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Spiritual masters for all seasons

30 June, 2010

176 pp. Hidden Spring, an imprint of Paulist Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.hiddenspringbooks.com



  1. Unmasking the Self The Faces of Thomas Merton 
  2. The Monk and the Archbishop A Conversation about Merton with Dr. Rowan Williams 
  3. Trusting the Heart The Dynamics of Henri J. M. Nouwen 
  4. The Monk and the Professor Conversations about Merton and Nouwen 
  5. Deconditioning the Mind The Awakening of Anthony de Mello 
  6. Befriending the Soul The Landscapes of John O’Donohue 

Selected Bibliography 


They were intense and passionate artists, each with a distinctive brand of spiritual music. But, like the best names in jazz, they form a formidable quartet, and in this book appear together. As international spiritual guides and best-selling authors, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Anthony de Mello, and John O’Donohue caught the imagination of audiences around the world, crossing cultural and religious boundaries to extraordinary effect. Connoisseurs on the treasures of the inner life, they continue to appeal, not only to people rooted in a particular tradition, but also to those who linger on the thresholds, whether of faith and doubt, belonging and alienation, or life and death. In times of recession, their writings challenge the perception that life is little more than a consumptive enterprise.

Merton (1915-1968), de Mello (1931-1987), Nouwen (1932-1996) and O’Donohue (1956-2008) were arguably the most influential spiritual figures of recent times. Although each had a markedly different personality with a distinctive outlook, there was much in common between them. As young men, they were all ordained as Roman Catholic priests, but it was through their books that they achieved fame. Then, after making their mark on the world, all four died unexpectedly at the height of their powers while on the threshold of new discoveries — about themselves and about religion itself. Each died while traveling, far away from the places they called home.

All four were highly creative luminaries who revealed God in new and sometimes unexpected ways. In the process, they had to face their own complexities and sometimes courted controversy. Merton was a Trappist monk and civil rights campaigner who denounced U.S. policy in Vietnam and the nuclear arms race. In his final years he became a hermit, deepening his interest in Buddhism. Some have seen a correlation between his prophetic spirituality and the political philosophy of the U.S. president Barack Obama.

Nouwen, who was educated by the Jesuits and undertook the thirty-day Ignatian retreats, was a clinical psychologist and Ivy League professor of pastoral theology who gave up academia to become a pastor among people with developmental disabilities. He was the proverbial “wounded healer” who wrote more than forty books, filtering the spiritual life through a psychological prism. His ecumenical spirit, especially with regard to the sacraments, shocked some but delighted others. In his later years he followed a South African trapeze troupe across Europe and developed his most original theology from inside a circus tent. A preacher who appealed as much to the Religious Right as the Religious Left, he was invited to speak at a US Congress prayer breakfast and could count both Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton among his loyal readers.

De Mello was a consummate storyteller and spiritual director from India, whose captivating and sometimes shocking tales were turned into paperbacks and sold in their millions. Some felt he moved away from Christianity and drew too readily from the Asian spiritual traditions. Years after his death, the Vatican investigated his writings. But some argued that the Jesuit was misunderstood in Rome and remained a loyal priest of the church.

O’Donohue was an Irish philosopher-poet who made his name through his first best seller, Anam Chara. Although he eventually resigned from the priesthood, he retained a deep love of Catholicism but, like the other three, had concerns about its hierarchical trappings. He too became a hugely popular writer and speaker, especially in America, where his words live on. En route to Washington, DC, for his presidential inauguration, Barack Obama stopped in Baltimore to be greeted by governor Martin O’Malley, who offered him “A Blessing for One Who Holds Power,” written by O’Donohue. It spoke of the gift of leadership awakening an inner sense of vocation. The prayer asked that the new president’s work might be “infused with passion and creativity,” and that it might have “the wisdom to balance compassion and challenge”:

May your power never become a shell
Wherein your heart would silently atrophy.

May you welcome your own vulnerability
As the ground where healing and truth join.

May integrity of soul be your first ideal,
The source that will guide and bless your work (1).

