead of Merton and Buddhism…i appreciate  Gibran…i think Gibran meant your childrens behavior and values are from you…especially your unconscious values…if you are unknowingly a homosexual, your child may exhibit the behavior you repressed all your life, so as the child psychically  comes through you ,he or she emerges as what you may have repressed…just an Eastern Church view on Gibran…peace be with you… 

    • Becky Ward

      I think this simply means that our children come from God.  They arrive on earth through their parents…..but they originate in God, just like everything else.

      • steve syvan

        yes. thank you…that makes perfect sense…i was maybe going deeper than necessary…

  • Aodhan Richardson

    I sent a rather long comment earlier today supporting Merton. Perhaps it didn’t fit here.

    • Dan Burke

      I dont’ recall the content only that it appeared that it had been cut and pasted from MS Word or some other application. This causes havoc with our combox system. Feel free to type it in.

  • Dan Burke

    I actually link to this piece in the post…

  • Aodhan Richardson

    Sorry for the MS Word gobbledy gook. I usually write longer posts there and paste into smaller windows that make the text harder to see for me.  Hopefully, this one will work.

    I can say this of Thomas Merton: he helped (and continues to help) me down my own spiritual path like no one else. No other spiritual writers except, perhaps, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, have had such a profound impact on 20th and 21st century spirituality as has Thomas Merton, in my biased opinion. His book, “New Seeds of Contemplation” is, I think, the seminal work on modern spiritual growth and contemplative prayer.  I suspect that most conservative/orthodox Catholics who have a problem with Merton do so because they may be suspicious of anything that deviates from established Catholic doctrine. Merton’s very human, and forgivable failures–or at least they should be forgivable if we follow the words of Jesus, probably add to their suspicion.Merton, like all of us, was a flawed human being struggling to find his place in a most imperfect world. Perhaps his failures might make him even more appealing. Like Merton I can  find no harm of adding some Eastern spiritual practices if they lead us to deeper spiritual growth and ultimately draw ever closer to God, as was Merton’s sole intent. Merton’s pronouncements against war, nuclear weapons, greed, the denial of basic human rights, and the plea to love one another were taken directly from Christ’s soul. Human flaws and failures notwithstanding, Thomas Merton’s works stand the test of time, and should be on the eye-level bookshelf of any Christian (or even non-Christian) searching for a way to get closer to God and live out Christ’s message. Merton, rather than leading us astray from “the Heart of the Church,” will surely lead us more closely to it. I and everyone I know who is a devotee of Thomas Merton feel drawn closer to the Church. Indeed, I have a friend who was led to Catholicism because of Merton. Every day I reverently pray for Merton’s sainthood. I think we owe him a great debt.

    • Dan Burke

      Dear Aodhan – thanks for your feedback. Of course, we don’t agree. Even so, I am grateful that the Lord used him to help you.

      • Aodhan Richardson

        Thank you, and I appreciated your column. I liked quite a bit of it, actually.

    • MarcAlcan

      So I have wandered into this article a year later.
      Aodhan, most conservative Catholics are rightly suspicious of anything that diverts from established Catholic doctrine. If a doctrine is established, then that means that the Holy Spirit has guided the establishment of that doctrine. If something contrary to that is being proposed, then one could hardly say that this new thing would be from the Holy Spirit for the HS could not possibly contradict Himself.
      Also, you used the phrase “modern spiritual growth”. That is a useless phrase for there is neither modern nor old fashioned spiritual growth – there is only spiritual growth. There is through true spiritual growth and the false one (in which case spiritual regression that masquerades as spiritual growth). True spiritual growth immerses us more and more into the life of the Trinity. We become more integrated into the Church and not separated from her. We come to fully appreciate her teaching.
      Which is why I think Dan’s and A.E.Clark’s assessment are spot on.
      There is also the question about Merton’s life. For someone who seeks and demanded to be allowed to live as a hermit, he had a never ending trail of people visiting. It seems that the adulation has gone to his head and spiritual pride has set in. He was sent to be assessed by a psychologist and it is interesting what the psychologist recommended.
      As someone had said earlier, his dalliance with his nurse seems to have been the starting point for this verge into questionable spirituality.
      And while we are all sinners, we would not want to follow a guide whose counsels stem precisely from this bad conduct and the angst that it brought.

