Lectory » Wisdom’s Prophet: Thomas Merton’s Exhortation for Transformative Education

Tue 17 July 2007ShareComment

Wisdom’s Prophet: Thomas Merton. He stands as one of the great spiritual luminaries of the 20th century, whose legacy promises to endure well into this new millennium. Monk, poet, writer, social critic, ecuminist, journalist, correspondent, peace maker, and mystic, Merton has left a staggering intellectual corpus addressing a vast range of concerns from war, racism and systems of oppression, to the variety of contemplative paths by which one might experience transcendence. Clearly a giant of the Catholic tradition, Merton’s raids on the unspeakable and his vow of conversation with innumerable interlocutors of his time – and virtually all time – enabled him to think and write himself into the postmodern moment of humanity’s quest for wisdom. Poised on the seven storey mountain of his own experience he managed to sustain, by consequence of his intensive contemplative gaze, a way of looking deeply and widely at reality. In this he learned to see the generative and sustaining wholeness of existence, and he labored to teach us to do the same.

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indiscribable humility.#

These are the lauds of Thomas Merton sung at dawn in the poetic meditation “Hagia Sophia” where he sings of the mystery of Wisdom sustaining all, pervading all, and emanating from all. He intones this chant as he awakens to the “unseen pivot of all nature,” “the core of life that exists in all things,” and “the divine life reflected in them.” He describes Wisdom as “the dark nameless Ousia”: the source of divine luminosity diffussed throughout creation by which a person comes out of “the confused primordial dark night into conscioiusness.”# The echo of Gerard Manley Hopkins# is heard as Merton plays with the identity of light and wisdom insisting that our deep vision is recovered as we behold the essential unity of being: “We do not see the Blinding One in black emptiness. He speaks to us gently in ten thousand things, in which His light is one fulness and one Wisdom.”#
In this light we come to see. By this light we are enlightened to be wise, since it is the impeccable pure simplicity of One consciousness in all and through all: “one Wisdom,…one Meaning, one Sister.”# A sapiential mystic, Merton received the gift of “sight”, of seeing, of inseeing, as Hopkins again would say.# His eye was trained on it, his awareness attuned to it, and so the light of Wisdom was the source and substance of his vision. Over and over again, whenever Merton’s prose becomes breathless rhapsody he is singing of her, of Wisdom: Hagia Sophia.

This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister Wisdom.#

What else but the luminosity of this Widom was Merton struck by on the now famed corner of 4th and Walnut where he is blinded into deeper vision by the radiance of all those fellow creatures “shining like the sun”? Yet Merton punctuates his sapiential vision with a subltle lamentation concerning the ignorance that obscures the hidden wholeness of all being:
“If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained.”
“…how do you tell people?”
“there’s no way of telling people
“If only we could see,”
“I have no program for such seeing.”#
This urgency became the energy for his monumental effort to awaken all those whom he drew into his visionary solitude by his prayer and writing, and in good biblical tradition he followed in the lineage of the sapiential mystics and became “Wisdom’s Prophet”

In the lineage of the sapiential prophets of the biblical tradition, Merton

As wisdom spoke to Merton so Merton spoke for wisdom Indeed Merton merits the honor of being called “Wisdom’s Prophet,” and as such offers a compelling vision and challenge to Catholic educators at all levels of our profession.

Learning to Live
Thomas Merton’s life and mission focused on learning and teaching the dynamics and patterns of spiritual transformation for the sake of personal and social healing by recovering a vibrant expeience of the hidden wholeness. Therefore, critical to the spiritual recovery of persons and of society from Merton’s vantage point is the process of education.# Though a monk himself and not an academic, Merton was, nevertheless, an educator of an exceptional sort. As one of the great spiritual masters of the modern age, Thomas Merton became a mentor of wisdom whose multi-disciplinary chair was situated not in the academy but more originally, in the monastery.# As a monastic scholar and professor of wisdom, he held the ancient position that views the monastery and the university as having the same kind of function: the transformation of the human person by direct contact with their own primordial roots in an archetypal holy ground of original creation.# Education was intended to lead persons back to paradise: that is the paradise within themselves,and above and beyone themselves, in the recovered unity which had been shattered by the distorting “knowledge of good and evil.”# What the monastery explored by sapientia, or mystical contemplation, the university probed by scientia, or intellectual knowledge. Yet the goal of both are the same: the transformation of the subject, “the activation of that inmost center…a consciousness that transcends all divisions, all separation”, rendering a human person able to see the indivisible, hidden wholeness of all reality and to act from it and toward it with compassion and courage.#