While O’Donohue, de Mello, Nouwen, and Merton were born far from the United States, they spoke expressively to Americans searching for the spiritual in an increasingly secular environment. Their lexicon of the inner life helped people experience a sense of personal transformation in their quest for God. At a time of economic uncertainty, when many are anxious, not only about the future, but also about the present, their words both inspire and reassure. Downturns can lead to depressions of many kinds, but they can also be kairos moments, occasions for growth and renewal. Although these authors offer a spiritual compass to guide people through the winter of their lives, they are men for all seasons who understand the language of interiority and provide nourishment at any time.

The idea for this book was conceived as the forty-fourth president of the United States — “amidst gathering clouds and raging storms” — urged the American nation to “begin again the work of remaking America.” As Obama explained that this would involve remaining faithful to ancestral ideals, joining imagination to common purpose, and necessity to courage, I began to sense that the four writers, whose books filled my shelves, could offer, in counterpoint, a spiritual accompaniment to the emerging political melody.

President Obama spelled out the reality. America was at war against a global network of violence and hatred, while the economy — along with health care, education, and the environment — was in deep crisis. No less profound was a sapping of confidence and a fear that the nation’s decline was inevitable.

On that bitingly cold January morning of 2009, there was also a perceptible vein of spirituality flowing through the body of his speech. The crowds had gathered because they had chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

“We remain a young nation,” said the politician-preacher, “but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

In reaffirming the greatness of America, its inhabitants understood that greatness was never a given. It had to be earned. Time and again the nation’s forebears had struggled and sacrificed — “worked till their hands were raw” — so that Americans could live a better life. They had been able to see the nation as bigger than the sum of individual ambitions, greater than all the differences of birth, wealth, or faction. It was the common good that mattered.

President Obama pointed out that, in its poise for renewed leadership in the world, America would be a friend of every nation and every person who sought a future of peace and dignity. Its ancestors had known that power grew through prudence and that security arose from the justness of the cause, the force of example and “the tempering qualities” of humility and restraint. “We are the keepers of this legacy,” he declared.

America’s patchwork heritage was a strength, not a weakness. It was a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and nonbelievers, shaped by every language and culture. Just as it had tasted the “bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united,” so the United States had to believe that old hatreds and tribal divisions would eventually dissolve. Furthermore, America had a crucial role in ushering in a new era of peace. The reconciliatory and compassionate fabric of the Christian gospel seemed woven into his words as President Obama addressed followers of Islam: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

The president went on: “As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.”

Obama said it was ultimately “the faith and determination” of the American people on which the nation relied in dark times, such as individual acts of kindness to a stranger or the collective selflessness of a workforce keener to cut back on their own hours than see a colleague lose a job. The source of America’s confidence lay in the knowledge that “God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Hope and virtue would be anchors in the approaching storms, the new president counseled, and Americans should be unfaltering as they carried “that great gift of freedom” to future generations “with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us.” He seemed intent on reuniting a divided nation and healing a broken world. It was not music to the ears of the cynics, but it was definitely in the spirit of the kings and queens of jazz. The trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, a fellow African American of the same generation, said Obama’s message had always been about bringing people together and that was a major strand in the philosophy of the American jazz tradition.

As I toasted Obama’s health at home in England, I found myself transfixed to a large flat screen as high-definition images of the historic day were beamed around the world. It was not merely the visible and audible challenge of the speech that engulfed my attention, but the latent call for inner transformation. Somehow Obama reminded me so much of Merton, who had been America’s best-known contemplative in the mid-twentieth century and had written so prolifically and prophetically about civil rights, nonviolence, interfaith dialogue, and, above all, about the need to find one’s true self in God. Meanwhile, at his home beside the mountains of North Wales, in the United Kingdom, another writer was feeling much the same way. “The world needs Barack Obama — and the world needs Thomas Merton,” said Canon A. M. (Donald) Allchin who had been with Merton at the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination. He was not the only person to make an immediate connection.

On February 5, 2009, an Internet blogger, Mark Shaw, said he felt Obama’s words at the National Prayer Breakfast would have been appreciated by Thomas Merton: “I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done. I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck — no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose—His purpose.”

