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April 15, 2009

Centered in God: Thomas Merton on Discernment

I was asked recently about references in the writing of Thomas Merton to the topic of “discernment.”

I have three direct references in my notes, all from Merton’s The Ascent to Truth, which he began writing in 1948 at the age of thirty. Of the three only one reference is of interest. On pages 27,28, Merton writes,

In the Christian Platonism of the Fathers, dialectic is no longer as important as it was in Plato and Plotinus. The Christian contemplation of nature does not consist in an intellectual tennis game between these two contrary aspects of nature. It consists rather in the ascetic gift of a discernment which, in one penetrating glance, apprehends what creatures are, and what they are not. This is the intellectual counterpoise of detachment in the will. Discernment and detachment (krisis and apatheia) are two characters of the mature Christian soul. They are not yet the mark of a mystic, but they bear witness that one is traveling the right way to mystical contemplation, and that the stage of beginners is passed.

The presence of discernment and detachment is manifested by a spontaneous thirst for what is good – charity, union with the will of God – and an equally spontaneous repugnance for what is evil. The man who has this virtue no longer needs to be exhorted by promises to do what is right, or deterred from evil by threat of punishment. (The Ascent to Truth 27,28)

The interesting thing about this passage, and perhaps the reason, I find no further direct notations in my notes to the topic of “discernment,” is that Merton appears, even at this early date, to view discernment, not as a separate discipline of the Christian life by which a person can figure out the external will of God, but as an integral way of living life in Christ. Discernment is not a technique for discovering the will of God; it is simply a character “of the mature Christian soul.” It is a way of living, an orientation of the whole being toward “what is good – charity, union with the will of God – and an equally spontaneous repugnance for what is evil.”

Even in his late twenties Merton had understood that everything centered on his inner consciousness of God’s living presence at the core of his being. Later in his life Merton expressed this beautifully in a passage that appears in Love and Living,
it opens the believer’s inner eye, the eye of the heart, to the realization that he must come to be centered in God because that, in fact, is where his center is. He must become what he is, a ‘son of God,’ ‘seeking only his Father’s will,’ abandoned to the invisible Presence and Nearness of Him Who Is, for there is no reality anywhere else but in Him. Love and Living, 75.

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