In this brief paper I wish to explore Thomas Merton’s exhortation to educators concerning the essentials and potentials of transformative learning. His own manifesto in this regard can be read in the brief but potent essay he wrote for a Columbia University alumni publication showcasing the prestigious institution’s graduate success stories.# Characteristically, Merton seized the opportunity to subvert the explicit intention of the University’s advancement office to say what in fact success in academic or educational terms really means.


*****His essay, “Learning to Live,” is a challenge to the academy to recover its original sapiential and prophetic mission “to help men and women save their souls, and in doing so to save their society.”# Moreso, as Wisdom’s Prophet, I believe, Merton holds out a particular challenge to those of us who explicitly teach the sacred wisdom traditions in the renewed academic discipline of spirituality studies. Here, especially, there is great potential to explore how wisdom and prophecy interface to realize that variety of transformative learning envisioned by Merton for which one is awarded no degree: “One graduates by rising form the dead.”#

Threshold of Wisdom: Columbia University
A review of Merton’s own experience as a university student and then a monastic scholar casts light on the relationship between the pursuit of wisdom and prophetic expression. Merton makes a case for his own resurrection at Columbia University in his celebrated autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain in which he introduced himself to the world, subsequently stole its heart and drew to himself its perduring fascination. **** Merton tells the story of his own intellectual and scholastic curriculum and process for coming to see the hidden wholeness.# He narrates an educational itinerary which took him from a French lycee to an English public school, and then to Clare College, Cambridge. None of these learning environments, however, sparked in Merton that “capacity for ignition” he describes so vividly in “Learning to Live.”# It was not until he came to Columbia University in New York in 1930 that Thomas Merton would cross the threshold of wisdom and experience what he believed to be the purpose of education: to show persons how to define themselves authentically in relation to their world.#
What happened to him there, in an academic setting as an undergraduate and climaxing in graduate school, is arguably one of the most celebrated student conversions of all time – certainly the most analyzed and documented.# It happened without benefit of religious studies, theology, or the academic discipline now called spirituality studies. There was for the young Merton simply literature and philosophy, disclosing an alluring though veiled Catholic vision of life which exposed the more transcendent lineaments of the human mind and soul, and the panentheistic contours of mystery.***** He intellectually engaged a variety of revelatory texts under the guidance of teachers who embodied the wisdom they professed: Mark Van Doren and Daniel Walsh, especially. He was further supported by the community of fellow students and friends who mirrored his intellectual enthusiasms and spiritual hungers: Ed Rice, Bob Lax, and the Hindu monk Bramachari, to name a few. And of course there were the books – the explosive books – that opened up worlds before him and his own world within him, drawing him more deeply into creative solitude where knowledge began to ignite in a slow burn toward wisdom.

By his own testimony, Merton ended up being turned on like a pinball machine by Blake, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Eckhart, Coomaraswamy, Traherne, Hopkins, Maritain and the sacraments of the Catholic Church.’# **** is this SSM? Or LL? One book in particular, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Etienne Gilson struck him like lightening, “revolutionizing” his life, and spinning him in a vortex of conversion.# The cumulative effect of these inspiring engagements with extraordinary teachers, scholastic friends, and transformative works of the human spirit explored in solitude created the conditions and the supports for spiritual combustion in Merton. He was indeed “learning to ignite”, and by his own calculations it took about a year and a half for the transformation of the self-described atheist into “one who accepted all the full range and possibilities of religious experience right up to the highest degrees of glory.”#

I not only accepted all this, intellectually, but now began to desire it. And not only did I begin to desire it, but I began to do so efficaciously: I began to want to take the necessary means to achieve this union, this peace. I began to desire to dedicate my life to God, to His service.#


