New York City through the Eyes of Thomas Merton

thomas merton pilgrimage

Here you ask of me nothing else than to be content that I am your Child and your Friend… You have called me here to be repeatedly born in light, in knowledge, in unknowing, in faith, in awareness, in gratitude, in poverty, in presence, and in praise. -Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

It seems fitting that I’m writing this post as I ride the Long Island Railroad to my internship in Queens—the same train Thomas Merton took when he would travel from Manhattan to Douglaston to visit his grandparents. The 8 a.m. sunshine is slicing through the windows, making the train car glow like a “golden basilica,” as Merton once wrote of the sun shining outside his monastery in Kentucky.

I’ve been living in New York City this semester as part of a journalism program through my college. It’s been absolutely incredible. But one thing I didn’t expect about my time here was how spiritual it would be. I’ve been wrestling with big questions about my future, myself, and my role as a Christian.

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Thomas Merton and His Unexpected Journey

Thomas Merton has been mentoring me through his writings, on the same island where he began to ask these very questions as a student at Columbia. He converted to Catholicism at Corpus Christi Catholic Church on the Upper West Side while in college. Afterward, he dabbled with the Franciscans and the priesthood. He thought he knew exactly what his calling was.

At age 27, however, he wound up at a Trappist Monastery in the hills of Kentucky, living a deeply contemplative life of prayer and solitude—a calling he did not expect but that God “loved him in to.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of his death on December 10th, 1968.

The spiritual questions and themes of home and belonging, being, and neighborly love (of which Merton writes a lot) have been central to my formation as a Christian and in discovering who I am. With the guidance and friendship of Merton, and the overwhelming grace of God, I feel myself maturing in faith and growing deeper in love with Jesus as I come to know more about myself and the realities of our world.

Home and Belonging

I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see what I would do when I got to New York. But you saw further and clearer than I, and you opened the seas before my ship, whose track lead me across the waters to a place I had never dreamed of, and which you were even then preparing for me to be my rescue and my shelter and my home. -Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

I have always had an intense longing to be home, although I know home isn’t necessarily a place or anywhere on earth. I long for home as somewhere with God. Until I am with Him, I am restless. I’m still learning to rest and be home in God and in myself. Belonging is a constant becoming and journey more than it is a finish line.

I’m reminded of Luke 9:58:

Every fox has a den, every bird has a nest, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.

So Christ makes His home in us, and when we embrace that homemaking, we too are home.


The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. Ultimately the only way that I can be myself is to become identified with Him in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence. -Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Doug Hertler, an NYC tour guide and actor who wrote a one-man show/retreat program called “Merton and Me: A Living Trinity.” Doug is passionate about tapping into the “deep spiritual reservoir” that exists within each of us.

“Merton forced me to confront the question that I had no answer for,” Doug said to me over the phone. “And that question was: Who am I?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that, too. I negate myself, and therefore negate life, when I do not confront the question of myself and the reality of my death. And to confront myself is ultimately to confront God—God in me, a broken human.

Merton calls this Le Point Vierge: the part of the soul that longs for God. Our deepest self longs and searches for God.

Neighborly Love

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! -Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher and Christian, called neighborly love the “highest love” above friendship love and romantic love. This is because it calls us to completely give of ourselves, like the Good Samaritan did.

Merton wrote extensively on issues of racial injustice, violence, and war during the mid 20th century. Today, there are countless life and justice issues that we must face as followers of Christ. The glory of God is written in everyone. It is our responsibility to love in action. We must do what we can to uphold the dignity of all human life. For when we encounter the other, we encounter God.

How do we say, “Here I am,” to our neighbors and love them like Jesus?

You have made us together, you have made us one and many, you have placed me here in the midst as a witness, as awareness, and as joy. Here I am. -Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Ultimately, my existence in this grand, heart-capturing city means nothing if I don’t love the people in it.

Never Stop the Search for God

Sit finis libri, non finis quaerendi: Here ends the book, but not the searching. -the final line in The Seven Storey Mountain

Jesus, I will never stop searching for You. There is beauty in the unknowing. I am humbled to be here before You, asking these questions and being vulnerable, knowing that You love me no matter what.

This is (for Julian of Norwich)… the heart of theology: not solving the contradiction, but remaining in the midst of it, in peace, knowing that it is fully solved, but that the solution is secret, and will never be guessed until it is revealed. The ‘wise heart’ remains in hope and in contradiction, in sorrow and in joy, fixed on the secret and the ‘great deed’ which alone gives Christian life its true scope and dimensions! The wise heart lives in Christ. – Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Jesus, let me be salt in this city. Let my heart forever live in You and be drawn to You. As the deer longs, so I long.

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Written by Cassidy Klein. Find out more about her here.

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