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Asia Pacific Augistinian Conference

Jean-François Petit aa: Thomas Merton and Augustine

This article was written by Jean-François Petit a.a. for the magazine, “Itinéraires augustiniens," of the Augustinians of the Assumption. It was later translated into English for APAC by the North American Assumptionist Province. Reproduced with permission.  

Thomas Merton and Augustine

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Two further articles by Jean-François Petit aa are also available on this website. They are Community Life  and The Art of Discernment.

The American Thomas Merton (see photo at left), born in France in 1915 and who died in Bangkok in 1968, was one of the greatest spiritual authors of the twentieth century. A Trappist monk who was also a writer, a poet, a photographer, “a pacifist” who took stands against the atomic bomb, the war in Vietnam, racism, a pioneer in interreligious dialogue… he got involved in all of the major debates of his time. His life and work underline the importance of the role of a certain kind of contemplative that doesn’t hide when faced with calls from the world. From that moment on, how could he have ignored Saint Augustine, the other great “active-contemplative”?

Indeed, it is clear that both lived through the same paradoxes. Christians who were assiduous to prayer life, they wanted to remain hidden but were nevertheless snatched by the needs of the Church and the world. Avid readers of the Word of God that had become their personal bread, by necessity they had to become prolific authors (some sixty-two books for Merton!). These were men ever concerned with the unity of interior life but always tempted to give an answer to external calls… One could continue forever listing these parallels. In both cases, Merton and Augustine knew how to combine personal expression and the formulation of the basic tenets of faith, the richness of a lived experience and its “theological” expression, the concreteness, the urgency and the importance of its basic aims. With what concerns us here, we will limit ourselves to the clarification of a few aspects of Augustine’s role in Merton’s itinerary. To be sure, we can say that this great saint had a determining place in the conversion of the Trappist, to the point that the “Augustinian model” seems to inspire Merton’s very life story. This becomes clear through three very precise examples.

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