The Flight from Disunity: Thomas Merton on Suffering, by Vanessa Hurst

“Some men believe in the power and value of suffering,” writes Thomas Merton. “But their belief is an illusion. Suffering has no power, no value of its own.”

Light Beyond Pain, Abbey of Gethesmani, Kentucky
Light Beyond Pain, Abbey of Gethesmani, Kentucky

Photographs: Br. Paul Quenon

“Some men believe in the power and value of suffering,” writes Thomas Merton. “But their belief is an illusion. Suffering has no power, no value of its own.”1

The Cistercian monk and revered spiritual master cautions us against treating suffering like a kind of currency to be exchanged for something desirable, some better thing that could bring us happiness and make us complete. Banking on the rewards of suffering, or cloaking ourselves in the persona of suffering as a way to gain sympathy or justify our shortcomings, can become an insurmountable obstacle to others and prevent us from living an authentic life.

Merton writes: “There is only one true flight from the world; it is not an escape from conflict, anguish, and suffering, but the flight from disunity and separation, to unity and peace in the love of other men.”2 When we give power to suffering and to the cause of suffering, we lose touch with the inner self that knows we are one with the Divine. The inner being knows that this sacred union can never be dissolved although it may be obscured. By trusting the illusion of suffering, we forget, and our spiritual wings are clipped. We are unable to lift off much less soar to the heights of ecstatic union with the Divine. To release ourselves from the bond of this illusion and the forgetfulness it causes, we must see suffering not as a destructive power but as a transcendent gift from the Divine. This shift in understanding releases us from disunity and separateness.

Merton encourages us to recognize the deception that can arise with suffering, blinding us to our capacity for an authentic experience by blocking heart-centered responses. Awareness can banish this illusion and help us discover the true spiritual gift that suffering can offer. He teaches contemplation as a way of living in awareness of each precious, unfolding moment, allowing us to integrate suffering into life. When we are able to be aware of suffering and consciously intend to learn from it, we are engaged in contemplative living. Indeed, according to Merton, we cannot be fully contemplative beings unless we experience suffering; and we cannot truly experience suffering unless we are living contemplatively. Through personal suffering we can strengthen our contemplative stance and discover that sharing peace and love with others eases suffering—our own and that of others.

Living contemplatively shifts our perception of personal suffering, moving us from an ego-driven to a soul-centered being. Conscious suffering can strengthen our connection to the Divine and bring clarity to our life purpose when we are patient, objective observers. We do not look for reasons behind the suffering; we accept suffering as a tool for spiritual growth. Our goal is to simply recognize that all suffering has a purpose—and that purpose is to fine-tune our highest self and move it into greater resonance with the Divine. Merton reminds us that “if we suffer courageously, quietly, unselfishly, peacefully, the things that wreck our outer being only perfect us within, and make us, as we have seen, more truly ourselves because they enable us to fulfill our destiny in Christ. They are sent for this purpose, and when they come, we should receive them with gratitude and joy.”3

Autumn Opera 17, Abbey of Gethesmani, Kentucky
Autumn Opera 17, Abbey of Gethesmani, Kentucky

Merton did not see suffering as an onerous challenge or something to be avoided at any cost. He encourages us to throw off our hair shirts and embrace suffering with gratitude and joy, seeing that it occurs naturally and is integral to our spiritual growth. When we anticipate suffering with dread, we cloud our connection to ourselves and all of creation, and the Divine. We can become locked in solitary, abject darkness, and endure a painful, heart-rending experience. When we consciously and intentionally welcome suffering, however, our eyes can be opened to a world of vibrant possibilities. Suffering presents opportunities to shed our egos and self-centered agendas. Once we have let go of our preconceived notions of who we ought to be, we can move more fully into an awareness and understanding of the profound and transforming effects of sharing love and peace. In the midst of suffering, we can recognize how entering into deep relationships with ourselves, others, nature, and God can provide an environment inwhich the gifts of suffering can be fully appreciated and embraced.

“Peace, true peace, is only to be found through suffering, and we must seek the light in darkness,”4 writes Merton. If we believe that all is created by God, as Merton did, suffering has a divine origin and contains a divine spark. When we shift our perception of the origin and the essence of suffering, we become aware of the peace that is possible only when we surrender to the Divine through which we receive the gift of suffering.

According to Merton, suffering can be recognized as a grace when we are “sincere in our sufferings as in anything else. We must recognize at once our weakness and our pain, but we do not need to advertise them.”5 Sincere and at peace, we may enter into the grace of God. “But the grace of Christ is constantly working miracles to turn useless suffering into something fruitful after all,” Merton reminds us. “How? By suddenly staunching the wound of sin. As soon as our life stops bleeding out of us in sin, suffering begins to have creative possibilities. But until we turn our wills to God, suffering leads nowhere, except to our own destruction.”6 When we deepen our relationship to God and fully place our trust in the Divine, suffering can lead to the conscious development of our spiritual being. We choose to strengthen our spirit and weaken the ego which is the site of our destruction.

The fire of suffering can help us express our contemplative nature. Merton defines contemplation as “the union of our mind and will with God in a supreme act of pure love that is at the same time the highest knowledge of Him as He is in Himself, the way to contemplation is to develop and perfect our mind and will and our whole soul.”7 We perfect our mind, will, and soul through suffering made transparent by the light of God. We don’t stop suffering as we grow closer to the Divine; our suffering becomes more poignant and acute by this deepening relationship with God.