  • bestyruss

    I have been immersed in Merton for almost a year and I love him.  I have listened to numerous conferences he gave to the novitiates at the Monastery and have read many of his books.  His conferences about the Desert Fathers caused me to learn more about these saints of the desert.  I listen to his Easter Sunday sermon when I need a spiritual lift.  I understand his poetry.  When I read his prayer, I realize how much God loves me… and everyone.  I cannot imagine life without Merton.  I, too, will pray for his sainthood.

  • rhsgirl

    Seventeen years ago ,Fr. John Harden had told me to burn a book I had by Anthony DeMello, because he was a heretic and Fr. said this way no one else could ever read that book. 

    • ThirstforTruth

      DeMello is not as popular as Merton but in my experience he is even more
      dangerous.  I  found him cropping up in a Contemplative Prayer group
      I belonged to at my parish.  We were given a chapter of his ( cannot recall)
      and something about it made a red flag go up in my mind. The facilitator
      had gotten it from a well known Spirituality (Catholic) Center in the Washington, DC area she frequently attended. She was a convert and really not aware
      that some of the points being made within the text were definitely not in
      keeping with the faith. It was then that I came across your article regarding
      Anthony DeMello.  I brought this to the group’s attention. Some were quite
      receptive while others, like in the combox here, felt he had much to offer. I am also in a position to “shelve” donated books in our church free library. It is amazing to me
      the “stuff” we receive.  DeMello, Merton, Pennington,even a catechism from the Presbyterian Church, you name it.  I have a big bag to dump quitely in the trash monthly.  I know it sounds like setting myself up as the arbitrator of truth and would be condemned by many parishioners as a book burner if they knew.  I have permission from our pastor to get rid of stuff not suitable for a Catholic Church library but I feel weird all the same. We have a public library that accepts used books for its annual book sale but i would not feel right placing
      these books there for others to be entrapped and mislead.
       It is a strange time in the Church, where so many seem to be on a
      different page…even within the leadership. We must be on our toes at all

    • Samuel63

      I also am worried about books I find misleading being read by others. I remove the binding and try to recycle the paper.

  • Dan Burke

    In regards to his affair with the nurse “M.” 20 years his junior:

    “I feel I must fully surrender to it because it will change and heal my life in a way that I fear, but I think it is necessary – in a way that will force me first of all to receive an enormous amount of love (which to tell the truth I have often feared.)”

    “the deepest capacities for human love in me have never even been tapped, that I too can love with an awful completeness. Responding to her has opened up the depths of my life in ways I can’t begin to understand or analyze now.”

    “I do feel a deep emotional need for feminine companionship and love, and seeing that I must irrevocably live without it ended by tearing me up more than the operation itself.”

    “Her love and her heart are a revelation of a most perfectly tuned and fashioned personality, a lovely womanly nature, and an almost unbounded affection, all of which she has given to me. I can only regard this as a kind of miracle in my life.”

    –Merton’s diary Learning to Love. 1966-1967


    “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. The future of Zen is in the West. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” — Quoted in “Recollections of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West” by Bro. David Steindl-Rast, osb


    “It is in surrendering a false and illusory liberty on the superficial level that man unites himself with the inner ground of reality and freedom in himself which is the will of God, of Krishna, of Providence, of Tao. These concepts do not exactly coincide, but have much in common. It is by remaining open to an infinite number of unexpected possibilities which transcend his own imagination and capacity to plan that man really fulfills his own need for freedom. The Gita, like the Gospels, teaches us to live in awareness of an inner truth that exceeds the grasp of our thought and cannot be subject to our own control.”

    “The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no ‘mystery.’ All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya … Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination”

    – The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton

    • $19933969

       Well, this brings up a second area of concern then.  Why does Fr. Barron speak so highly of him in Catholicism?  When I heard that segment in Catholicism I was extremely disappointed.  Fr. Barron also reference De Chardin – why?  Why can’t folks who are speaking on such a wide scale for the Church just be orthodox?

  • Dan Burke

    I don’t know. This is also disturbing to me. In my mind, when someone of his stature quotes questionable sources/people, he gives them credibility and people then fall into error as they seek these sources. Sometimes scholars/educators etc. talk to others as if they understand that these authors should be taken with a grain of salt in the broader context of cultural awareness and evaluation. I read things I would NEVER recommend to others or even quote. I have a sense about the impact if I did. Sometimes folks in positions like Fr. Barron don’t seem to understand the impact they have and that though fervent Catholics are generally discerning, the broader population of Catholics are not.