Father James Conner, who worked closely with Merton at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky, said Merton had touched on the oneness of humanity and the dignity of each person. That was why he had been so zealous for racial justice and peace and so against war and nuclear arms. To that extent, Father Conner believed Merton could be a spiritual guide for the remaking of America under Obama. “I think that he would delight in the way that Obama has shown an openness to other nations and cultures, as was seen in the Inter-Americas Conference and his dealings with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, as well as his attempts to open doors with Cuba and Iran. Merton would have hoped that, through Obama, America could come to respect all peoples and all cultures, and to see the dignity of each person in the sense that they are truly a part of ourselves.”
In July 2009, Obama told America’s oldest civil rights organization that African Americans should take charge of their own lives. In his first presidential speech on race, Obama said: “Government programs alone won’t get our children to the promised land —we need a new mindset, a new set of attitudes.” His words were described by one journalist as “passionate, even preacher-like.”
As a theology student in Britain in the 1980s, I was fortunate to study Merton in my final year. Throughout my university days a framed picture of the habited contemplative stood on the left-hand corner of my desk. I used to look up at him for inspiration as I typed my essays about his life and times. No one in the faculty was an authority on Merton, so this meant long hours of solitary study in the university library or alone in my flat, followed by weekends rummaging through second-hand bookshops for what copies of books I could find. As none of the excellent teaching staff was a specialist in the area, I was asked if I would like to supply my own examination questions, an invitation that did not extend to the marking. Following graduation, however, I began to drift away from the texts that had sated me intellectually. After an intense academic relationship with Merton, I knew I had to move on.

Then, in the summer of 2008, I found myself rediscovering Merton in preparation for a BBC Radio 4 program on the fortieth anniversary of the monk’s death. I summoned the courage to glance through my old essays, and my affinity with Merton was swiftly rekindled although this time, I sensed, in a more spiritual way. With producer Mark O’Brien, I traveled to the Abbey of Gethsemane, where we recorded sequences with the monks who had known Merton and later spent time in New York capturing the jazz-infused mood of his adolescence. Some of these stories appear in the book.

My first recorded Radio 4 program featured the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, who had been much influenced by Merton. I have drawn from our conversation for his portrait. Later, in the course of my biographical research on Nouwen, I interviewed 125 people, but it was not possible to include everything in Wounded Prophet (2),’-so new material is presented here for the first time.

A few years ago I started looking into the possibility of writing a book on Anthony de Mello who, intriguingly, had never been the subject of a critical biography. I had many of his books but knew little about his character and background. With a view to a biography, I interviewed a number of people from India, Spain, and the United States, but the project was hampered by difficulties and eventually shelved. In my assessment of de Mello, I have drawn on these unpublished reflections.

Always at home with the Celtic imagination, I appreciated John O’Donohue’s gentle and perceptive writing about the outer and inner landscapes of people’s lives. After the success of his first book, Anam Chara, I interviewed him at his home on the west coast of Ireland. As always, I returned to the studios with more material than I could possibly use, but those tapes have formed the basis of his profile here.

A synthesis of personal reminiscence and theological reflection, this book offers fresh insights into the souls of these popular authors whose spiritual writings act as torches for an exploration of the interior world. The style is both conversational and analytical as each portrait examines the character and the message of its subject. It is, of course, impossible to incorporate, within these short cameos, every facet or angle, but I hope that, in lifting the curtain on these four writers as a quartet, the stage is set for further study and investigation. There is no substitute for the primary sources and each of the four deserves a careful reading.

As you will discover, even for the most stimulating of guides, the spiritual journey is often trod with feet of clay. This alone should give us heart. All four writers wrestled with their demons from time to time and each found some aspects of institutional religion a stumbling block on the road to authentic spiritual living. But, grounded as they were in their own Catholic faith, especially its mystical guise, they discovered within themselves an inner freedom to push boundaries and explore lands beyond. Struggles were recurring contours in their spiritual topography but, refusing to see them as obstacles, they owned them as noble routes to the transcendent.

These four visionaries spoke and wrote voluminously. Admittedly, not everyone identified with their spirituality or their style of expressing it, but many others did and were transformed in the process. What all four shared in life as compelling communicators of the Christian faith, they continue to share in death, as their books keep selling across the world, despite a global recession. In this study, a blend of the spiritual and the journalistic, their outer characters and inner convictions are explored within a single volume. There are engaging connections and differences. For example, while Nouwen and de Mello draw on psychology, Merton and de Mello mine Asian spiritual traditions. O’Donohue and Merton are linked because they were poets, Nouwen and O’Donohue coincide in their thoughts on benediction. Film directors in America are said to have sought counsel from O’Donohue; one young Hollywood actor was named in baptism after Merton. De Mello was a man from the East who died in the West. Merton was a man from the West who died in the East. And so on.