Merton's Hermitage, Autumn, Abbey of Gethesmani, Kentucky
Merton’s Hermitage, Autumn, Abbey of Gethesmani, Kentucky

IN SUCH CONTEMPLATIVE MOMENTS, we can truly help others. Merton reminds us of the importance of compassion: “I cannot treat other men as men unless I have compassion for them. I must have at least enough compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer. And if for some reason I do not spontaneously feel this kind of sympathy for others, then it is God’s will that I do what I can to learn how. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, and their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when men who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey God.”8 Merton encourages us to see others as ourselves. Each of us suffers. Compassion invites us to create an oasis of peace for another who suffers, through our own relationship with God.

“Our spiritual attitude, our way of seeking peace and perfection, depends entirely on our concept of God,” writes Merton. “If we are able to believe he truly is our loving Father, if we can really accept the truth of infinite and compassionate concern for us, if we believe that he loves us not because we are worthy but because we need his love, then we can advance with confidence.”9 Our suffering and the suffering of others can call us to emulate God. We don’t share compassion or love with another because they have met some criteria and deserve our compassion, but because giving is part of our inherent being.

Merton’s famous prayer states, “I have no idea where I am going…. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.”10 By following God’s will, we deepen a contemplative experience that does not occur in a vacuum but in community. We do not choose the members of this community; we are called to be compassionate to all creation. Merton cautions: “Since this is God’s will for every man, and since contemplation is a gift not granted to anyone who does not consent to God’s will, contemplation is out of the question for anyone who does not try to cultivate compassion for other men.”11

Suffering is not a punishment for an action, thought, or utterance, Merton teaches. It is a natural part of life, and a natural outcome of following the will of God. It is through suffering that we grow into the beings that we are born to be, and cultivate compassion for ourselves and for others.

For Merton our compassion mirrors God’s compassion: “If my compassion is true, if it be a deep compassion of the heart and not a legal affair, or a mercy learned from a book and practiced on others like a pious exercise, then my compassion for others is God’s mercy for me. My patience with them is His patience with me. My love for them is His love for me.”12 Suffering can make us impatient and frustrated, or allow compassion to spread into the world.

Compassion leads to communion. Merton reminds us that “communication takes place between subject and object, but communion is beyond division: it is a sharing in basic unity….Christianity sees this unity as a special gift of God, a work of grace, which brings us to unity with God and one another in the Holy Spirit.”13 Suffering provides opportunities for us to realize that we are part of a larger community of spirit.

Merton reminds us, “as long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones.”14 Becoming one Body is made possible through our individual and collective suffering.

Cemetery Sun, Abbey of Gethesmani, Kentucky
Cemetery Sun, Abbey of Gethesmani, Kentucky

Suffering allows us to be more than who we believe we are. It provides fuel for us to become an integral part of a community. Merton encourages us: “it is not enough for us to be what our nature intends. It is not enough for us to be individual men. For us, holiness is more than humanity. If we are never anything but men, never anything but people, we will not be saints and we will not be able to offer to God the worship of our imitation, which is sanctity.”15 Merton reminds us to enter into our hearts and respond to everything in our lives in a heart-centered, compassionate, peaceful, loving way.

Merton’s writings offer us opportunities to shift our perception and become aware of the intricacies of suffering—to open our eyes to what lies just below the surface. To Merton, a saint “seeks not his own glory but the glory of God. And in order that God may be glorified in all things, the saint wishes himself to be nothing but a pure instrument of divine will. He wants himself to be simply a window through which God’s mercy shines on the world.”16 We become like saints when we accept the challenge of suffering, to grow into the person we are born to be, emulating God in all things In the end, the challenge is to view suffering neither as good nor bad; suffering is only a part of our life and not meant to consume us. Merton reminds us that “everything will be at once empty and full. But only if we have discovered how to combine emptiness and fullness, good will and indifferent results, mistakes and successes, work and rest, suffering and joy, in such a way that all things work together for our good and for the glory of God.”17 Suffering is one more tool to accomplish our life work and shine forth the glory of God. ♦


Thomas Merton, NO MAN IS AN ISLAND (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 78.

2 Thomas Merton, NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION (New York: New Directions, 1961), 78.

3 Thomas, Merton, NO MAN IS AN ISLAND (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 84.

4 Thomas Merton, THE ASCENT TO TRUTH (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951), 25.

5 Thomas, Merton, NO MAN IS AN ISLAND (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 93.

6 Thomas, Merton, NO MAN IS AN ISLAND (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 92.

7 Thomas Merton, SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION (New York: New Directions, 1949), 133.

8 Thomas Merton, NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION (New York: New Directions, 1961), 76-77.

9 Thomas Merton, LIFE AND HOLINESS (New York: Image Books, 1963), 31.

10 Thomas Merton, THOUGHTS IN SOLITUDE (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1956), 79.

11 Thomas Merton, NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION (New York: New Directions, 1961), 77.

12 Thomas, Merton, NO MAN IS AN ISLAND (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 212.

13 Thomas Merton, LOVE AND LIVING (New York: Harcourt, 1979), 73.

14 Thomas Merton, NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION (New York: New Directions, 1961), 72.

15 Thomas Merton, NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION (New York: New Directions, 1961), 31.

16 Thomas Merton, LIFE AND HOLINESS (New York: Image Books, 1963), 26.

17 Thomas, Merton, NO MAN IS AN ISLAND (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 129.

From Parabola Volume 36, No. 1, “Suffering,” Summer 2008. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing


By Vanessa Hurst

Vanessa Hurst is executive director of The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living. As an active contemplative, she intentionally lives Thomas Merton’s reminder to live our every day life as our spiritual life. Vanessa can be reached at
[email protected].