Thomas Merton vs. Charles Wesley

In the last battle before the start of the highly anticipated Elate Eight (aka the Saintly Kitsch round), Thomas Merton takes on Charles Wesley. Poet vs. hymn writer. Both were brothers, of course -- one a monastic brother (Trappist) and one an actual brother (to John Wesley). It's the final match-up of the Saintly Sixteen!

In a quick media round-up, everyone's favorite online Lenten devotion was featured last week on National Public Radio, Christianity Today, and even the Methodists got in on the action with a post on, the official online ministry of the Methodist Church (something tells us they may be especially interested in today's match-up). Also, Archbishops John and Thomas made their national television debut on Bloomberg TV.

What's the secret behind all the Lent Madness love out there (besides the warm and fuzzy nature of the Supreme Executive Committee)? Forward Movement Managing Editor Richelle Thompson shares her take in an article titled "If At First You Don't Succeed" on the Episcopal Church Foundation's Vital Practices webpage (Hint: no high priced PR consultants were harmed in this process).

And if you're looking to take the edge off Monday Morning, watch the Archbishops' Update as they preview the Lent Madness week ahead.

Finally, we're making progress in our campaign to reach 10,000 likes on Facebook before awarding the Golden Halo! We're pushing 9,650 so make sure to share our page with everyone you know. We suggest pilfering the parish directory and sending handwritten notes to everybody urging them to like Lent Madness immediately.

unnamedThomas Merton

Thomas Merton is considered by many to be the voice of the contemplative tradition in the modern world. His books, over 30 of them, reinvigorated those interested in contemplative practice. Given his voluminous amount of writing, his quotes were more than plentiful.

The quirks, however, are what make his quotes matter. Perhaps the quirk was his life of self contradictions. An unhappy child and unsettled adolescent became an adult who, on a street corner in Kentucky, was overwhelmed with the realization he loved all these people, "that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

A man with an extravagant personality and celebrity also craved his own space, eventually granted, somewhat grudgingly, in The Hermitage. A deeply devout Trappist who described his order as one that “carried communism to its ultimate limit” also explored the truths in Eastern faith. A sometimes hermit shared his soul and spirit with millions through his words. A man who, in his later years, fell in love with a nurse, writing her love poetry, wrote love poetry to his monastic life, as well, and ultimately reaffirmed his life as a Trappist before his untimely death. Even that too held contradictions: the avid peace activist’s body was flown to Kentucky on a military plane.

Merton was a writer, a poet, an artist, a jazz aficionado, a dissident, a lover, a peace activist, a hermit, a celebrity, and a man -- all held in union in his deeply contemplative soul. The illusion is that we are non-contradictory. To find our true selves, filled with beauty and contradictions and other-ness, we must enter into contemplation. For Merton, “We become contemplatives when God discovers Himself in us.”

Through contemplation, we seek truth. Merton writes, “We make ourselves real by telling the truth....But he can forget how badly he needs to tell the truth....We must be true inside, true to ourselves, before we can know a truth that is outside us.”

And that truth? That self that is beyond illusion, that welcomes our contradictions, our paradoxes and ambiguities? In that space is God.

The man who is not afraid to admit everything that he sees to be wrong with himself, and yet recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of his shortcomings, can be sincere. His sincerity is based on confidence, not in his illusions about himself, but in the endless, unfailing mercy of God.

When all our shortcomings, our hypocrisies, our failings...when all that we’d rather not expose about ourselves is welcomed into contemplative union with God, we become part of the dance that is in the midst of us, “for it beats in our very blood whether we want it to or not."

In the midst of Lent Madness, remember Merton’s call to cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join God’s dance.

Here is a video of a monk from Gethsemani praying one of Merton’s most famous prayers:

-- Laurie Brock

unnamedCharles Wesley

Charles Wesley (1707-1788), who with his brother John was among the chief leaders of the Methodist Revival within the Church of England, is especially quotable, having penned well over 6,000 hymns during his lifetime, in addition to a multitude of sermons a personal writings. Wesley knew well the power of hymns to convey theology to a wide audience.

