As more of the world’s population begins to question the damaging use of non-renewable resources such as oil and coal, a new ecological consciousness has developed in our society. This mindset, however, begs the question, what is our true motivation for preserving our environment? Money, business, and international power undoubtedly play large roles in the burgeoning “green movement,” while at the same time push us to maintain our modern ways of life.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton, however, placed respect and responsibility at the forefront of his argument for a stronger connection to nature. For him, it was unjust to view the natural world merely as an object for manipulation according to our own purposes. Instead, he believed that people must see their surroundings on a deep and spiritual level to understand their place in the world.
The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton by Monica Weis, SSJ, explores the powerful influence of nature on Merton’s spiritual development and ecological consciousness. She specifically illuminates his journey from mere delight in nature to a committed responsibility for its welfare—a movement that placed him ahead of his time on environmental issues and unique in his approach to our relationship with nature.
Merton’s commitment to increasing environmental awareness grew exponentially during his twenty-seven years at the Abbey of Our Lady Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. His personal commitment to ecological preservation began after reading conservationist Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring, which moved him to write to her. In his letter, he recognized and praised her commitment to the natural world. Already a prolific writer himself, Merton dedicated his talents to conveying a love and respect for nature to all of his readers, becoming a prophet of both revelation and revolution.
The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton explores Merton’s acute sense of place, showing his spiritual development and increasing reverence for the natural world from his early life in Prades, France, to his entrance into the monastery in 1949. Weis delves into his writings, studying his letter to Rachel Carson and examining passages from his personal journals to offer evidence of the multiple ways in which nature and ordinary experiences influenced his writing, thinking, and praying. She examines how his years of solitude and reflection at the monastery led to a deeper understanding of his “inner and outer landscapes,” a process that was fostered by his detailed observation of his surroundings as well as his love of photography. Weis utilizes an assortment of letters, journals, reading notebooks, and published book reviews to give readers a comprehensive understanding of the causes of and influences on Merton’s passion for the world around him.
Much has been written on Merton’s spirituality, mysticism, advocacy of social justice, and promotion of interfaith understanding. The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton, however, shows how he became one of America’s most respected advocates for ecological consciousness. We are only given one world, and stewardship demands our responsibility to ensure its safety for generations to come.
The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton is a volume in the University Press of Kentucky’s Culture of the Land series, edited by Norman Wirzba. Enjoy other titles from this series: