Thomas Merton at 100

Providentially, Francis and Bartholomew both speak about ecology nine days after Merton's 100th birthday

Nine days after the centennial anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew made simultaneous (and seemingly unrelated) remarks about a fundamental Christian reality: our appreciation of nature.

Anyone who knows Merton—the rather wild young man who eventually entered the Church and then the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, becoming one of Catholicism's greatest writers in the twentieth century—knows that he would approve.

The Francis-Bartholomew ecological confluence occurred on February 9th. The timing is striking, as we learn from the most recent edition of Cistercian Studies Quarterly, which is devoted to Merton, who was born on January 31, 1915. One particular essay, “Finding Oneself in the Cosmic Dance: Nature’s Grace for Thomas Merton,” by Monica Weis, SSJ, beautifully captures the essence of what Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew both taught on the same day.

First, please indulge me for this extended quotation of Weis who gives ample opportunity to hear from Merton:

Finding God in creatures was not as Merton first believed merely a stepping-stone to God, but rather a bursting forth of ongoing encounter with the Divine. Once he discovered how “landscape is important for contemplation,” once he was permitted to wander in the woods, knobs, and lakesides beyond the confines of the enclosure, Merton’s capacity for contemplation and compassion expanded. As he described in an August 12, 1965 journal entry, “Our very creation itself is a beginning of revelation. Making us in His image, God reveals Himself to us, we are already His words to ourselves! Our very creation itself is a vocation to union with Him and our life, and in the world around us, if we persist in honesty and simplicity, cannot help speaking of Him and our calling” (Dancing 279). Merton could not be more clear: our creation is itself a vocation to union with God—and that union includes harmony with all of God’s creatures.

I cannot recommend enough that you get and read this essay. If an online version appears, I will update this post and include it here.

"Merton was a monk whose love for outer landscape merged with the inner landscape of his heart." Monica Weis

But for now, then, let us hear how Merton resonates with both Francis and Bartholomew.

First, Francis, who said the following in his February 9th morning homily at Santa Marta, as reported by L'Osservatore Romano via the Vatican:

“God works. He continues to work and we can ask ourselves how we should respond to this creation of God, which was born from love because He works through love”. Thus, “to the ‘first creation’ we must respond with the responsibility the Lord gives us: ‘The earth is yours, foster it; make it grow!’”. For this reason, “we too have the responsibility to make the earth flourish, to make creation flourish, to safeguard it and make it flourish according to its laws: we are lords of creation, not masters”. And we mustn’t “take control of creation, but foster it, faithful to its laws”. Indeed, “this is the first response to God’s work: work to safeguard creation, to make it fruitful”.

From this perspective, the Pope continued, “when we hear people hold meetings to consider how to safeguard creation, we could say: ‘No, they are green!’”. Instead, he suggested: “they aren’t green: this is Christian!”. And this “is our response to God’s ‘first creation’, it is our responsibility!”. In fact, “a Christian who doesn’t safeguard creation, who doesn’t make it flourish, is a Christian who isn’t concerned with God’s work, that work born of God’s love for us”. And “this is the first response to the first creation: safeguard creation, make it flourish”.


Therefore, our response to all three [Persons of the Tritinty] is “to safeguard creation and make it flourish, to let ourselves reconcile with Jesus, with God in Jesus, in Christ, each day, and do not grieve the Holy Spirit, do not push him away: he is the guest in our heart, the One who accompanies us, who makes us grow”.

And from Bartholomew, who included a significant section on ecology in his February 9th acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate in Sociology from the Izmir University of Economics:

We believe that the roots of the environmental crisis are not primarily economic or political, nor technological, but profoundly and essentially religious, spiritual and moral. This is because it is a crisis about and within the human heart. The ecological crisis reflects an anthropological impasse, the spiritual crisis of contemporary man and contradictions of his rationalism, the titanism of his self-deification, the arrogance of his science and technology, the greed of his possessiveness (“the priority of having”), his individual and social eudaemonism.

For Orthodoxy, sin has a cosmological dimension and impact. The theology of the Orthodox Church recognizes the natural creation as inseparable from the identity and destiny of humanity, inasmuch as every human action leaves a lasting imprint on the body of the earth. Moreover, human attitudes and behavior towards creation directly impact on and reflect human attitudes and behavior toward other people, especially the poor. Ecology is inevitably related to sociology and economy, and so all ecological activity is ultimately measured and judged by its effect upon the underprivileged and suffering of our world. The ecological problem is essentially a sociological one.

Again, these words were spoken on the same day the Francis spoke his. Coincidence? As a priest friends is fond of telling me, with God, there are no coincidences.

As we ponder all that, let’s close with Weis, who turns our attention to Merton, who points us to God.

“Merton,” Weis writes, “was a monk whose love for outer landscape merged with the inner landscape of his heart and enabled him to challenge us to new levels of contemplation and compassion. Merton was a monk who could write in Thoughts in Solitude, “everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.”

Happy birthday, Thomas Merton (even if I am a little late). May God bless us with a deeper understanding of the treasures in your works and your inspired wisdom—and in doing so may we heed and amplify the words of Bartholomew and Francis.

May these words make us grow in virtue and in love of God, of neighbor, and of all creation.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.