Day 08 – Forty Days with Thomas Merton

Day 08

A few years ago a man who was compiling a book on Success wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me. I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success. If it happened that I had once written a best-seller this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naiveté, and I would take very good care never to do the same thing again. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. I heard no more from him, and I am not aware that my reply was published with the other testimonials.

— Thomas Merton quoted in Merton’s Palace of Nowhere by James Finley

Today: Maybe Merton avoided the idea of success because it had more to do with living in the outcome than in the here and now. What happens with you when you refuse to play the Game of Success?

+Ed Jansen, OSB

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5 Responses to Day 08 – Forty Days with Thomas Merton

  1. Barbara says:

    Why would he be indignant? Has he only written one book?? While I understand about humility I really don’t feel much of it in this statement. It almost feels like…overkill. I am really very confused by it. He was a monk, and yet the message to his contemporaries (who I assume are other monks) is be, drunks, bastards, and madmen just don’t be a success…huh?
    Can’t a person be a success but not play games with it? If you do something well and right it is a success, there is no reason to be indignant about that. You do not have to play a “Success Game”. That is up to the person, and their humility. If Mr. Merton wrote a book that was successful kudos to him. If he chooses not to acknowledge his success that’s okay, but his words seem to be telling me I guilty or “bad” if I have success. Doesn’t our ministry depend on success? Not my success, not Greg’s success, but all of us as a ministry. Am I making any sense?? lol…

    • Bishop Ed says:

      I believe Fr. Merton is speaking about how the world defines success. I think that this has been translated over into the Kingdom of God for some. We measure the “success” of a ministry by numbers. In the church, we sometimes even measure success by what office we hold. I think the message here is about leveling the playing field, in the Kingdom of God. And in the Kingdom of God, it matters not if you’re a surgeon or a pimp. It matters not whether you are homeless or live in a mansion.

      In the definition of worldly success, Jesus’ ministry was a complete failure. As the Church, I think we need to stop using “nickles and noses,” as how we define “success.”

      The second part of this response deals with “staying in the present;” A contemplative practice. If we remain in the present with what is present, we are not attached to outcome…to success. It really doesn’t matter to the contemplative. What matters is the present. Do the very best you can do, today, now and leave the outcome to God.

      I hope this clarifies your confusion 🙂

      • Barbara says:

        Thank you for helping me understand that better. However I do think as a “ministry” or a “church” we can ….not be attached to the success personally but as….a success for God?? For some reason it really bothers me. It’s like not having any interest in what you are doing…..Can we do this work for God without an interest in it? or in the people? I’m not trying to be difficult, I do understand the concept of what Mr. Merton is saying. But was he living in seclusion? Was he working within….a public arena? with people? I think it is like our bible studies. You always say how do you bring this into today’s world?

        I do not think about being a success at what I do in life or at work, because I know that God is having me do His will. I am thinking about the people we are helping to be successful and our church…

        • Bishop Ed says:


          I’m sorry I didn’t articulate this very well. Let me sum it up this way. Do the very best you can do, today, now and leave the outcome (success) to God. When we remain in the present we don’t need to measure “success.” Too often in life, the outcome we may define as a “success” is not a success in the eyes of God. And often our perceived failures are exactly what we needed….at that moment and God has been successful in our failures.

          When we put forth our very best effort, each given moment will ultimately bring us a peace and satisfaction that success cannot offer us. I was successful at one point in my life, got to the top and cried out, “Is that all there is ?!? ” I seem to find peace and satisfaction when I know I’ve done my very best, right now.

          Love you!


          • Barbara says:

            Peace and satisfaction… I like that. Not struggling with weather it is success or will I be a success! I do try my very best always…it’s not always the right way but it is what I got at the time…lol. So I will be at peace with that. Thank you.


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