    • Jan_England

      Dan these concerns you state coupled with questionable statements Fr. Barron made about Adam and Eve not being literal figures (which ultimately seems to call into question the Church’s teaching on original sin) at about 5:53 caused me to back out of participating in a showing of the Catholicism series by my employer.  So much in Catholicism seems good though – yet there is always the concern of turning someone to a person who may ultimately lead people astray – my concerns with both DeMello and Merton.

  • LizEst

    I tossed out a DeMello book as well.  Did not pass it on to anyone else!  God bless you rhsgirl.

  • Ina M Hecker

    burning books seems a little medieval for me… I like Merton, and as if why someone would prefer the food from the streets instead of boiled potatoes and meat…there is no need of explanation, someone does not only reads to be instructed, but for the pleasure of reading good written and spiritual readings that are full of sincerity…Merton does not pretend to  be orthodox, Merton is true to his evolution, to the work of God on his soul… I am not the one to judge, I love seen that process, even if by the end of his life he may have drifted some from orthodoxy…

  • Brad Wilcox

    We need to PRAY the Requiem… for the repose of the soul of Father Merton each and every time we discuss him.

    Imagine yourself standing on a compass rose showing you the 360 degrees around you.  You intend to go along 1 degree’s path.  But you errantly start off on the degree right next to it.  No big deal, you tell yourself, once you begin walking.  I’m only 1 degree off.  I’ll be ok.  You then walk 100 miles along your mistaken degree.  100 miles along a degree has taken you lamentably and gut-wrenchingly away from your original intended destination.

    The saints have told us many times that the mystery of an early death is that God in His mercy and wisdom is choosing to take us now, while our culpability is lower, relatively, than what it is terrifyingly poised to become.  Merton was bowing to idols at the point of his death.

    I believe that Christ in His power and mercy can save the soul of any man who simply accepts His mercy at the particular judgment.  Thus I have the Christian hope that at that said moment, Father Merton, well meaning yet having had been increasingly led astray, and, let us recall, through his writings, having had potentially led other souls astray, was saved by his Redeemer.  Our Lord has no doubt saved worse!  Though at what cost?  Every drop, every last drop, of Blood on Calvary for each and every soul.

    I feel obligated to mention also that Our Lady is refuge, ultimate refuge, for her ordained sons.  Ave Maria.

    • Dan Burke


  • LizEst

    Stay the course, Asydwy. 

    You are right to keep those books from falling into the hands of those who don’t know better, are easily influenced and led astray.  I believe in recycling because someone else can often make use of that which we no longer use.  But, allowing those books to get in someone else’s hands is not recycling.  It is setting the stage for entrapment of the soul. 

    No, you are not being an arbitrator of truth.  Your pastor has given his permission and obviously trusts your judgment.  He is not the only pastor that approves of such or directs that it be done!  And, if you ever have any doubt about a book, you can always come on this site and check.  You are doing a great service to everyone in your parish.  God bless you.  Keep up the good work.

    • ThirstforTruth

      Thanks LizEst…I appreciate your support… gets a bit lonely
      out there feeling sometimes like we are shoveling sand against
      the tide.  But then I think of those Christians who are battling for
      their very lives ( those living the life of terror in the Middle East)
      and it puts things in perspective. Truly we must be like soldiers
      for Christ as we learned when confirmed all those years ago.

      • Ctprenee

        I think the important issue here is that your library is a Catholic library and that others come there to find true Catholic spirituality. It would be different if you had a speaker with some questionable beliefs and the opportunity to confront and question him, but these books would go out as coming from a Catholic library and some might consider them the truth.

  • Aodhan Richardson

    Burning books? Throwing books away? It sounds like the Catholic Church I was raised in in the 1950s. Vatican II changed all that. We’re allowed to read anything we like now, and Holy Mother Church has come to the conclusion, and so states it in the CCC, that when our consciences, hearts, minds, and spirits are in the right place the material can be helpful and used or unhelpful and ignored–by personal choice. I don’t think the Church wants us to be robots, but informed, loving Christians.

  • suzherbert

    Has anyone read or heard of the author Margaret Silf?  She is coming to my diocese and her bio is questionable.

  • LizEst

    Yes, your name sounds familiar!

  • sanfordandsons

    I agree that Merton’s early works fairly represents his core catholicism. His life as well as his writing seems to change after having an affair with his medical practitioner while in the hospital with stomach problems. I agree though that his later works should be scrutinized but not banned. After all his life was ended accidentally by electrocution attending a conference on Eastern and Western spirituality.

