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The Sign of Jonas / Edition 1

The Sign of Jonas / Edition 1

by Thomas MertonThomas Merton
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Begun five years after he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, The Sign of Jonas is an extraordinary view of Merton’s life in a Trappist monastery, and it serves also as a spiritual log recording the deep meaning and increasing sureness he felt in his vocation: the growth of a mind that finds in its contracted physical world new intellectual and spiritual dimensions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156028004
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 11/18/2002
Series: Harvest Book
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 310,484
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was born in France and came to live in the United States at the age of 24. He received several awards recognizing his contribution to religious study and contemplation, including the Pax Medal in 1963, and remained a devoted spiritualist and a tireless advocate for social justice until his death in 1968.

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Solemn Profession

December, 1946 to December, 1947 This Journal started when I had been five years in the monastery. That meant that I was coming to the end of my term of simple vows and was making up my mind to take solemn vows and stay in the monastery for good.

When you enter a Cistercian monastery you spend some time as a postulant. After that you are a novice for two years, during which you hope to learn the rudiments of the Trappist life and discover whether or not you belong in the monastery. After that you make temporary simple vows for three years. These serve to prolong your probation. If, after these five years of probation, you want to leave, you are free to do so. If you stay, you make solemn perpetual vows. By these vows you consecrate your whole life to God in the monastery. After that you just forget about going back to the world.

By the grace of God it was easy for me to forget the world as soon as I left it. I never wanted to go back. However, I often wondered if I should not go to some other monastery. This was what is known as a "temptation." But at the time when I began writing this Journal I could not be quite sure whether it was a temptation or not. And I was a great nuisance to my spiritual directors on that account.

At that time I thought I was upset by the fact that DomFrederic, who was then Abbot, wanted me to write a lot of books. Perhaps I was less upset than I thought. But in any case, I did have to write a lot of books, some of which were terrible.

In December, 1946, I received word from a New York publisher that one of these books had been accepted. The book was called The Seven Storey Mountain and it was an autobiography. As things turned out, it became quite popular. I thought it would, but I did not like to admit it, because that might possibly be pride. And maybe it was.

(I remember when I was a novice, before I wrote the book, I went to confession and confessed, as a temptation, that I had thought of writing an autobiography, and the confessor found this extremely funny. He said: "Ha! Ha! Ha! When Chesterton wrote his autobiography he showed it to one of his friends and he was told that it didn't amount to much. Now if that happened to Chesterton, what would happen to you? ..." And, indeed, I have been told in set terms by some of the readers of the book that it does not amount to much. I do not say that I expected it to be a good book, I just say I expected it to be popular.)

All this time I was studying theology, and I was a cleric in minor Orders. To be exact, I had been ordained exorcist on the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels in 1946, and it seemed that I would not reach the priesthood for a hundred years.

So on the Feast of Saint Joseph — March 19, 1947 — I made my solemn vows.

I did not become a better monk after solemn vows than I had been before them, and I went on worrying about much the same things and striving to write a book called The Waters of Siloe in which I solemnly declare how monks are supposed to act if they want to be monks. I am beginning to realize how much of an impertinence this was. The reason why I wrote the book was that Dom Frederic wanted a history of the Order and of the monastery to be published when we celebrated the hundredth anniversary of our foundation. But I found myself involved in a discussion of monastic ideals. Perhaps, from my own point of view at least, this was useful. Thinking about monastic ideals isnot the same as living up to them, but at any rate such thinking has an important place in a monk's life, because you cannot begin to do anything unless you have some idea what you are trying to do.

There is nothing to prevent a monk from praying even while he writes a book. This discovery did not come to me until I finally resigned myself to being a writer, and found out that the job had one big compensation: it brought me solitude. In 1946 and 1947 I did not have a room to myself to write in, and so it did not occur to me to pray while I was writing. The room where I worked was shared by another monk with another typewriters canonist, working on some involved problem of law. He was, in fact, my professor of theology and later became my confessor. He was also one of the censors whose penance was to read the pages that flowed with such regularity from my typewriter in those innocent days.

Among other things that happened during this year, I had to serve as the secretary of the Abbot General of the Order when he came to Gethsemani to make an official Visitation. Then in July some monks were sent to Utah to make a foundation. During the year I had the job of assistant cantor, which sounds like much more than it is, and during the summer I read books aloud in the dining-room of the guest house to the visitors who came on weekend retreats to the monastery.

December 10 ADVENT [1946]

It is five years since I came to the monastery. It is the same kind of day, overcast. But now it is raining. I wish I knew how to begin to be grateful to God and to Our Lady for bringing me here.

There was a long interval after afternoon work. It was good to be in the big quiet church. The church is dark, these winter afternoons.

