Thomas Merton Explains Monasticism to a Sixth-Grader
An excerpt from Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters: The Essential Collection, edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen. Reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
To Susan Chapulis. Susan Chapulis was a sixth-grader, studying monasticism, when she wrote to Merton requesting "any information whatever" that she could share with her class.
April 10, 1967.
Thanks for your nice letter. You want "any information whatsoever" to help the sixth grade in the study of monasticism. Well, I'll see if I can get the brothers down in the store to send you a little book about the monastery here. That ought to help.
The monastic life goes back a long way. Monks are people who seek to devote all their time to knowing God better and loving Him more. For that reason they leave the cities and go out into lonely places where it is quiet and they can think. As they go on in life they want to find lonelier and lonelier places so they can think even more. In the end people think these monks are really crazy going off by themselves and of course sometimes they are. On the other hand when you are quiet and when you are free from a lot of cares, when you don't make enough money to pay taxes, and don't have a wife to fight with, and when your heart is quiet, you suddenly realize that everything is extremely beautiful and that just by being quiet you can almost sense that God is right there not only with you but even in you. Then you realize that it is worth the trouble of going away where you don't have to talk and mess around and make a darn fool of yourself in the middle of a lot of people who are running around in circles to no purpose. I suppose that is why monks go off and live in lonely places. Like me now I live alone in the woods with squirrels and rabbits and deer and foxes and a huge owl that comes down by my cabin and makes a spooky noise in the night, but we are friends and it is all ok. A monk who lives all by himself in the woods is called a hermit. There is a Rock 'n Roll outfit called Herman and his Hermits but they are not the same thing.
I do not suppose for a moment that you wish to become a hermit (though now I understand there are some girl hermits in England and they are sort of friends of mine because they are hermits, so I send them stuff about how to be a hermit). But anyway, I suggest that you sometimes be quiet and think about how good a thing it is that you are loved by God who is infinite and who wants you to be supremely happy and who in fact is going to make you supremely happy. Isn't that something? It is, my dear, and let us keep praying that it will work out like that for everybody. Good bye now.