In the world of jazz, four unique voices can come together to form a distinctive sound, with each of their instruments fulfilling a different role. As well as their ability to express their own voice, the players listen closely to other members of the quartet and are able to meld. Here, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Anthony de Mello, and John O’Donohue share a platform, offering a vibrant spiritual score, not only for the age of Obama, but for all times.



Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings (1).

Thomas Merton was a monk who adored his jazz. He liked its power, unity, and drive. But he also knew that music helped him speak of other realities. Like the “High Priest of Bebop,” Thelonious Monk, who had his own inimitable style, Thomas Merton was a unique solo performer with a highly original repertoire. They had more in common than their initials. But behind his own four walls, Merton was more at home with the music of Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean, whose records were as much companions as the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross. The quiet hermitage in the woods, where he went to explore silence and solitude, could sometimes sound like Birdland.

In fact, I felt I could almost hear the faint sound of a saxophone as I approached the pyramid-shaped hills of Kentucky in a corner of the United States noted more for its production of Bourbon whiskey than the contemplative musings of a jazz-loving genius. I remember my excitement that hot September afternoon, traveling beside neatly harvested cornfields and towering oaks, as I suddenly caught sight of the white-faced Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane shyly emerging through the trees.

After many years imagining what Merton’s enclosed world must have looked like, it was hard to believe I was finally arriving at the monastery where the twenty-six-year-old novice had begun a journey that would radically change not only his own life but the lives of many others too. I had passed the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village that Merton had frequented in his more self-indulgent days. Now I was eight hundred miles away from New York, sizing up an enclosure that had somehow managed to contain not only the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century but also a fearless global campaigner for peace and social justice. On the flight from La Guardia to the city of Louisville, where Merton had applauded jazz musicians, I reminded myself of his story. It seemed to have all the spiritual passion of A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. Like Merton himself, Coltrane was a constant searcher who believed in common essences.

Born at Prades in the French Pyrenees on January 31, 1915, Thomas Merton was the son of traveling artists. His New Zealand-born father, Owen Merton, and his American-born mother, Ruth Jenkins, had met at a painting school in Paris and been married at St. Anne’s Church in the Soho district of London — the heart of Britain’s jazz land. Educated in England at Oakham Public School (where Tom played jazz loudly on his record player) and, briefly, at Clare College, Cambridge, the young Merton found his life spiraling out of control as he indulged in a hedonistic lifestyle of drinking and debauchery. He was even rumored to have fathered an illegitimate child. Supported by an independent income after the death of his parents, he behaved like a spoiled kid in a time of recession.

But in his twenties, while a student at Columbia University, Merton eventually became more disciplined as he began to feel shame for his former life. Intellectual thinkers and friends influenced his conversion to Roman Catholicism. He said that, in spiritual terms, the decision came about through the divine actions of grace and mercy. First there was a realization of God’s infinite Being and presence, then of Christ as God’s son and redeemer, living in the church.

Two years after the outbreak of the Second World War, Merton entered Gethsemane, a community within the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (known as Trappists), where he prayed that his “rebellious sins and ingratitude” might be “burned away.” In this sanctified enclosure, far from the tainted world, he confronted the miseries, mistakes, and confusions of his past life and began a long journey of inner transformation. His ensuing twenty-seven years as a monk brought about profound changes in Merton’s self-understanding and, in the process, he emerged as an eloquent spiritual writer and social critic of international stature. Ironically, the more he moved into silence, the more he felt compelled to write. The pen became his voice. Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which his abbot directed him to write, was published in 1948, selling six hundred thousand copies in the first year alone. With a hundred or more books to follow, Merton’s writings were to bring him fame that he had neither predicted nor desired. They also provided an important source of income for the monastery as well as a number of new postulants.

At the time, vast numbers of servicemen had been returning from wars in Europe and the Far East, while others were struggling to come to terms with the devastating effect of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The horrors of Nazi concentration camps and the Holocaust were coming to light. There was a changing world geography with the formation of the State of Israel, the partition of India, the rise of communism, and the raising of the Iron and Bamboo Curtains. It was against this background that Merton turned his back on the world and found meaning within a rural monastery. Through his books he introduced vast numbers to the contemplative tradition within Christianity, especially to the writings of the church fathers and the great Christian mystics.

