What do teenagers today need spiritually? Thomas Merton’s life has surprising implications for today’s youth.
Hearing Teenager’s Voices
Before we can begin to speak to the needs of today’s young people, we need to listen to what they’re saying. Here’s a sampling of quotes from students I work with on a daily basis:
“It’s hard to live a normal life in an age when losing your mobile phone is a greater tragedy than losing your virginity.” (14 year-old girl)
“My father left me when I was little and my brother who I looked up to is in jail. It’s hard to trust any man when you’re fourteen and those who should be looking after you have abandoned you.” (14 year-old boy)
“I liked it when you could have a nap after recess. Why can’t I do that now?” (12 year-old boy)
“The abuse began when I was little. He made it sound like it was my fault. My mother doesn’t believe he did it, neither does my family. I lost everything because of something someone else did.” (16 year-old girl)
“My step-mother has always hated on me. Nothing I do is right, so why bother trying?” (13 year-old boy)
“My mum and dad have broken up. How does that happen after fifteen years, I mean, how DOES that happen?” (15 year-old boy)
Young people experience life at its rawest. Those who self-harm, suffer anxiety attacks and depression, search for identity and a place to belong through social media, risk taking, gang membership, sex and sexting, binge drinking, drugs, and more are often sceptical of adults and professionals who provide easy solutions. Youth today are unsure anybody has the answers to their problems but themselves. In my experience as a school chaplain, I’ve found one teacher who resonates well with them: Thomas Merton. Why? Because Merton addresses four themes that reflect the struggles of modern adolescence: anomie, alienation, scepticism, and the search for validated truth. I define these terms loosely as follows:
Anomie is a state of normlessness, a place where that which has been the norm of society no longer exists.
Alienation, characterized by powerlessness, meaninglessness, self-estrangement and isolation, occurs when the norms of society no longer apply equally to all.
Scepticism is the philosophical view that it’s impossible to know anything with absolute certainty, or to know the world as it “really” is.
The search for validated truth argues that, if truth exists, it needs to be validated by experience.
The outcome of postmodern thought has been to deconstruct truth, particularly truth as defined by the constructs of tradition and power, replacing it with what is textual and applicable to groups and individuals finding their way through life.
Peter Benson describes the classic struggles of adolescence and youth as “The search for identity, belonging, place and purpose…’ Did these themes emerge as a result of the longer period of childhood and dependence, which David Bakan suggests “is the product of modern times”, or do they mirror the experience of previous generations?
A Closer Look at Today’s Teenagers
Bakan may or may not be accurate in his understanding of “modern times,” but there appears to be enough evidence from the life of Merton, our own personal experience, that of researchers (such as Christian Smith, Mason, Singleton & Webber, and Philip Hughes), not to mention the teenagers we live amongst, to suggest the experiences of adolescence are similar despite differences associated with time, place, and culture. The search for meaning, and the way we write about it is autobiographical. We can only process our search for identity, belonging, place and purpose through the filter of our personal experience.
Teenagers live in a world characterized by constant transition and change.
Personally, they are dealing with changes within their own worlds, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The only constant theme is the “frequent and varied major life transitions” they experience. Life appears as one of exaggerated busy-ness comprised of extended school hours, extensive extra-curricular activities such as sport, work, and social life, as well as the pressures of social media and the expectation to be perfect at everything they do.
They are optimistic about life. They believe the best is yet to come and that they will achieve their goals. “Their hopes run high” despite “the hard facts of their own limitations, misfortunes, and failures.” There appears to be an element of taught or learnt optimism in play, in that the positive messages delivered by school and family encourage and reinforce their optimism.
Yet one senses this optimism is brittle and vulnerable, only sustainable in the context of a protected environment. In reality, they seem fearful of failing or giving the wrong responses to questions they’re unsure about. This uncertainty suggests that, underneath it all, they wonder along with Elmore if this taught optimism will serve them well in the future. He refers to the naïve notion that success and poise in a limited environment will translate effectively into a world yet to be engaged independently as “false maturity.”
Many of the teens I work with have already discovered this disconnection. They’ve experienced disappointment, tragedy and failure and are attempting to find the lessons learned and answer the perennial question “why?” Family violence, divorce, sexual abuse and bullying, or mistakes and poor decisions on their part (where the negative outcome can be circulated far and wide in the world of social media) are all a part of the postmodern teenage experience.
