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Exclusive Look: Thomas Merton’s contemplative photography


Photograph of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin. Used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University

Daniel Esparza - published on 02/22/18

What Merton’s photography might be showing is the abandonment of what seems to be the main aim of photography itself. Rather than pursuing the ownership of a fleeting moment, of an object, or the retaining of both space and time in a two-dimensional surface, contemplative photography – according to Robert Waldron, the author of Thomas Merton, Master of Attention: an exploration of prayer –– seemingly aims to transform the choosing of an angle, an object, a situation, into a matter of abandonment and poverty.

Photograph of Thomas Merton by John Howard Griffin. Used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University

The display of simplicity one finds in Merton’s photography is but an affirmation of things as they are, in their simple, humble, fragile normality. In this kind of opening, in the still, everyday being of things and beings, God reveals Himself. 

Merton’s photography can be thought of, in its monastic simplicity, as a 20th-century rendition of the classic memento mori motif. His portraits of ordinary, torn tools – an adobe wall, an old stagecoach wheel, a tall wooden cross in the middle of the field, a lonely chair where no one is sitting, an abandoned hammer, a tin bucket — both transmit a sense of the holiness of created things, and the inevitable passing of time. The very “everydayness” of these objects, when not overlooked, was the key that opened the doors of contemplation.

“It seems to me,” Merton wrote his friend John C.H. Wu, “that mysticism flourishes most purely right in the middle of the ordinary. And such mysticism, in order to flourish, must be quite prompt to renounce all apparent claim to be mystical at all.”

The still silence of the photographic image, for the contemplative eye, is enough to reveal the transcendence of the apparently irrelevant.

A very special thanks to Dr. Paul Pearson of The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University and the Merton Legacy Trust for graciously allowing us to exhibit these photos online.

(Dedicated to my friend, Jeff Bruno.)


For those in New York, you can see the exhibit at the Chapel, Union Theological Seminary, 3041 Broadway, New York City, from March 19 to April 13.

Thomas Merton

Read more:
Thomas Merton figured out what we need to “make peace”

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