In December of 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 26-year-old Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he began life as a Trappist monk. Over the next 27 years, until his death in 1968, Merton authored more than fifty books that offered insights into the complexities of solitude, community, and spiritual growth. Most notably, his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, arrived in 1948 to wide acclaim. In 1953, the diary that Merton had been keeping at the monastery was also published, providing a candid look into the daily experiences and inner thoughts of a contemplative monk. This entry came in April of 1947, at which point Merton was facing a problem that can affect us all.
On and off since Easter I have been playing a new game called insomnia. It goes like this: You lie down in your dormitory cell and listen to first one monk and then another monk begin to snore without, however, going to sleep yourself. Then you count the quarter hours by the tower clock and console yourself with an exact knowledge of the amount of sleep you are missing. The fun does not really begin until you get up at 2 A.M. and try to keep awake in choir. All day long you wander around the monastery bumping into the walls.
Insomnia can become a form of contemplation. You just lie there, inert, helpless, alone, in the dark, and let yourself be crushed by the inscrutable tyranny of time. The plank bed becomes an altar and you lie there without trying to understand any longer in what sense you can be called a sacrifice. Outside in the world, where it is night, perhaps there is someone who suddenly sees that something he has done is horrible. He is most unexpectedly sorry and finds himself able to pray.
As mentioned, Thomas Merton’s journals were published in 1953 in The Sign of Jonas, a book which can now be read online at the Internet Archive. But there is a new edition in the shops, too. Often insightful and sometimes very funny, it’s a worthwhile read for people of all persuasions.