What is Thomas Merton’s definition of ‘authentic life?'

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Thomas Merton was a philosophical Catholic writer and Trappist monk who espoused his theological musings in prolific writings during his lifetime.

A famous quote of Merton’s that discusses authenticity comes from a circular letter he wrote in 1968:

"Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of of love and grace in our hearts."

This quote introduces the importance of interiority, or the development of a rich inner life that includes intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth. One could argue that this quote best represents Merton’s concept of the authentic self. The authentic self is the one which we create within our minds through constant progress. This is key to Merton’s philosophy on living an authentic life because it emphasizes the importance of continual growth.

Another place in which Merton discusses the concept of authenticity is in the book Seeds. Merton advocates for solitude, or a state of peaceful isolation in which one can contemplate the true nature of things without distraction. Merton was famous for isolating himself at Gethsemani, the monastery in Kentucky where he spent the majority of his life. Merton states that solitude is necessary to recover “one’s deep self” and to renew “an authenticity which is twisted out of shape by the pretentious routines of a disorganized togetherness.” Merton means that being alone with one’s thoughts is the only way in which one can truly discover oneself. Being with other people, in his view, is irrelevant to the development of true understanding of the self. Merton believed that discovering the self was an important precursor to truly knowing God. Since spiritual communion is of utmost importance in Merton’s concept of life, achieving authenticity is a necessity.

Within the same text, Merton addresses the empty pursuit of human progress that he perceived in an ever-increasingly rampant consumer culture. Merton criticizes our “idolatry of production and consumption for their own sakes” because it alienates is from our sense of “being,” and thus from God. Merton’s authentic life is removed from the influence of the worldly because it is a hollow nothingness compared to the development of a rich inner life and relationship with God.

Each of these examples convey Merton’s ideology of authenticity, which he believes is achieved only through deep contemplation removed from the influence of the world.

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