So consuming was the passion enkindled during his college years, that soon after his baptism into the Catholic community he enrolled in that other, primary university for spiritual transformation – the monastery. In the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, Merton became a doctor of the spiritual life and one of its most renown teachers by a sustained and deliberate integration of scientia (intellectual knowledge) and sapientia (mystical contemplation) brought to bear on every facet of life and study. It was here that his own turn toward the depths of religious experience synchronized with the same dramatic revolution in theology during the last third of century. As in other things, prophesied it as he forecasted, animated, and embodied the “turn” in Christian sensibility and consciousness from its habits of rational dogmatics to the recovery of a more existential, experiential, and contemplative originality. Clearly his own story and process of enlightenment has had tremendous influence on the emergence of the very field of spirituality studies now under construction to explore the phenomenon of spiritual transformation, and on the concerns of learning to see the independence of all reality that is so germane to it.


Merton, Master of Spirituality

The Merton story has at least two insights for any discussion of consciousness transformation in the precincts of the academy, particularly in relation to the study of sacred wisdom. Some thirty-five years before the field of spirituality studies began to identify itself as a discipline devoted to the study of human religious experience insisting on its own place in the university, Merton had a dramatic conversion consequent to profound intellectual engagement with works disclosive of human spiritual life. Consequently, some twenty-five years before its `rebirth’ as an academic discipline, Merton, as monk and scholar prophesied the recovery of an ancient field of wisdom, long forgotten in the halls of academe. He himself became a `professor’ of spirituality in his cell at Gethsemani kindling sparks that would catch in the arid field of scholastic theology, and preparing a route of resurgence for spirituality studies.

From his chair of spirituality in the monastic university of Gethsemani, Merton challenged both academic and ecclesial theologians by offering his readers what they could not: an invitation to and explication of the more vivid and engaging depths of transformational experience in the wisdom literature he retrieved, interpreted and composed for contemporary spiritual seekers. In the radically original zone of the monastic school, Merton, as teacher of the spiritual and prophetic life, gave not just his own novices and scholastics but several generations of anonymous hungry souls a taste for spirituality, twentieth-century style. Probing and analyzing the reality of the spiritual life in deep, holistic, socio-political and ecumenical ways, he anticipated the very contours of both the spirituality movement and discipline his own teaching would foster. **** Schneiders

Secondly, Merton’s own transformation story convinced him that however broad, complex and diverse the subject matter of the spiritual life, the subject of the matter was singular, namely, the person in the process of true self recovery and liberation. Merton reminds academics that learning always implies transformation since the true purpose of education is to enable students to pursue an authentic and lucid search for their own inner self as it opens out onto the center of all created being.#

To put it in even more outrageous terms,
the function of the university is to help
men and women save their souls, and in
doing so, to save their society: from what?
From the hell of meaninglessness, of
obsession, of complex artifice, of systematic

lying, of criminal evasions and neglects, of self-destructive futilities.#

Exhortation the to Academy

Thomas Merton’s challenge to the university is really an invitation to academics to recover the prophetic dimension of our profession: to dispose the student for the event of radical transformation. Yet the danger of education, as he noted, is that it so easily confuses means with ends, or worse – devotes itself to the mass production of uneducated graduates, people who are unfit for anything except to take part in the elaborate and completely artificial charade which they and their contemporaries call “life.”#

Such farce plays in the face of Merton’s vision of the liberating arts which must be dedicated to showing people how to define themselves authentically and spontaneously in relation to their world so that a living and fruitful covenant with and for life may be realized.# The ground of this relationship is a conscious actualization and use of one’s personal freedom – not a superficiality caught in the distractions and disbursements of aimless wandering, but the liberty born of an authentic search for one’s mature personal identity found after other partial and external selves have been discarded.#