Smith suggests young people are “moral intuitionists who believe they know what is right and wrong by attending to the subjective feelings or intuitions they sense within themselves when they find themselves in various situations or facing ethical questions.” There is little or no concept of an over-arching objective moral narrative or story to which they can appeal in order to glean a moral or ethical compass. Their only guide is within them and, therefore, only they will know innately what is and isn’t right. Rossiter adds that the “individual has become the supreme authority for judging what is relevant to them, even what is right and true.” But if the anecdotal evidence of bullying, sexting, and at-risk behaviors are any indication, this has not proven to be the best practice.
A core mantra among youth is not to hurt others. In defence of teenagers, this has been the imperative of our consumer culture since their parents’ generation. But this mantra translates among youth as, “if it hurts somebody then it’s bad and if it doesn’t, and it is not illegal, it’s okay.” This philosophy allows a wide scope for risky or doubtful behavior deemed acceptable on the basis that no one gets hurt.
Just as questionable is the idea that the world punishes those who do bad and rewards those who do good. This sense of justice is linked to a loose definition of karma. The word has been cut loose from its religious understanding and meaning. No longer connected to any one religious tradition, karma has become a catch-all concept involving revenge and reward by some unnamed deity or power. It’s very imprecise, but regularly invoked as part of the adolescent worldview.
Life becomes subjective and each individual is the subject of life.
Some youth adhere to a similar system involving the concept that “the absolute authority for every person’s beliefs and actions is his or her own sovereign self.” Smith calls them “self-directing choosers.”  They ostensibly become a gated community of one as they make meaning of the world based upon how they see out from the inside. Life becomes subjective and each individual is the subject of life.
This definition of “who I am” and “whom are mine” translates to an understanding of difference that allows all to do and be the way that is deemed appropriate for them, by them. Impacted by a small world due to cheap travel, social media, multiculturalism and more, young people recognize others are different and are expected to say, whether they believe it or not, that that’s okay. Yet, when asked to clarify what this means in their life, they find it difficult to articulate it beyond a “leave alone to be left alone” attitude. Rossiter suggests that because they’re puzzled about how to understand the extraordinary range of difference among people, they “may take refuge in closed groups” or stereotypes. 
Teenagers appear to be instrumentalists. They tend to examine a situation with ultimate attention to how it works for them. Getting an education is about the dollars, relationships are about how they feel, and religion is about how God can meet, or at least help them meet, their challenges and needs. Anything that fails to deliver is discarded for a more productive product. It’s a consumer world and they’ve been raised to be consumers, so this attitude toward life should not surprise.
Flory and Miller suggests teenagers live in a world where “globalisation is taken for granted; religion is a choice not an obligation; digital media are fundamentally important; denominational labels are completely unimportant; and life is basically to be experienced (internal states prevail over external states, the journey is more important than the destination, and personal spiritualities are eclectically assembled from whatever cultural elements have meaning for the individual.)” 
Teenagers & Reigion: The Ampersand Cohort
I’ve coined the name “The Ampersand Cohort” for this group of teenagers. They’re not fixed on a particular viewpoint, be it for or against, but have the capacity to hold a number of different ideas at the same time. “I’m not religious & I pray & religion can be useful & my family isn’t religious & I believe in science,” for example. This is not a case of holding opposing views, as it may appear, but perhaps the acceptance that competing views are not mutually exclusive.
Like the use of the ampersand in movie credits for script writing, where the “&” indicates a closer working relationship or a collaboration, and not just a rewriting of each other’s work, this cohort separates and connects each idea as a collaboration and not just a reworking of what others want it to mean for them.
This could be viewed as covering all options and not being ready to commit. While I suspect this is true to some degree, I suggest that it’s more a reflection of how teenagers are flexible and fluid, looking at what they’re exposed to and validating it through the lens of their experience.
They’re not committed to a mega narrative of opposites, e.g. faith vs. atheism, and don’t couch their understanding in those terms. They appear comfortable living with the questions and don’t need concrete answers. Instead, they engage in a process of learning by experience and then apply what is learnt in their life journey.
Thomas Merton Speaks to Teenagers
Merton was aware of these questions because his life and his writings were a never-ending search for meaning. At Polunawaaruu, he wrote, “I have found what I have been looking for.” But perhaps we shouldn’t expect teenagers to have it worked out by age eighteen!
Merton and youth meet at the intersection of journey and experience.
Instead, Merton and youth meet at the intersection of journey and experience. Merton offers young people an authentic experience of becoming a person in relationship with God and others. It’s the journey of letting go through silence and solitude to take hold of the true self, found within as the experience of love. It cannot be reduced to “dot-points” or “six easy steps” or a “Merton for Dummies-Teenage Edition.” It’s the whole of life experience Merton participated in and shares with young people today.
