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..


Thomas Merton vs. Charles Wesley

  • Charles Wesley (50%, 3,236 Votes)
  • Thomas Merton (50%, 3,185 Votes)

Total Voters: 6,421

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162 comments on “Thomas Merton vs. Charles Wesley”

  1. While I often recite Merton's prayer, I have to vote for Wesley whose hymns are known throughout Christendom.

  2. It's validating to hear a famous person describe the feelings of insecurity in one's spiritual path. I wept through the prayer that was read.
    Music always helps anchor me in my faith and can often speak what I want to say what I can't speak/write well, and that could be a reason to vote for Charles, but sometimes it's nice to see that the "saints" also lived with their faith being uncertain at times,and their prayers also spoke what I can poorly speak/write.

  3. How many many times I have said "I believe my desire to please you O Lord does in fact please you" and found new comfort and peace in those words. Yet I think music spans in even greater ways than thoughts human culthres, eras, and moves hearts and minds in ways beyond our understanding. I love you Thomas and thank God for you. My vote today goes to Charles.

  4. I wasn't sure how I felt about Merton, so I ventured online to read more. I realize now that he was a man of our time. He led a self centered youth, but then felt the call of God for more depth to his existence. He persevered in his struggle and became a true influence of the 20th century
    I am all for music and hymns. I dearly love the deep history of Christianity. But, Thomas Merton is a man of our time, and example of the ongoing depth of our beliefs, and an inspiration to believe that we each have change within us.
    My vote goes to Merton! Win or lose, his story has had an impact on my life

  5. Gosh, as of the time of my vote, they're neck in neck, but even if Merton loses, it'll be by a nose. (Block that metaphor!) (Why do I always pick losers?) Much as I love Wesley's hymns, Merton once again wins my favor for being "a poet, an artist, a jazz aficionado, a dissident, a lover, a peace activist, a hermit"--complex, extravagant, quirky--God needs more like him.

  6. "Love Divine" was sung at Bruce's and my wedding as well, and it's a masterpiece. Nevertheless, I voted for Merton because of his perception of the complexity of human nature and its relationship with the divine.
    That done, thanks be to God for Charles Wesley and Thomas Merton, two holy men who gave us many holy gifts.

  7. Tough choice, love them both. The music wins out, though, because I love his hymns.
    It's Charles all the way.

  8. I love Merton for his struggles, and his honesty in sharing them. However, I think more people have been influenced by Charles Wesley's hymns so Charlie is my darlin' today. I want "O Come Thou Traveler Divine" played at my funeral.

  9. I love Thomas' writings. However, the faith of more Christians [of all denominations] are reminded of G-d's wonder and love through the music of Charles than the much smaller number who have read and be inspired by Merton. Even the un-churched find themselves humming Wesley hymns, praising G-d regardless!

  10. Charlie has me singing praises with my lips, but my soul is dancing with Merton.

  11. As dear as Merton is to my soul, the hymns of Charles Wesley have been part of my formation for even longer, probably even when I was in my Methodist mother's womb. One of the things that has kept me a Methodist (now United Methodist) for 76 years so far is the enthusiastic hymn singing in our churches. Incidentally, Charles wrote only the words to all these 6000+ hymns, not the music. They have been sung to various tunes over the years. However, there are three hymn tunes in the United Methodist Hymnal by his descendant, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: #473, Lead Me, Lord; #501, O Thou Who Camest from Above (with words by Charles Wesley!); and 545, The Church's One Foundation, which is probably the best-known by this composer. We also have one hymn written by Samuel Wesley, father of John and Charles, as well as several by John Wesley. Charles Wesley gets my vote today.

  12. Sitting at my desk quietly singing "Love Divine All Loves Excelling" and feeling my heart swell. Charles gets my vote.

  13. I admire Merton, but, not being a theologian, I can relate better to Charles Wesley and his straightforward message of God's love.

  14. "Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" is one of my favorites. Charles Wesley's hymns are included in most hymnals of any note -- across all denominations! Charles Wesley has a kind of universal appeal, that as a musician and a student of hymnody I cannot vote against. As St. Augustine said, "Those who sing, pray twice!"

    "Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing!" words by Charles Wesley, tune: Azmon

  15. "Lost in wonder, love and praise." Merton is impressive, but Charles has my heart.

  16. Today is my birthday so I would like to be granted a second vote. I cast that vote for Thomas Merton after much contemplation.

  17. I'm a musician, a former Methodist (now at home in the Episcopal church). and a real supporter of Charles Wesley. Then I read over Merton's story, and I began to sense that this joyful man from Kentucky (I am a native Tennessean) really deserves my vote today. But as I read those wonderful words of Charles which have inspired me, comforted me, challenged and guided me, I knew there was no other choice. Hark! The herald angels said vote for CW!

