In the winter of 1941 Thomas Merton left New York ( where he had been living, studying and teaching ) to journey southwards to Kentucky. His final destination was Gethsemani Monastery where he was to become a novice Trappist monk. He had decided to leave behind the hectic, noisy city in order to find a special simplicity of peace and contentment in a rural backwater. After nurturing and developing his new found Christian faith he now felt ready to make a special commitment – to earnestly and boldly pursue a spiritual path to find his true self. Over a twenty seven year period, with a full engagement as a monk, he produced a fruitful harvest of over sixty books which now command an unprecedented place in the annals of modern Catholic literature. He also managed to transform himself in the process – from a rather callow, self opinionated youth into a man of considerable weight, integrity and kindness that many loved and respected.
Merton’s quest to find his true self was a difficult and arduous journey – the same journey we all face today. Whether the route takes us through a monastic tradition ( like Merton ) or the everyday world of the office and shopping mall we are all challenged to tread a path of self discovery and liberation. That’s the obligation life presents to us and to deny this challenge, to preoccupy ourselves with lesser activity, is to reduce and restrict our presence in the world.


Someone who dramatically transformed their life was a former colleague of mine, John. He had earlier led a life in crime that had seen him spend long periods of time in prison. At his lowest point he felt such unhappiness, such despair that he considered taking his own life. Then, quite suddenly and drastically he went from a deep feeling of negativity to a position that embraced God and a consequent hope in a new personal future. The issue of abandonment that he grappled with – cast adrift in a meaningless, unsympathetic world – soon subsided as he started to develop a belief and trust in a new self that was set within the context of a new faith. It need not have been Christianity ( nor indeed any other religious tradition ) in providing my friend with an entry point into a meaningful and purposeful life. This could have been attained independently because an ethically driven life is of merit on its own terms and needs no external validation. When John was released from prison he was given the employment opportunity to support a group of adults with learning difficulties and soon started to make a really positive impact on their lives. He also regularly visited prisons to talk and listen to inmates about their problems and rapidly made progress with some quite difficult re-offenders. The one thing I really admired about John was his ability to sustain his efforts for everyone around him. His positive, life affirming approach never diminished and he became an exemplary figure – in a quiet, unassuming way – for the many that were associated with him.


So why do refuse to engage with the greater potential that lays waiting within us? Why do we detach ourselves from what is so rich, meaningful and real – our true inheritance? Why do we deny our greater potential, our true destiny and allow ourselves to be smaller than we could be? These are the question we must ask and in the process try to formulate possible strategies that will take us forward into growth.
We don’t just ‘ find ‘ ourselves, ‘ find ‘ a new life as if it was something wrapped up, complete, ready to take away. We have to work at it, labour for the results. All we really ever ‘ find ‘ is an awareness of potential that lays deep within us. A potential that whispers to us of a better life and once we hear this voice, once we open to it’s influence, we have no other choice but to follow…..


Sometimes we may feel beyond any thought of growth; staid and dry with no more energy coming through. This state of mind is often a product of age where we may think we are past all notions of fresh opportunities to engage us. But like a winter’s tree we are still, nevertheless, growing on the inside. We are still capable of fresh growth, new expansion despite our age – it’s never too late. To recognize this and allow its full presence into our lives will re-invigorate and enliven us, possibly extending our years. Obviously there are fallow periods where we need to rest and recuperate, and we must be mindful of this, but to accept, too readily, a life of inactivity and slow closure is to allow death to come closer to us.

We must never die with the song still in us

There is no such thing as safety – it’s an illusion because we live in a world of constant change where anything can happen, and often does. We need to take risks, calculated risks that will involve and extend us. Ironically, if we are afraid, clutching and clinging to the ‘ established, ‘ the ‘ known ‘ in our lives then this is still a risk – a risk of losing a fine opportunity that could stretch us into a new life…


Merton was called to deep questioning about himself and his place in the world so he sought a committed life in a Cistercian monastery. His insights and wisdom, expressed through his many writings, made him an inspiring and popular figure that people could listen to and respect. In later years his popularity grew to such an extent that it caused a sharp and unprecedented rise in the number of young men wishing to join the Trappist order. But despite Merton’s standing and influence he had his feet firmly on the ground. He knew that the journey he had embarked upon – the journey of self-inquiry that leads to liberation – was that confronted by everyone. Whoever we are, whatever direction we come from, whatever route we take, we all face the same issue of self examination and we must all deal with this squarely and directly otherwise we run the risk of wasting our lives and that would be a diminishment – not only of ourselves but the wider community in which we serve. Audentes fortuna juvat – Fortune favours the daring

“There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.”

Thomas Merton