December 13 SAINT LUCY

The years since I entered Gethsemani have gone by like five weeks. It was a fine bright day, not very cold, with little clouds very high up in a clear sky. Yesterday, although it is Advent and we are not supposed to receive any letters at all, Dom Frederic* gave me a letter from Naomi Burton of Curtis Brown, Ltd. I had sent her the manuscript of The Seven Storey Mountain. Her letter about it was very good and she is quite sure it will find a publisher. Anyway, my idea — and hers also — is to turn it over to Robert Giroux at Harcourt, Brace.

At work — writing — I am doing a little better. I mean, I am less tied up in it, more peaceful and more detached. Taking one thing at a time and going over it slowly and patiently (if I can ever be said to do anything slowly and patiently) and forgetting about the other jobs that have to take their turn. For instance, Jay Laughlin wants two anthologies for New Directions press. I wonder if I will ever be able to do them. If God wills. Meanwhile, for myself, I have only one desire and that is the desire for solitude — to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.

December 14 SATURDAY

This afternoon we were working on the road from the old horsebarn to the lower bottom, filling in a deep gully that had washed out all along the road, down to the bottom of the hill. It was another bright, warm day. The new brick horsebarn, under the water tower, where the vineyard used to be, is almost finished. They are clearing ground already for the new garden house. There were some fat turkeys in the pen. Father Joel has already started to put up the crib, in the church, and that means Christmas is here. The novena begins tomorrow. Tonight at Vespers we sang the Conditor alme siderum which has not been heard for a week on account of Our Lady's octave. But what an octave! I keep thinking of the words, Posuit immaculatam viam meam, and of the Alleluia of the Mass (Tota pulchra es). That is what Duns Scotus is singing in heaven.

Lady, Queen of Heaven, pray me into solitude and silence and unity, that all my ways may be immaculate in God. Let me be content with whatever darkness surrounds me, finding Him always by me, in His mercy. Let me keep silence in this world, except in so far as God wills and in the way He wills it. Let me at least disappear into the writing I do. It should mean nothing special to me, nor harm my recollection. The work could be a prayer; its results should not concern me.


Old Father Alberic preached the sermon in Chapter. He looks very ill. He said it was his last sermon and I wouldn't be at all surprised. It was all about mutual encouragement. I think he must have been very lonely in the infirmary, all these years. He is a kind, and simple and solitary little person. When he appears in the scriptorium, he comes slowly along the cloister like a wraith, holding on to the walls, just to be where people are. The other day he showed me a holy picture. I wish I could have done something more for him than just look at the holy picture and smile, and I was ashamed of the thought that my smile perhaps showed the embarrassment I felt over two facts — first that artistically it was a frightful picture and second that my looking at it was against the rule of the house. Dom Frederic interprets the rule that two monks may not read together out of the same book, in the strict sense that no monk may show another monk anything any writing, any picture anything one would want to look at. ... This time I think charity came first.

One of the things I liked about his sermon was the ingenuousness and simplicity with which Father Alberic talked about "devotion to our Superiors." That a novice should instinctively make sacrifices for "his dear Father Master." It was not just something he got out of a book. It was in him and part of him and his whole wasted little person proclaimed the meaning of what he said.

One day when I was in Father Abbot's room complaining that I was not the contemplative or the solitary that I wanted to be, that I made no progress in this house and that I ought to be either a Carthusian or an outright hermit, Dom Frederic casually remarked that there were some men in the house who could come to him and tell him their troubles and go out quite satisfied with whatever answer he gave them. From a certain point of view the solution sounds utterly horrible. And yet it is also quite wonderful. It implies a faith and simplicity without which it is hard to live the contemplative life. We really have to believe in our Superiors. We cannot simply judge them by human standards, taking the things they tell us as opinions that are to be weighed in the balance with our own. I do not know if I shall ever be able to do it. But I need something of that and I hope Jesus will give me the grace for it.


The four big feast days were wonderful. Plenty of time to pray and no obligation to do anything else. Paradiso!

Yesterday in the confessional, Dom Gildas said a lot of good things and it would be well not to forget them. So I write them down.

1. First he said I ought to be very grateful for my attraction to prayer. I ought to cultivate it and seek recollection and remain quiet before the Tabernacle.

2. That I ought to pray to understand writers like Ruysbroeck and go on reading him.

3. To teach contemplation, and especially to let people know, in what I write, that the contemplative life is quite easy and accessible and does not require extraordinary or strange efforts, just the normal generosity required to strive for sanctity.

4. He said I must remember that my desire to become a Carthusian is full of self-love and only some very extraordinary upheaval in my whole life would justify my leaving here for a Charterhouse.

5. To profit by all the crosses Jesus sends me, especially the ones that come in connection with work — delays, accidents to manuscripts, adverse criticism, insults, and so on.

6. To realize what pleasure it gives Jesus when He sees that we recognize the action of His love, doing good to us in all these trials.

7. To read Carthusian writers and make use of anything of value that they say and if they make me want to pack up and run off to the Charterhouse I should treat that desire like any other movement of disordered appetite and not get upset about it.