Described as the conscience of the peace movement in the 1960s and a “theologian of resistance”(2), Merton was a strong supporter of nonviolent civil rights, which he considered the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States. He also put his head above the monastic parapet in his protests against U.S. policy in Vietnam and the nuclear arms race. But despite a popular following, Merton found himself severely criticized by both Catholics and non-Catholics, who condemned his social activism as unbecoming of a monk. Some of his writings were censored by the monastic authorities.

Merton also immersed himself in the study of Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and the promotion of East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton, the Dalai Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known.

Toward the end of his life, Merton fell in love with a young nurse but later reaffirmed his monastic vows. It was the stuff of movies, but the monk resisted interest from Hollywood in turning his life into a motion picture and was always curious why his books sold so well in that corner of California. More than forty years after his death, he is still read avidly across the world, while every year up to three thousand people visit Bellarmine University in Louisville to do research in the Merton archives. While Merton would have been gladdened by any serious study, application, or development of his ideas, he was never remotely interested in becoming an icon. He said he aimed not at the heights but at the depths, aspiring to be a nonentity and someone who would be forgotten. There were many ironies and paradoxes in the world of Thomas Merton.

Encountering the Mystery
On a walk through the exterior and interior worlds of the abbey, Brother Paul Quenon, who was a novice under Merton, explained how his teacher had originally entered the monastery to seek catharsis. “You come here to find purity of heart so there is continual cleansing,” he told me. “You might go through moments when you think you’ve got it, then that slowly fades. It is a process more than a state. Of course going into the monastery is almost like what some people experience when they are embraced by their mothers. It might be somewhat terrifying, like walking into a prison — you don’t know what you’re going into. But when Merton came to the monastery, he began very quickly to feel that this was a paradise. He wrote with great enthusiasm about how Gethsemane was the center of America. Everything revolved around it. I think he later regretted that hyperbole.” Nonetheless, even in the 1960s, Merton would write that he still had a strange sense that Providence had brought him to the monastery. He felt he belonged to the land around Gethsemane with its rocky hills and pine trees. Within those woods and fields, he had encountered the deepest mystery of his own life. It was a place chosen not by him, but for him.

“Merton was constantly rediscovering God,” said Brother Paul. “He was always pushing back the horizons, exploring the boundaries and bringing the rest of us along with him. He got to know himself as unknown and perhaps even unknowable. One of his deep insights was that the mystery of God is continuous with the mystery of the self. So we can never really know ourselves except in terms of God and, of course, who can know God? So it was a continual expansion into the unknown. The unknowability of the self is really a reflection, a mirror of the unknowability of God.”

Thomas Merton was, then, one of the greatest exponents of the apophatic tradition in Christian spirituality, a guide to those who experience crises of faith and doubt in their lives. Echoing the mystical theology of St. John of the Cross, Merton speaks of “the curtain of darkness,” “the night of aridity and faith,” and the “power of an obscure love.” The Dark Night is a turning point on the spiritual journey as we are beckoned to move away from our safety and defenses, beyond our limits and beyond our selves. The way of faith involves traveling by night. The closer we get to God, the less our faith is diluted with the half-light of created images and concepts. The more obscure the path becomes, the greater the certainty. While the journey may cause anguish and doubt, it is in the deepest darkness that we possess God most fully. We are filled with God’s infinite light, which, to our own reasoning, seems like pure darkness.

According to Thomas Merton, a monk’s life should remain hidden in God, mysterious and stripped, but always expressing truth and simplicity before, with, and in the divine. He saw himself as one of a rare breed of contemplative priests who sought pure union with God. As a writer on interiority, he “spoke out for the inside.”  



  1. John O’Donohue, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings (London: Bantam Press, 2007), 161-62.
  2. Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J. M. Nouwen (New York: Doubleday 1999).


  1. Thomas Merton, First and Last Thoughts: A Thomas Merton Reader, ed. Thomas P. McDonnell (New York: Image, 1989) 16.
  2. Father Kenneth Leech, conference on Thomas Merton, London, May 2, 1987.

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