Esaki suggests silence is present underneath or behind the apparent noise of teenagers’ lives, prevalent in the deafening sound of music and activity, shutting out competing sounds and maintaining them where they are. At the school where I work, I offer our students three-day silent retreats based on Merton’s teachings. The interest is extraordinary, but the attendance always manageable. Why? Not because the students change their minds, but because their parents are unable to see the value of silence and solitude, especially when they’ve been asked to pay for a silent retreat. Yet silence and solitude is a real desire in young people and they find Merton’s story and journey to be one with theirs.
Participants in the retreats explain the experience of silence and solitude in the following ways:
“Learning to live life frame by frame” 15 year-old boy
“Here we live the hours not the days.” 16 year-old boy
“Meditation has saved my life. I was anxious and failing but after I started to meditate regularly the anxiety slowly disappeared. I’m back at work, doing better at school and not worried about failing.” 16 year-old girl
“I woke the next morning in the place I sat down to meditate.”16 year-old boy
In The Road to Joy, Merton suggests “Our real journey in life is interior.” For Merton this journey “is a matter of growth, deepening, and an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.’’ Merton spent his life searching for his true self and a life distinct from the superficial worldly life he had previously lived. His passion found a voice in the silence and solitude where he began to let go, tentatively, of the need to belong and be remembered by the world.
Merton’s life story, as outlined in his journals, reveals his understanding that freedom is elusive and only found through a protracted inner journey to “recover your basic natural unity” at your centre. William Shannon suggests Merton’s search for freedom included three very distinct stages. The first Merton outlines in Seven Storey Mountain; it pertains to the freedom of youth, the desire to behave as one wishes and without any thought for tomorrow and the consequences it will bring. His life as a young man at Cambridge, and to a lesser degree at Columbia University, was one of immature freedom. His hedonistic lifestyle resulted in his guardian exiling him to America, and his leaving behind a pregnant girl whom he never names.
Alienation & Individualism
Young people live in a world of danger, risks and excitement. Even those who normally minimize risks, will, and do, take the opportunity to experiment and push the boundaries when the opportunity is given. End of school celebrations, known as “schoolies” in Australia, invite young people to engage in behaviours that place them and their friends at great risk.  In this particular activity, young people of school-leaving age are given the freedom to live the party life without adult or parental supervision at local or overseas party destinations, often with tragic outcomes. This freedom mirrors that of Merton’s first freedom, the freedom to do as you please.
Prior to his conversion to Catholicism, Merton had begun to understand the bankrupt nature of the life he was pursuing. His solution to the problem of his “freedom” was to seek another freedom— the freedom of cloistered obedience. At Gethsemane, as Brother Matthew closed the gates behind him on his arrival, Merton noted, “I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.” This new freedom was one of obedience, stability and penance, a life of spiritual exercises and work, the daily observance of The Rule with no room for the type of freedom that had caused all his difficulties in his previous life.
Yet, his vocation was the reason for his discovery of a freedom far greater than he had imagined. He understood that his youthful freedom led to depravity and had begun to understand that the freedom he lauded at his entry into the monastic life could lead to an equal evil—rigid obedience, something he had witnessed in some of those around him.
It was here Merton discovered the freedom that comes from within when one is reconciled with the God in whose image one is created. Letting go of his place in the external world, he entered the “abyss” within where he was nothing and everything, unimportant and important, of no value but valued, unlovely but loved. Here, he found his voice and a new way of seeing himself, the world and all within it, and he wanted to invite people to discover that for themselves. 
Young people identify the importance of what’s within and seek a guide to translate the journey for them. Melanie Wilson’s research with disadvantaged young people reveals their awareness that there is both depth and wisdom within.31 For them, the difficulty is in unpacking this and interpreting it authentically. The danger lies in it simply becoming another way of saying “what I think and want is not to be questioned,” merely an extension of the narcissism which can be present in a teenager’s worldview.
Yet, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that teenagers are seeking what is true about themselves even as they navigate the superficiality of their external existence within the mass of collective individuals.
Young people are aware of, but unclear about, the difference between the individual (or object) and the person (or subject) Merton wrote about. Young people have been raised on the dogma that the individual rules, that one must be an individual first. This individual stands out from the crowd, is unique, makes independent decisions and is separate from others; but, as we saw earlier, this individual is also mediated by the consumer society in which she or he lives. This individual is “all about me” yet relies on others to identify what that “me” should look like.