One of Wesley’s great hymns was written on the anniversary of his inner conversion, which he described as “a strange palpitation of the heart.” The hymn spanned some eighteen verses, including some no longer in common use today, speaking to the theme of the assurance of salvation by the presence of the Holy Spirit:

O for a thousand tongues to sing, my great Redeemer’s praise
The glories of my God and King, the triumphs of His grace!

On this glad day the glorious Sun Of Righteousness arose;
On my benighted soul He shone, and fill’d it with repose.

Then with my heart I first believed, Believed with faith Divine;
Power with the Holy Ghost received, to call the Saviour mine.

Some of Wesley’s hymns weren’t as “worship-ready.” After his brother John appointed Thomas Coke as Superintendent for the Methodists in America – giving to Coke the responsibilities in America that would have belonged to a Bishop in the Church of England – Charles Wesley penned a sarcastic verse to express his sense of anger and betrayal:

So easily are Bishops made
By man’s or woman’s whim?
Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,
But who laid hands on him?

But the vast majority of his hymns, however, remain firmly entrenched on our lips. As a man who often preached in the fields to people unable to reach a parish church, yet another text speaks to the heart of Charles Wesley’s ministry:

Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim,
And publish abroad His wonderful Name;
The Name all victorious of Jesus extol,
His kingdom is glorious and rules over all.

But it is one of his hymns written on the theme of Christian perfection that is perhaps the most beloved. The hymn is among the most fitting and most quotable summations of the theology and ministry of this incredible theologian, preacher, and author:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish then thy new creation:
pure and spotless let us be
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee
Changed from glory into glory
‘til in heaven we take our place
‘til we cast our crowns before thee, 
lost in wonder, love and praise!

-- David Sibley


NOTE: The Supreme Executive Committee has adjusted vote totals based on some cheating we detected. See your announcement on this subject..

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162 comments on “Thomas Merton vs. Charles Wesley”

  1. Thomas Merton on to the Elate Eight just as Kentucky goes to the National Championship. Mysterious ways . . .

  2. The Spirit holds in tension my Methodist bent and my contemplative heart. Regardless of my denominational association, I vote as my heart sings with Wesley. Methinks Thomas would agree 😉

  3. Thomas Merton has played an enormous role in the commitment of several people I know to Christ and his kingdom, myself among them. He has been the magnet to a host of iron filings across confessional lines and even deeper divides in the human family. Charles the hymn-writer was a beloved friend before I was out of single-digit-years-old territory, and many of would be poorer but for his edifying work. Still, I couldn't repress a wicked thought that comes to me whenever I see a "Green Book" number in our Sunday program: "Oh, no! I'm gonna be lost in 'Wonder, Love and Praise' again!"

  4. Both of these saints gave us the same Truth, but I have to vote for the one who gave to us a way to express the pure delight of knowing how our savior loves us. The composer of the joyous dancing tune Hyfrydol in the Hymnal 1982 must have been channeling Charles!

        1. I like O du Liebe as the hymn tune for Love Divine (I'm a Lutheran), Hyfrydol is also a good hymn tune! Much better than the Welsh tune used at the Royal Wedding!

  5. I had not realized that the title of the Hymnal supplement Wonder, Love, and Praise came from the great hymn by Charles Wesley!

  6. Merton reads his own prayer and finishes up with "That's pure Merton"? That just sounds off to me...

    At any rate, it's been Charles Wesley all the way! He has me singing every day. Talk about "ear worms"!

    1. That isn't Merton reading the prayer in the video. It's somebody else.
      And it's Charles Wesley all the way for me too!

  7. Lost in wonder, love and praise and in trying decide who to vote for today. Merton by one basket.

  8. Can't believe Charles would beat out J.S. Bach, and just not certain about Merton, so I'll let the winds decide this one.