The primary and comprehensive subject of transformative education was, therefore, the whole person and the whole world brought into a creative, mutually disclosive and liberative engagement. Because Merton’s pedagogy was in service to a sacred humanism, it was intended to foster the realization of the person in all our complexity, profound interiority, and necessary relationality to others and to the world.# From Merton’s perspective all higher education, then, implied a monastic dimension, since such a comprehensive and transformative scheme could only happen in a precinct which opened in some way to the transcendent. Yet Merton did not release the modern secular university from his challenge on that account. Rather from Merton’s prophetic vantage point as a monastic scholar, both the monastery and the university are “schools” with the same Logos or rationale: to bring students into contact with what he called “the archetypal world” – the world of originality and wholeness.# One school appropriates an integral vision of the universe – the whole – by way of scientia or rational knowledge; the other pursues that vision through a curriculum of sapientia or contemplative wisdom.# Both schools labor by their arts and sciences to experience reality recovered from the distortions of our cognitive and moral confusions. Both schools are dedicated to the work of integration of the fragmentary perceptions which constitute our state of ignorance. Both endeavor to lead us out of such epistomological disorientation to the integrity and insight of our original nature.# **** cf Merton on orig nature The purpose of education in this sense is to enable the person to recover the ground of our own depths as we open out toward the center of all created being,


finding in the self the light and wisdom in which everything comprehensible could be comprehended and what was not could be held in the darkness of contemplation.#

The introduction of a proposal for the arts and science of contemplation within a discourse on higher education may strike the ears of the contemporary secular academic as odd if not mad. Yet Merton’s prophetic challenge is precisely leveled at the inability of the modern university as presently constructed to bring students to this or any vision of wholeness, which is the task and fruit of authentic learning, and university learning in particular. Central to Merton’s variety of transformative education is a core curriculum, not of an array of subjects, but of one single subject – the human subject. In this radical core curriculum a student studies his or her own true nature, learning that in the ground of being is an ultimate indestructibility which is affirmed by the death and destruction of superficial and descriptive selves.# It is toward this comprehension that all teaching and learning tends in Merton’s curriculum, as one engages the mystery and complexity of being on its most intimate and existential ground: the self. But this is not simply a gnostic endeavor; rather the experience of wisdom breaks open into prophecy as the mystical and personal inquiry reveals its social and political corollaries in the discovery of true freedom: “the freedom not to kill, not to destroy, not to compete, because you are no longer afraid of death or the devil or poverty or failure.”#

The fruit, then, of the careful, thoughtful reunion of scientia and sapientia is non-violence born of a healed and renewed state of mind. Merton would call this a restored “state of grace”, a “recovery of Paradise” ***FTNT arrived at by way of those four rivers***(FT note re quadrivium) which deliver one to that original ground of personhood: the radical self in its uninhibited freedom to be and to see the hidden wholeness.# *** ftnt etc. The final comprehensive exam at this level of transformative education is a challenge to consciously articulate a new noetic and reflexive awareness of self and world wholeness and interdependence. Merton describes commencement at this level of transformative education as an experiences of resurrection and proffers that one is awarded no degree, one graduates by rinsing from the dead. Beyond this Merton suggests that the graduate level offers a further challenge of learning to “sit still and be what one has become.”#

For Merton the fruit of such education whether in the university or monastery was the “activation of that inmost center, that scintilla anima, that “apex”or “spark” which is … a self beyond all ego, a being beyond the created realm, a consciousness the transcends all divisions, all separations…”# It is an experience of existential wholeness and unity. To activate that spark is to recognize the mystery which is in everything, because, as Merton intuits, there is nothing that can be apart from it, since it is very “flash of the Absolute recognizing itself” in the human person.# For Wisdom’s Prophet, the purpose of all learning is to dispose a person for this kind of event and every discipline no matter is subject matter is to provide ways or paths which lead to this capacity for ignition.#


The Challenge to Spirituality Studies

Merton’s prophetic exhortation is a challenge to the university in general and spirituality studies in particular. Perhaps nowhere in the academy is the charge to envision a pedagogy that will lead to a capacity for unitive insight more compelling than in this recently emergent academic field. Teachers of the sacred wisdom traditions, by our location and intention in the academy, have an opportunity to reimagine a pedagogy at the service of not only scientia but of sapientia as well: the wisdom that allows one to see the self and the world whole, and wholly integrated in a relationship of mutual well-being and ongoing restoration. (???) We return to Merton’s initial manifesto: the fruit of education is the activation of that inmost center, that spark which is the self in the event of transcendent realization. The discipline of spirituality studies the myriad ways divinity so flashes forth in human beings and the cosmos, holding up mirrors, delineating features, rehearsing the narratives and semiotics of this potent, powerful process, and engaging students in a reflexive exercise of dialogic engagement.


