Posted by: Philip Rushton | November 29, 2010

A Thomas Merton Christmas

“Christ always seeks the straw of the most desolate cribs to make his Bethlehem (1).” So begins Thomas Merton’s reflection on his first Christmas as a monk at the Gethsemene Monastery in Kentucky. Thomas Merton is considered by many to be one of the most important spiritual writers of the 20th century. His breakthrough autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, from which this reflection is taken, outlines his profound conversion from a life of frantic paganism, to a life of Christian devotion.

His first Christmas at the monastery in Kentucky was different than any he had experienced before. He writes, “in all other Christmases of my life, I had got a lot of presents and a big dinner. This Christmas I was to get no presents, and not much of a dinner: but I would have, indeed, Christ Himself, God, the Savior of the world.”

On the one hand, Merton’s Christmas experience was challenging, because the idols of his heart had to be confronted. The time he used to spend in shops in restaurants was now spent in prayer and silence. Merton explains that Advent was a time where he emptied his life of the things that were distracting him from God. He notes that, “an emptiness had opened out within me.”

Yet as Christmas approached he recalls that this emptiness “now became filled, and suddenly I was in a new world.” As Merton was emptied of his worldly pursuits, space was created for God to enter his life. And what an experience this was! Merton can barely put words to his encounter with God saying, “as soon as I attempted to make words or thoughts about it, I was excluded.” Yet, he tries to capture the joy he experienced as best as he could. He says that he experienced an “unworldly interior peace,” a realization “that you can love! That you are standing on the threshold of infinite possibilities, . . . that darkness has been washed out of your spiritual eyes . . . that you can know peace.” His previous live of excess and frivolity was replaced with a glimpse of heaven on earth, with “God as experience.”

This Advent we have the opportunity to experience an “unworldly interior peace,” which is found in Christ. It begins by creating space for God to enter our lives. This is really what Advent is all about. It is a season of anticipation and waiting on God, a time for focused spiritual discipline. This is a challenge for us, because we live in a culture that markets this season as a time for excess. However, if we resist the temptation to fill the longings of our heart with worldly things, I believe we will experience a gift that is beyond compare – Christ Himself, God, the Savior of the world!

(1) Note that these quotes are taken from an unpublished section of The Seven Storey Mountain. When I was studying with Merton Scholar Lynn Szabo at Trinity Western University, she had access to some of Merton’s unpublished notes and writings.

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Responses

  1. Also, he had to be in isolation, away from family, his known life. I think the only way I would be able to have this extreme experience would be to go to a mountain top (in Idaho preferably) I’m thinking Stanley, for at least a month, without my husband and kids. I’m not saying I don’t try to Create space and Re-focus, but we certainly get into that “Little House on the Freeway”–(by Tim Kimmel.) That’s what Sabbatical seems to be about, get away from routine. I tried to Love by giving to stuff like Operation Christmas child–Samaritan’s Purse, or Compassion International. Redirect my “excess” and my “want.” I challenge YOU all who might read this to pick up a Compassion kid and sponsor someone, only $38 per month.

  2. Good thoughts Shannon,

    Thomas Merton certainly writes from a context that is different than what many of us experience. There is a stark contrast between a monk living in solitude and a mother of three that works as a nurse!
    I do not think that the monastic life should be held up as the ideal. I certainly did not follow that path! Nonetheless I think that the ideas and experiences of Merton inspire us to create space for silence and the spiritual disciplines in the midst of our busy lives. Like you say, there are times when we do need to get away, to retreat and be with God. We see this sort of rhythm in the life of Jesus. On the one hand he was busy and engaged with the world. He made time for people, he worked as a carpenter. But he knew when to get away and create time for prayer and solitude.

  3. Phil,
    A couple of lines jump out at me: “a life of frantic paganism” that makes me wonder about my own life as we enter Advent. Is my life one of “frantic” activity that borders on paganism? Maybe I can see Christ in all I do and put away the frantic activity, slow down and focus my devotion on Christ.
    The second line: “the idols of his heart had to be confronted” causes me to examine my own heart to see what idols I have on my own shelf that I need to confront. It’s not pretty. Thank God for His grace!

  4. Hey Randy,

    God is gracious! That is an important message to hear. I know it sometimes feels overwhelming when we compare our lives with what God desires from us.

    What I find in Merton’s reflection is cause for hope though. The confrontation of idols is challenging but it is also greatly rewarding. I just read Timothy Kellers book “Counterfeit Gods” which is an amazing book. I highly recommend it. One of the things Keller emphasizes is we do not get rid of idols we replace them with God. The reality is that we have deep longings in the human heart and we often try and fill those longings with things that disappoint us. Idols are usually good things, but they become a problem when we give them the status that only God can hold in our life. The process of dealing with idolatry is replacing our idols with God himself. While we are challenged and convicted by our propensity towards idolatry, I think we can find hope that God is ready and willing to lead us to a life of true fullness!


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