In New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton wrote, “The person must be rescued from the individual.” For Merton, the rise of the individual ends in a collective mass, seemingly moving as one but each seeking their own fulfilment at the expense of those around them. He refers to the individual lost in the mass of humanity as being little more than an automaton who does not know what they are thinking, saying, or doing. He concludes a paragraph in the chapter on “Solitude is Not Separation” with “He (the individual) does not think, he secretes clichés.”
In contrast, persons may appear to be separate from those around them but seek not their own fulfilment, but the fulfilment of those they live in relationship with, treating all as subjects, equally valued and valuable. The person “is constituted by a…radical ability to care for all beings made by God and loved by Him.” This radical ability to live in relationship with both God and creation is found, for Merton, within solitude and silence.” Merton writes: “To reach a true awareness of….ourselves, we have to renounce our selfish and limited self and enter into a whole new kind of existence….”
Silent retreats offer a glimpse of this new perspective. When asked what the silent retreat meant for him, one of my students (whose life had hung in the balance at birth) responded that he could have so easily died at birth that he was using the time to explore what he was here on earth to do, to discover how he could make a difference in this world.
Young people today live a mediated life. Social media, advertising, peer pressure, and societal expectations all impact to create the person they will become. Social media encapsulate and magnify the pressures teenagers have traditionally faced.38 Each login requires that they assess the relevance of their present representation of themselves and consider whether that representation needs to be updated or changed. The timeline for dealing with issues in relationships, be they at school or in the extended social arena, has been radically shortened. There is no space to escape the pressure and bullying. It’s with them all the time, as ever present as the social media feed.
Merton’s Four Key Practices
Youth are looking for an authentic life experience that resonates with theirs and provides a way forward. Someone who has lived, failed and lived again to repeat the everyday death and resurrection experience of life they know so much about, is the one whom they seek. In Merton, they find that person—one who desired to be a saint and found what he was looking for. I suggest, and these are my observations only, that he recalls them to four key practices: critical questioning, experiential reflection, communion, and living with what is.
Critical questioning or asking the right questions of the world, particularly of technology and consumerism, is Merton at his prophetic best. His life and practice is one of critical deconstruction and suggests that critical questioning of society’s myths is vital. The ampersand generation is sufficiently sceptical to ask the right questions without demanding a definite or certain answer.
Waldron, in his book Thomas Merton – Master of Attention, highlights Merton’s capacity to pay full attention to his life as it happened. Experiential attention and reflection or paying attention to one’s life journey is a key practice Merton offers young people. For Merton your life experience influenced your faith and practice, not as an alternative to faith influencing practice, but as a collaborative approach to the mystery of life.
Merton understood the importance of community. He lived within a community as a monk. Yet his experience in Louisville reminded him that there was something greater than a secluded and protected community. He named it communion or belonging to and developing relationships with the “Other” via relationships with others. In a highly privatized world, approaches that reconnect youth are important. Yet Merton would suggest that community is not enough. He uses the term communion, which has the sense of eating at the table with, to suggest an intimate and unguarded relationship with other. When a fourteen year-old experienced this type of community for the first time on a retreat weekend, she commented “The experience of these three days will be something we will share whenever we meet, even fifty years from now.”
Merton said that a person is “better known by their questions than their answers.”40 Throughout his writing he suggests that we live with what I’ve coined the space-in-between. This is living with what is, not what was, nor what is yet to come. Young people have questions and seek certainty in the answers. Merton encourages young people to seek the discipline of faith and hope, not certainty, and to remain in the presence of their doubts.
In the words of one young man from my school, “My father is an atheist, my mother is a Christian and I wasn’t sure. I now know it is okay to not be sure— I don’t have to make up my mind one way or another.”
Merton validates young peoples’ life experience. His life story and spiritual experience as a flawed but faithful person touches the true self within for this generation. His experience with the youth culture of his day, his concerns about technology and consumerism, and his willingness to explore other ideas and faiths reflect the experience of modern teenagers. Despite their outward appearance of assurance and confidence, they, too, are aware of their flaws, failures, and anxieties and seek a spiritual guide who has been there. Merton has surely been there before them. And because he has, we can be confident in joining the two, despite the years separating them.
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1 See Durkheim, E 2002, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Routledge, London.
2 See Smith, Hayden; Bohm, Robert. ‘BeyondAnomie: Alienation and Crime.’ Critical Criminology, Apr2008, Vol. 16 Issue 1, pp.1-15.