    1. Speaking of herald angels...
      I remember some years ago, when the Fourth Sunday of Advent fell on December 24.
      That morning at church we sang, for the recessional, "Lo! he comes, with clouds descending". There we were, singing about the Second Coming, while we were on the very doorstep of Christmas Eve. Cool!
      And a great hymn, too.

  18. This is the most difficult match up. One man reflects our inner selves and one brings such joy in the hymns. Not easy to decide.

  19. Had to go with Charles Wesley. I feel as if his music opens up a path to my soul to receive God, if that makes any sense. It was close, but I had to chose the composer over the poet.
    Quick Question on another subject. In the first week, I think the Archbishops picked my name to win a mug. How do I get it?????

  20. I will not be disappointed with whatever the outcome of today's vote. Both of these saints have contributed so much to my spiritual journey. I went with Charles Wesley simply because hymns play such a tremendous role in my spiritual autobiography. Without that never-ending jukebox playing the Episcopal hymnal in my head, I don't know how I would have been lured to go back through the doors of the church.

  21. I voted for Merton as a testament to Laurie Brock--what a lovely write up! Church music is nice and everything, but I don't consider it especially necessary.

    1. Thank you! Researching and writing Merton's bio was particularly meaningful, since I got to go to Gethsemani and meet monks who knew him. His writings are quite profound, and his life certainly preached.

    2. *GASP*
      Collective intake of breath from all the Lutherans on board. Music "not especially necessary"?!?
      Good thing we can agree on so many other the especially high quality of this week's write-ups.

      1. Yes, Jennifer, I agree. Music is essential and hymn singing is right there too. Episcopalians are attached to music, even if they don't have that rep. Gerontologists can tell you that when we get older and we lose our minds, the things we still remember are the hymns that we have sung in church. Those are the last things to go. So, if something is essential, then it would be those hymns.

        1. I also agree that music is essential for my spirituality and worship! A former United Methodist, now in the Episcopal Church, I have never gotten accustomed to the early services which are spoken with no music.

        2. Charles Wesley did not help found an offshoot. He helped form societies in England for revival of the established church. And please remember, the Methodist Movement was not a schism like the Episcopal Church suffered in recent decades. It was simply a revival movement like Cursillo. The only reason it became a church before the Episcopal Church is that they got impatient waiting for clergy, and hadn't thought of the Scottish solution.

        3. The polls are open until 8 a.m. Eastern Time, which is several hours away.

        4. It is true that Charles wrote the lyrics to the hymns as poetry, which has then been put to an assortment of music. In fact, 19th century hymnals had separate books for lyrics and for music, and there was a list of tunes to which the song could be sung. However, Charles' intent was indeed to be writing songs to be sung in corporate worship, not to be writing poems to stand alone.

  22. Oh, what a choice! Having made retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where I was blessed with a vision that has shaped my spirituality, I am grateful to Thomas Merton for his writing and example. And yet, I cannot forsake my beloved "Uncle Chuck" Wesley, who with his brother "Father John" Wesley gave us the tradition of disciplined practice and grace-filled theology that we still sing today. Charles Wesley gets my vote!

  23. This may be the most difficult choice for me yet. Wonder, love, and praise are inspired by both!

  24. I do love Merton.... but I named my Number Two Son after Charles Wesley. So.... Charles it is. Y'all are just being MEAN by putting two of my favorite folks up against each other!

  25. Laurie Brock's fine post about Thomas Merton grabbed his gift for holding the opposites of the present age in a fine tension. Besides, we owe him a ton for bringing contemplative prayer into the 20th century and paving the way for other greats such as Brothers Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating. I voted for Merton in order to make a statement in favor of the mystical...which of course is also touched by Wesley in abundance (wonder, love and praise!!). Nevertheless, the modern contemplative won out today. Merton for me!

  26. I love the hymns and I sing. But it was the words of Merton that touched me this morning. I have not read any of his books or writings. Anyone have a recommendation of a good place to start?

    1. My one and only Merton book was "The Seven-Storey Mountain." It's basically his autobiography, up to and including the time he entered Gethsemani monsastery, and it's pretty interesting. I think it came from journals he kept during that period. I found it especially interesting as a description of life in the early 20th Century on two continents.

      I'd recommend it, but it's not a "spiritual how-to" or anything.

      1. Thank you for sharing Thomas Merton's book. I will be adding it to my list of Lent Madness books I want to read.

  27. First, Kudos to both bloggers for their excellent use of multi-media and celebrity placement. Enjoyed it! Looking at the wedding attendees singing Charles Wesley’s words, I found it hard to detect much joy in their demeanor. I am pondering how we can help today’s “nones” find our churches. When we focus on the things we have loved since we were children, do we present our most welcoming face to the unchurched who wonder about and question God’s existence? Thinking of a conversation I had with a young person yesterday, today I had to vote for Merton. That prayer moves me deeply.

  28. AAAgh! Hardest vote yet!!! I am moved to vote for Thomas Merton but grateful to God for both of these saints.