    • LizEst

      The fact that his life ended accidentally by electrocution does not excuse his later writings. We are all charged with living a life faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That means we are supposed to be ready for the Lord whenever he calls us. God is most merciful and we cannot pronounce on Merton’s judgment in the presence of the Most High. We can, however, judge Merton’s writings. God bless you, sanfordandsons… and Happy Pentecost!

  • LizEst

    Sorry, we didn’t get back to you earlier. In the link below, it says that she is a convert to Catholicism but goes on to say, “Today she calls herself a ‘boundary dweller’ no longer belonging to a particular Christian denomination, more at home outside the institutional church than within.” Hope that helps. Please let us keep us posted on what you find out. Thank you… and God bless you, suzherbert! Happy Pentecost!

  • asydwy

    The Church not only requires us to be informed but also correctly
    informed. We ( those who point out the difference in early Merton
    and later writings of his ) do all a service by pointing out these
    discrepancies where they occur. I, for one, appreciate that knowledge as it saves me the time of wading through that which will not help me on my spiritual journey, and so that I might devote my time reading that which will be in keeping with what I believe are the truths of the Catholic Church.
    Any such materials have no place in a library formed for the purpose
    of instructing and informing the faithful on such teachings and truths.
    When coming to this library one should have the confidence that this
    willl be the case of any book(s) shelved there for one’s personal use. It would be dishonest and irresponsible to knowingly place books there that could lead astray readers expecting no less. To say “it sounds like
    the Catholic Church I was raised in the 1950′s” is to imply somehow
    the Church has changed its teachings since then while nothing could
    be further from the facts. You are mistaken that Vatican II changed
    *all that*. You do have the freedom ( Thanks be to God) to read anything you wish, even pornography, but that would not bea spiritually healthy thing to do anymore than shoving into your mouth anything that is referred to as *food* without first discerning. One does not need to consume arsenic to know it is not good for the body. Those
    who have gone before you have already discerned that and you would be wise to follow their advice. Need I say more regarding the vast
    field of spiritual writing other than the same wisdom applies there also.
    God bless you on your journey Aodhan.

    • LizEst

      You are absolutely right, asydwy. My mother used to say, “You don’t need to taste a rotten egg to know it is rotten. You can tell from the smell.” Likewise, bad fruit will cause one to be sick and even to die if ingested in the wrong circumstances or in large enough doses. So, too, does spiritual reading which is not according to the mind and the heart of the Church i.e. the mind and the heart of Christ cause spiritual illness and even spiritual demise. Why risk it? Why expose oneself to be led astray with questionable writings? Why spend one’s eternity in everlasting death?

      Thank you for writing this, asydwy. God bless you…and Happy Pentecost! Come, Holy Spirit and lead us into all Truth!

  • It_lives

    I love how this post is growing and growing in the comments area. Your blog is receiving a second life – a little seed was born inside the tree. It creates life, it spreads truth and and joy. I really hope it will never stop. And to the East and West lovers of the truth, let us fight to allow this life to grow more and more. Let’s spread knowledge in the same way the wounds on our body heal: from inside to outside. Peace in Jesus, Buddha and that lady from the other side of the street.

  • Jaret Ornelas

    Hi Dan,

    We have a copy of Mystics and Zen Masters in our community. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t really give an impression, but I did notice that on the publishing info page it has the nihil obstat and imprimatur seals on it. I was wondering why you object to it when the church authorities have decided it contains “nothing damaging to faith or morals?”

    • Dan Burke

      Dear Jaret, thanks for your question. It sounds like you may not understand the process or parameters of the N.O. and Imprimatur. These are not based on any broad Church authority but they indicate approval from one Bishop in a specific diocese. These are not infallible declarations and are only as orthodox as the Bishop that grants them. As you know, Church history is riddled with Bishops, priests and laity who are/were faithful and who are/were heretics. With respect to this book, I am not questioning the Bishop in this case. In fact, I only provided a brief description from a scholar in eastern studies. My argument is to stick with the doctors and Saints of the Church as the post points out.

      • Samuel63

        Great response! I have seen the N.O. and Imprimatur on some surprising works.

  • Dan Burke

    Thanks – but how can I take you seriously when it is obvious you didn’t even read the post?
    Sent from my iPad