Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Winter 1979 (1/30/79)

Religious Studies 3011: Phenomenology of Religion

Dr. Jay Kim



A central theme of this book (journals written 1946-1952), as Merton himself indicates in the Prologue (20), is the "problem" of solitude and the related "paradox" which likens Merton, and all Christians, to Jonas.  In the course of discussing this, it will become apparent that, whatever progressions exists in Merton's insights and experiences, they are related to the solution of this problem.

The condition of the monk is that he has chosen to leave the world of society and human activity in which most of us live in order to devote himself purely to God.  This life of consecration is structure by five solemn vows: poverty, chastity, obedience, stability, and the conversion of manners (or the constant striving to be more perfect).  Of these, obedience and poverty seem to be most important thematically (in monastic life and in Merton's particular record, equally).  That the vows and the monastic life as a whole demand complete self-renunciation (19) clarifies the importance of obedience, as does the understanding that the union with God, which is the sole aim of the contemplative life, entails the correlation of one's own will with God's will.  Poverty is seen (74) to be a function of solitude or the extent to which one has eliminated from one's life all superfluities; isolated from the world and the things of the world (later seen in their true nature to be impermanent), one is alone and without possession (a painful but essential aspect of the human condition, as it is later revealed).

So, the monk's life is spent largely in the cell, "in the wilderness," where a simple life of ordered routine and ceremony allow him to focus his mind (and heart) on God in prayer and contemplation.  This is seen to be the simplest way to sanctity, and the basic idea of traditional form – encompassing dogma, the liturgy, the whole Christian mythos, and even the "priesthood" or "priestly character" of Christ – seems to be fairly important in the Christian mystical way.  Its role seems to be the same as that of the tea ceremony in Zen, or the mastery demanded in any art in Zen, wherein complete familiarity leads to an unselfconscious state of spontaneous freedom within structure, where the new is discovered – which, I suppose, is the paradox of Jonas.  That is, one is really free only to choose to do the will of God (as in Don Juan the purest expression of freedom is the undertaking of the greatest challenge involving the strictest discipline – which is a conversion of manners: living impeccably).  Jonas opposes the will of God but discovers that this is impossible.  It is the sign of Jonas that Merton says was "burned into the roots of my being" by baptism, solemn profession (of the vows), and priestly ordination (21).  And, in terms of solitude, the paradox is that true solitude (or sharing in God's solitariness or essential oneness) comes, for Merton and all priests, though purification by "the fire of charity" for others (225-6), so that the priest lives between the world to which he ministers and the ideal solitude of the pure contemplative – a sort of dialectical balance that each one finds with the help of God, who knows how much solitude each one needs (20).

The central progression in the book concerns a deepening of understanding of what solitude is – the knowing of one's own nature and the knowing of God, or the being-with God.  This knowledge is described over and over in all of the obscure Latin and French texts from which Merton is incessantly quoting.  A considerable statement made early in the book (March 10, 1947) indicates that these texts "have gone deep into me and have shaped my life and my prayer… have transformed my soul" (37), and he had surely been studying such texts for years.   But it takes time for this understanding – of man's relationship to Christ, of the priesthood of Christ, "stamped upon the depths of his being" at baptism, profession, and ordination – to "work itself out into his whole life" (226).  So, much of the journal is a paraphrase of nice statements about God and living a holy life, but the reality of this takes time to develop.

After his solemn vows (March 19, 1947), Merton writes "there is only one thing left to life for: the love of God" (46) but this, strictly speaking, is not true, to a fact for Merton.  His soul, he realizes, is made for God's silence, yet it is "lacerated" and "crucified" by the actual noise of his own thoughts and desires (54).  He knows the truth, at one level, but the fact is that this truth has not been brought into his factual life.  He realizes that the talks too much, thus, that he does not have the secret of the contemplative life, true silence, and he must extract joy and encouragement from the ideal (or pattern) of living only for God (61).  Still, he does have experiences of solitude at some degree, feeling at peace with the presence of May and God in his cell.  But such peace comes only in isolation from others.

He never seems to have trouble with leftover desires for the world and the things of the world (80).  In fact, one of his few (but crucial) difficulties is the vow of stability – for he has a "great attraction to the life of perfect solitude" which he never entirely loses (20).  This ideal is exemplified for him in the Carthusian Order, and he struggles for some time with the desire to change Orders.  But this difficulty ceases rather early, in December 1947, and he trusts God to know how much solitude he really needs.

After having been away form the world for seven years, he goes into Louisville and discovers that what he had previously thought to be the "wickedness" of the world was only a collection of his own defects that he had projected upon life in the world.  Now he is able to view men in the world with compassion (97), which later develops with his understanding of the human condition.

Again, it is possible, although the monastic life is routine, to rediscover everything as if for the first time (102).  "Every minute of life begins all over again.  Amen" (113).

The first mention of "false joy" taken from "created things" is in July 1948.  It is a profound idea, central to the whole understanding of solitude, which is not explained until the fall of 1949.  But Merton's week-long satori in September 1948 ("Love sails me around the house.  I walk two steps on the ground and four steps in the air" (124), reminiscent of D. T. Suzuki's description of satori as walking several inches off the ground) is surely valid indication of high spiritual "attainment," though there are struggles still ahead of him.  In October he is again brimming with love, humility, and joy (132-3), but it is not permanent.

