21 Memorable Thomas Merton Quotes

Thomas Merton historical marker
Thomas Merton historical marker and street sign in downtown Louisville, Kentucky.

Raymond Boyd / Getty Images 

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the American poet, spiritual writer, and Trappist monk of the Cistercian order, was one of the most eloquent 20th-century advocates of nonviolence, racial justice, and religious ecumenism. His radical conversion in 1941 led him to pursue a strict monastic existence, while undertaking what he considered his true vocation, writing.

These Thomas Merton quotes exemplify his sensitive insights and eloquent words, which continue to have a formidable impact on a broad range of Christian readers today.

Traveling the Road to God

“Before we were born, God knew us. He knew that some of us would rebel against His love and His mercy and that others would love Him from the moment that they could love anything, and never change that love. He knew that there would be joy in heaven among the angels of His house for the conversion of some of us. … In one sense, we are always traveling and traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense, we have already arrived.”

“We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life, and that is why we are traveling and in darkness. But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore in that sense, we have arrived and are dwelling in the light.”

“Reason is, in fact, the path to faith, and faith takes over when reason can say no more.”

“We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.”

Thomas Merton
Religious writer Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968), circa 1938. In 1942 he became a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, continuing to publish his writing until his death from an accidental electric shock in Bangkok. Archive Photos / Getty Images

Theology of Love

“The theology of love must seek to deal realistically with the evil and injustice in the world, and not merely to compromise with them.”

“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them, we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone—we find it with another.”

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

“To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”

A Member of the Human Race

“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race. … God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.”

“I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. … My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them—that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone.”

The Sickness of Spiritual Pride

“There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious [people]. As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God. … Who can do good things without seeking to taste in them some sweet distinction from the common run of sinners in this world?”

“This sickness is most dangerous when it succeeds in looking like humility. When a proud man thinks he is humble, his case is hopeless. … The pleasure that is in his heart when he does difficult things and succeeds in doing them well, tells him secretly: ‘I am a saint.’ … He burns with self-admiration and thinks: ‘It is the fire of the love of God.’ … And the secret voice of pleasure sings in his heart: ‘Non sum sicut caeteri hominess’ (I am not like other men).”

Pride makes us artificial; humility makes us real.”

Wisdom for Life

“The thing to do when you have made a mistake is not to give up doing what you were doing and start something altogether new, but to start over again with the thing you began badly and try, for the love of God, to do it well.”

“People don’t want to hear any more words. In our mechanical age, all words have become alike. … To say ‘God is Love’ is like saying, ‘Eat Wheaties.’”

Anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity.”

“A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live.”

“The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.”

“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds.”

“If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.”

Sources

  • New Seeds of Contemplation. (p. , 48–50).
  • Reflections: Classic and Contemporary Excerpts. Christianity Today, 41(10), 62; 42(8), 72; 44(2), 84.