The incendiary matter which kindles the spark in the student is discovered in the wisdom literature which spirituality “reads”, those evocative and provocative texts descriptive of spirit life in all its complexity, richness, and ambiguity. These are the narratives, histories, and discourses about the spiritual life which engage students in the dynamic circle of true self-discovery, as the testimonies and legacies of spiritual exemplars, movements, and systems are analyzed, interpreted and tested for their life-giving wisdom. A hermeneutic process of analysis and appropriation opens students to the icons and luminaries of the spiritual life. These exemplars become transparencies, numinous and fascinating, that reveal features of being which seem strangely familiar to the student. As students deepen their investigation of the spiritual life they experience an influence on their own, since studying spirituality is, in this sense, self-implicating.# ****elaborate FTNT AND INCLUSION OF VOICES Therefore genuine understanding educed by real scholarship evokes the phenomenon of transformation: that turning, opening, awakening to the more transcendent dimensions of one’s own nature and that of the greater body of the cosmos. In fact, the very process of laboring to genuinely understand such magnetic and numinous reality is itself transformative, as a recent student of spirituality confirms:

I cannot say enough in words how my life has changed over the past fifteen weeks. I call the knowledge I have acquired from this course

an awakening because that is what is feels like.
Now that I have awakened, I feel energized and
baffled at the idea that I was once asleep.
As I reflect, the greatest good I have received
from this class is my eyes being able to see.

I mean truly see…My spirituality has deepened

because now I live in the moment, I am able to

say `I AM’. (Michelle, age 20)



No one who has ever witnessed such learning has any doubts about the combustion that can happen when students really open to spiritual wisdom and how it can lead them to experience themselves and the world as whole. In their own voice they give testimony:


I must say that the spiritual knowledge

you shared with us in class ignited something

powerful in me. This something is a strong

sense of belonging and an awareness of what

it means to be part of this universe.

(Johnson, age 28)

This then is the fruit of education, as Merton insists, whether in the university or in the monastery, the activation of that inmost spark which ignites both illumination and transformation in the student. Each discipline must in its own way serve this goal – to awaken the true self of the learner to the unitive wisdom of experience. I propose that spirituality courses are particularly incendiary settings for the kind of ignition to which Merton points, since it is a discipline which appropriately invites the convergence of the two tracks to wisdom Merton identifies – scientia (intellectual knowledge) and sapientia (contemplative wisdom). Here the gap which has been widening since the Middle Ages narrows and the academy begins to recover its own soul as it makes room once more for the study of sacred wisdom and the way such an enterprise may permit us to see the hidden wholeness. A stunning affirmation of this possibility was voiced by one of our graduating majors, whose Spirituality studies had never included Merton! These are her farewell words of thanks to her teachers:


The classroom is a place of the mind, yes, of learning, of growth, of change, of question and challenge. More profoundly, however, for me, it is a place of the spirit, an awakening, a catching on fire, a striking of the place where passion lies dormant, waiting, and is ignited by the grand and grace-full calling of the teacher.

I know this only now, from being in your classrooms. I now know that I cannot name God, and that I can not stop trying! I now know myself so much better, and I know that I do not know myself, my depth, and the endless riches of my interior. I know that I will never stop traveling inward and outward into the numinous universe. I will search for justice, I will seek peace, I will wait with active patience, I will find my place in history, my story, and when I reflect I will remember you. You have nurtured and touched me greatly. Thank you. (Jill, age 25)

How Merton must smile to realize his prophetic challenge is being met by those students for whom spiritual knowledge has in fact become transformative wisdom. And for those of us who teach, his words still energize our hopes for learning to ignite that `scintilla animae’:


Education in this sense means more than learning;

and for such education, one is awarded no degree.

One graduates by rising from the dead.’#

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