  9. Merton has my heart; but think of all the hymns that thousands have sung in praise of God.

    So much for my bracket!


  10. Touching to see Kate Middleton singing the words by heart, ready to cast a real crown. Merton is so very human and divine he could be a Bible figure. Today is probably another win-win day, but with all due respect to the monk, I'm going for the musical over the mystical. And not just because of the glimpse of Sir Elton and all them crazy hats.

    1. Well said, Peg. Who WAS that woman in the bizarre chapeau behind Elizabth Regina? I too was touched by Kate's hymn singing, perhaps because I grew up singing in Methodist church choirs.
      Charles Wesley touched me early and often.

      1. The two young ladies in the wildest of headgear are the daughters of Sarah Ferguson. The beige hat was such a sensation, it had its own Facebook page. Its designer was clearly lost in wonder.

        1. Princess Beatrice later sold the hat on EBay, raising a whopping £81,100 for UNICEF. I rather like the idea of raising a bit of a ruckus and turning the profits over for good!

      2. I agree--it's a tie so far in the runnings, which makes sense, and we're still singing Wesley's hymns--I'm always looking for the loveliness that stands the test of time. Love them both.

  11. This was the harest decision I had to make...... (in Lent madness!!) Did vote for Charles Wesley, because his music makes my heart soar..

  12. '... and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.' Merton's prayer speaks to me, so although I love many of Wesley's hymns, today my vote goes with Merton.

    1. Me too Fiona. This one was so hard, that it came down to the tape. I viewed both videos, and the Merton prayer moved my heart.

      1. YES!! I love the fact that we have to 'review the tapes' in lent madness - makes it sound so sports-like.... 🙂

  13. Speaking for myself, Merton is my man. But I am only one of probably millions who haven't read him but have sung and loved John Wesley's hymns. So I guess I voted for them, and not for Merton.

  14. my favorite quote from Merton when he grew unenchanted with the church in England, commenting on the processional, goes something like this: 'they walk as if they have already arrived'. oh, yes, i've seen that, some vergers seem especially susceptible. however, i'm a tad tired of Merton (!can that be?). Wesley it is, for this moment.

  15. I love so many of Charles' hymns that I am voting for Charles: he has shaped our common devotion and made our worship life richer.

  16. Wonder, love, and praise
    Oh, what a day of days!
    Will I be certain
    if I vote for Merton?
    Or do the hymns of Wesley
    resound and bless me?

  17. WOW! Tough match, and as much as I love the words of Merton, the hymns of Charles hold my heart.

  18. As much as I wanted to vote for a Wesley brother I ended up with Merton. The scope of his ministry, his connection with eastern religion, his complex and contradictory musings seem to capture the state of the Church today. Merton by a point. 🙂

  19. Merton's prayer, prayed in the accompanying video, is the prayer of my life and ministry; so I voted for Thomas. But I am also mindful that the one "who sings, prays twice".

  20. Thanks, y'all, for setting me straight on the Merton video. I just couldn't reconcile that comment with the things I've read!!

  21. "He who sings prays twice." Probably for that reason Charles has been a bigger influence on my faith. So I'm voting for him even though i picked Merton to win the Golden Halo.

  22. Having just read Merton's The Seven Story Mountain as part of my Lenten Discipline, I have a greater appreciation for the contemplative life and Merton's journey.

  23. Another day one wishes one could vote for both. I comfort myself with the thought that at least here one is able to chose between two goods, rather than between the lesser of two not so goods. I respect and enjoy them both, and it seems in a way that we're caught in the dilemma between a primary focus on gratitude (CW) and a primary focus on reflection and questioning(TM), both essential to life (and both shared by both saints really). So what's a girl to do? It came down to the day, and i'm slightly in my own head leaning to the later in this moment - because i'm stuck inside on a beautiful spring morning? So Thomas gets the nod, with the caveat, that had it been another day it could just as easily have been dear Charles.