The sudden fame of The Seven Storey Mountain was hard for him to adjust to and relates to another of his few crucial problems: writing.  For a long time he doubts his worth as a writer and especially as a poet.  But sometime in 1949, he decides that he is not a poet and stops striving to be one.  And, just before his ordination i May 1949, he finally stops worrying abut his ability to write (179).  He discovers that holy acts seem natural to the soul, which indicates that he has found a sensitivity of considerable importance in discovering what is right in active life.  And spontaneity is seen as the state in which God's life (more than will ) becomes ours and ours his (136).

Yet with all these insights ad experiences, he still desires things that are not God.  Focusing on this problem, that of poverty and solitude, he sees himself as being insignificant in the universe, and rejoices in this as the key to liberation form desire (116).  In the movement of desire, the movement to possess, the very friction or resistance of not-having and striving-to-have, one has a sense of being, of identity.  But one is really very insignificant, is as nothing, and perhaps one tries to alleviate this through possession or striving-to-possess.  Reflecting on his littleness makes it more final, but the whole reflection is a negative naming of "nothingness" as the lamentable absence of something you wish were there; and when this childish pouting is given up, freedom and love are seen to exist after all – a true cause to celebrate (154-5)

Another "high" experience for Merton coincides with his deaconate, when he is filled with such joy that he almost falls off the altar during Mass.  He says, "I felt as if I had found a new center" – one beyond his understanding (171), again indicating that things are in store for him.  Son afterward, he feels the presence of Mary in his heart and feels that her spirit is singing for him in Gospel (172), which relates back to the discussion of finding spontaneity (the natural flow of spirit or vitality) in habitualized form.

In May 1949, Merton was ordained priest.  The three-day festival was marked by "tremendous work" done in him, by "growth" that had a "gradation" (191), though he unfortunately does not detail this gradation.  Here again is satori, which he calls Agape.  At the altar as priest, he feels different from his everyday self – he feels "one day old," "nothing but a shell" (a formed vessel for the embodiment of spirit)(198).  After this point, things seem rather easy – or at least clear-cut, though involving "a tremendous amount of work" (225).  In ministry he finds "the one great secret for which I was born" (181) and sees charity to others as a fire in which his soul is to be purified (225-6).  It is this purification that alone remains before Merton is, in effect, "pure."

He mentions a "mystery" that stirs in the depths of his being, a long period of "abysmal testing and disintegration of my spirit" that reaches hits depth in the winter of 1950, then a new peace in face of a terror which he unfortunately does not elucidate.  For the terror vanishes and the peace lasts, so that the former was an illusion, and the latter a reality that continued to depend and develop.  He discovers the true meaning of aloneness, solitude.  Created things are seen to be impermanent, their beauty transitory and unpossessible, and tare thus painful to behold, while the need to love increases and God seems to be far away, beyond existence.  Alone, Merton is surrounded by a beauty that cannot be possessed; crate things are only empty mirrors of God's beauty and are appreciated and revered out of deep sadness for their unreality (232-3).  Touching upon ideas perhaps characteristic of Vedantic thought, Merton sees man as a traveler from the world of language to the silence in which one is in union with God.  The terror of this, I suppose, springs the loneliness and from a natural instinct, perhaps, that insures the continuation of the language function that would seem to be necessary for survival.  If one just steps into that darkness and does not return, then the body must die (if it remains behind – a question Don Juan considers).  But solitude is not negative – the absence of others.  It is the positive presence of God, a participation in His oneness, His being the essence of all things (262).

Joy is found by the love of truth, Merton quotes St. Bernard, and you start, not with some abstract Truth, but with the actual truth of yourself – your insignificance in the universe.  "To penetrate the truth" of our unimportance "is the only thing that can set us free to enjoy true happiness" (266).  The self is as nothing, is impermanent, has no lasting being – is therefore seen to exist only as a creature of God.  It is thus that one becomes an embodiment of God – in a moment of intense honesty in which one cannot pretend to have any separate significance apart from God.

The final formulation of this is: "I see the whole world like smoke and I am not part of it" (308).  Somehow – it might be called a sort of transubstantiation – he is no longer just himself, part of the world, but is beyond it, which is to say he has found his being in god.  And there is always pain when he sees anything on the earth because of the knowledge that everything is impermanent, and this impermanence mocks the beauty of existence.  In this perception of death there is a dying, a letting-go, which seems to be a continuous process insuring solitude (as a function of poverty).  Only in the present moment is there reality though the presence of God (319).  Compassion becomes a reality with this deepening understanding of the human condition.  And compassion is Merton's new desert (323), wherein once again the paradox arises: in doing the will of God, serving others, one finds oneself alone – utterly and finally alone with/in/as God, the one essence of all things.



Merton, Thomas. The Sign of Jonas. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1953.  References are to a paperback edition.



Professor's Comment: Grade A.  Very good.  This is the only "complete" paper at this round! [Dr. Kim.]



­Web Links


The Thomas Merton Center and International Thomas Merton Society


Thomas Merton Books




Alan Gullette > Essays