Then, yesterday at dinner, when the reader in the refectory was reading some spectacular stuff by Bossuet on Saint Thomas of Canterbury, out of the Liturgical Year (the martyr dies, with his tongue still forming the word "l'église"), Father Prior handed me a telegram. I had been thinking: "If anything comes to me in the mail, I shall take it as a present from Saint Thomas à Becket." But when I saw the telegram my heart sank into my dinner. The first thought that came to my mind was that the manuscript of The Seven Storey Mountain had been lost. Naomi Burton gave it to Harcourt, Brace only a week ago. I knew quite well that publishers always make you wait at least two months before saying anything about your manuscripts. ... I waited until after dinner and opened the telegram. It was from Bob Giroux. And it said: "Manuscript accepted. Happy New Year."

January 5 VIGIL OF EPIPHANY [1947]

It is gray outside, and snow falls lightly.

This morning Father Abbot announced in Chapter that I had made my petition to be admitted to solemn vows. This was in order that the community might be able to vote on me.

I have been made assistant cantor, which meant moving to the other side of the choir. For some reason that side seems gloomy — perhaps because all the days have been dark days so far.

January 7

Father Abbot is starting off for Utah to look for land for a new foundation. This morning we had the Chapter of Faults and it was extremely peaceful and charitable. The whole monastery is as happy as Christmas morning.

January 12

I am fascinated by Martene and Durand's Voyage Littéraire de Deux Bénédictins. It is the record of their journey around France in the early eighteenth century, collecting material for the Gallia Christiana, in the archives of the old monasteries. And there were hundreds of them. Monastic life was, on the whole, rich and vital even in that dead age. There were many scattered reform movements going on, and they were effective enough, within their limitations. But few of them seem to have extended very far and almost all of them have been completely forgotten. Monasticism was a big tree full of dead wood. It needed to be pruned. It was, in fact, all but cut down. Many rich and beautiful customs were lost with the monasteries that the French revolution swept out of existence. Much art too, I suppose. But when it was all over I think the monasteries that survived came out richer in the love of God.

January 14

God's love takes care of everything I do. He guides me in my work and in my reading, at least until I get greedy and start rushing from page to page. It is really illogical that I should get temptations to run off to another monastery and to another Order. God has put me in a place where I can spend hour after hour, each day, in occupations that are always on the borderline of prayer. There is always a chance to step over the line and enter into simple and contemplative union with God. I get plenty of time alone before the Blessed Sacrament. I have got in the habit of walking up and down under the trees or along the wall of the cemetery in the presence of God. And yet I am such a fool that I can consent to imagine that in some other situation I would quickly advance to a high degree of prayer If I went anywhere else I would almost certainly be much worse off than here. And anyway, I did not come here for myself but for God. God is my order and my cell. He is my religious life and my rule. He has disposed everything in my life in order to draw me inward, where I can see Him and rest in Him. He has put me in this place because He wants me in this place and if He ever wants to put me anywhere else He will do so in a way that will leave no doubt as to who is doing it.

January 18

On Wednesday Father Abbot came back from Utah without a farm.

He may or may not tell us about it on Sunday.

Today the Last Sacraments were given to Father Odo. Being assistant cantor I was close to his cell. I knelt opposite the doorway but the long line of novices kept passing and passing, between me and the cell, and they were still going by when Reverend Father began the anointing. I did not get more than a glimpse of Father Odo whose face was sunken and drawn and who seemed to be suffering much. His huge body used to shake with an asthmatic cough on the days when he would come down to Chapter in his wheel chair. (On his jubilee he sat with his hand cupped behind his ear during Dom Frederic's speech and when it was all over he made a sign that he had heard not a word.) The cough used to go on and on. But now he is so weak that he cannot even cough. He received the Sacraments very devoutly but I did not hear him say anything. If he tried to speak, his voice was too weak to reach me, out in the hall.

He is ending* a long monastic life — over fifty years, half of which were spent in France. He used to be Cellarer at Acey, in the Jura.

January 27

This week I am serving Father Abbot's Mass. He says Mass in the back sacristy, when the conventual Mass is going on in the church. You can hear the choir, indistinctly, through the two closed doors. On the other side, outside, down the hill at the mill this morning the brothers were filing the teeth of the big buzz-saw. In choir the monks were singing Justus ut Palma florebit, in the Mass for the Feast of Saint John Chrysostom. And outside the saw rang under the grating file. The sounds of prayer and of distant work mingle well. There, on the altar, in the midst of these various discrete sounds of homage, in the midst of the order ruled by love for Him, the Lord of all things said nothing, but filled the room with peace.


Excerpted from "The Sign of Jonas"
by .
Copyright © 1981 The Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Journey to Nineveh,
Solemn Profession,
Death of an Abbot,
Major Orders,
To the Altar of God,
The Whale and the Ivy,
The Sign of Jonas,
Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,

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