Can a Vow of Silence Last Forever?

The 20th-century Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton, upon witnessing one of his first services at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, which would later become his home, wrote: “The silence with people moving in it was 10 times more gripping than it had been in my own empty room.” The silence and solemnity of the masses were so overpowering, he added, they “choked me with love and reverence that robbed me of the power to breathe. I could only get the air in gasps.” His relationship with that silence, which stood at the heart of monastic life, would always be a complex one.

In choosing a life of silence, Merton believed he was leaving a chaotic world on the cusp of the Second World War for one of contemplation, introspection and calm. But his role as a writer—including publication of his critically acclaimed autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948)—forced him back out: he called his writerly self “my double, my shadow, my enemy.” Merton struggled with his desire for the purity of silence and with the need to break it, to the end of days.

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(Image: Bellarmine University)