No Greater [definition of] Love… Father Thomas Merton

On the home page of The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, they state that Thomas Merton “…is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century.” He was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky. Known as a poet, mystic, and social activist, with a passion for jazz music, his life was a brief and spectacular meteoric shower in the Western sky. Nonetheless, he died in the East, in 1968, at the age of 53. The exact cause of death, which has never been determined, was reportedly the result of electrocution-by-fan as he stepped out of the bath tub in his hotel room. At the time of his death, Father Merton was visiting Thailand for the purpose of exploring one of his most passionate interests: Zen Buddhism. And this interest did not necessarily endear him to some members of the Catholic Church. I’ve included a link in the Related Readings section of this post, titled “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?” that you might want to examine.

Interestingly enough, it was the recommendation of the Hindu monk, Mahanambrata Brahmachari, that Merton read The Confessions of St. Augustine and The Imitation of Christ, that helped to assuage his former agnosticism and very real antipathy for the Catholic Church. In short, no one could have been more surprised that Thomas Merton became a member of the Catholic Church than Thomas Merton, himself. Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, is now a classic — and for very good reasons.

One day, while perusing my public library’s discarded books collection, I discovered a book titled The Wisdom of the Desert: Some Sayings of the Desert Fathers  by Thomas Merton. All I can say is that it has become one of my favorite books. Merton compiled a number of brief sayings and parables reminiscent of the Desert Fathers (of Egypt), lone monks and small communities of God’s servants, living in the far-flung reaches of the desert. The words and teachings are not his, but he felt called to make sure, through editing and translating them himself, that they were preserved and shared. And it’s pithy wisdom to say the least.

Interestingly enough, my favorite part of  Desert Fathers  is Father Merton’s Introduction. Therein I found the best definition of ‘love’ I’d seen to date. This was about two years ago. And this concludes my own introduction to Father Thomas Merton (also known as Father Louis), as well as my commentary on his definition of love, in the paragraph below. I think it speaks for itself. And even if you don’t agree that it’s a most extraordinary statement, I’m sure you will be edified.


“Love, of course, means something much more than more sentiment, much more than token favours and perfunctory identification with one’s brother, so that he is not regarded as an “object” to “which” one “does good.” The fact is that good done to another as to an object is of little or no spiritual value. Love takes one’s neighbor as one’s self, and loves him with all the immense humility and discretion and reserve and reverence without which no one can presume to enter into the sanctuary of another’s subjectivity. From such love all authoritarian brutality, all exploitation, domineering and condescension must necessarily be absent. The saints of the desert were enemies of every subtle or gross expedient by which “the spiritual man” contrives to bully those he thinks inferior to himself, thus gratifying his own ego. They had renounced everything that savoured of punishment and revenge, however hidden it might be.”

Merton, T. (Editor & Translator). (n.d.). Introduction to The wisdom of the desert: Some sayings of the desert fathers, pp. 17-18. Norfolk, CT: New Directions Books.

Namaste. And Oh, Hallelujah!

Related Readings:

Our Capacity For Sincere Love from What Comes From Silence: Collected Quotes (blog)

Thomas Merton and Dialogue With Buddhism from America: The National Catholic Review

Thomas Merton’s Life and Work from

Merton on Monday from Obsculta O Fili: Listen My Son, A Benedictine Blog

Can You Trust Thomas Merton? from Catholic Answers Magazine






2 thoughts on “No Greater [definition of] Love… Father Thomas Merton

  1. “No Man Is An Island” is an amazing collection. Much to my surprise, it’s been quite rare for me to encounter anyone familiar with Merton’s works. I’m so glad to hear from you! Thank you!


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