3 Derrida, J 2010, Positions, Continuum, London, p. xi.
4 Benson, P, Scales, P, Sesma, A & Roehlkepartain, The Search Institute Series on Developmentally Attentive Community and Society, 2005, Volume 3, I, 25-40,,viewed on 1 May 2012, <http://www.childtrends.org/Files/Child_Trends-2003_03_12_PD_PDConfAdolSpir.pdf>.
5 Bakan, D 1971, ‘Adolescence in America: From Idea to Social Fact’,Daedalus , vol. 100, no. 4, Twelve to Sixteen: Early Adolescence (Fall, 1971), pp. 979-995.
6 Smith, Hayden; Bohm, Robert. Beyond Anomie: Alienation and Crime.Critical Criminology, Apr 2008, Vol. 16 Issue 1, pp. 1-15, 15p; DOI: 10.1007/s10612-007-9047-z
8 Benson, P, Scales, P, Sesma, A & Roehlkepartain, The Search Institute Series on Developmentally Attentive Community and Society, 2005, Volume 3, I, 25-40,,viewed on 1 May 2012, <http://www.childtrends.org/Files/Child_Trends-2003_03_12_PD_PDConfAdolSpir.pdf>.
9 Bakan, D 1971, ‘Adolescence in America: From Idea to Social Fact’,Daedalus, vol. 100, no. 4, Twelve to Sixteen: Early Adolescence (Fall, 1971), pp. 979-995.
10 Smith, Christian (with Snell, Patricia), 2009, Souls in Transition – The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Oxford University Press, New York,.
11 Mason, M, Singleton A, & Webber R, 2007, The Spirit of Generation Y: Young People’s Spirituality in a Changing Australia, ( Melbourne, John Garratt,)
12 Hughes, Philip, Characteristics of religious knowledge among Australian students, International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, Vol. 12, No. 2 August 2007, pp 137 – 142
13 Benson, P, Scales, P, Sesma, A & Roehlkepartain, The Search Institute Series on Developmentally Attentive Community and Society, 2005, Volume 3, I, 25-40,,viewed on 1 May 2012, <http://www.childtrends.org/Files/Child_Trends-2003_03_12_PD_PDConfAdolSpir.pdf>.
14 Smith, Christian, Souls in Transition – The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults,p34
15 Smith, Christian, Souls in Transition – The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, p34
16 Smith, Christian,Souls in Transition – The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, p37
17 Elmore, Tim, Artifical Maturity – Helping Kids Meet The Challenge of Becoming Authentic Adults, 2012, Josey-Bass, San Francisco, e-book
18 Hampshire, Ann, Issues facing young Australians Living Ethics: issue 82 summer 2010
19 Smith, Christian, Souls in Transition – The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, p46
20 Rossiter, Graham, Some Perspectives on Contemporary Youth Spirituality, REJA, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2011
21 Smith, Christian, Souls in Transition – The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, p 49
22 Smith, Christian, Souls in Transition – The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, p 48
23 Rossiter, Graham, Some Perspectives on Contemporary Youth Spirituality
24 Cusack, Carole M., Some Recent Trends in the Study of Religion and Youth, Journal of Religious History, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2011 p. 415
25 Merton, Thomas, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 1975, p. 236
26 Esaki, Brett, Desperately Seeking Silence: Youth Culture’s Unspoken Need, Crosscurrents, Vol. 57, No. 3 p. 379
27 Merton, Thomas, The Road To Joy-Letters to New and Old Friends,Edited by Robert E. Daggy, Collins Publishing Group, London, 1990, p. 118
28 Schoolies is not worth the risk, David Penberthy , 2011 http://www.heraldsun.com.au/opinion/schoolies-not-worth-the-risk/story-e6frfhqf-122620855312
29 Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain, An Autobiography of Faith, p. 410
30 Merton, Thomas, Raids on the Unspeakable, New Directions, 1966, p.21
31 Wilson, Melanie, A Part of You so Deep, What Vulnerable Adolescents Have To Say About Spirituality, 2004, New England Network for Child, Youth & Family Services. N p33
32 Rise of Youth Narcissism and the Social Networking Connection2012, Michele Borba, http://www.micheleborba.com/blog/2012/10/26/youth-narcissism-and-social-networking/
33 Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 2007
34 Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 55
35 Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation, p.53
36 Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation, p.53
37 Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971) p. 161
38 See Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites Nov 9, 2011by Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, Aaron Smith, Kristen Purcell, Kathryn Zickuhr, Lee Rainie
39 Waldron, Robert, Thomas Merton – Master of Attention’, Darton, Longm & Todd Ltd., London, 2007
40 Merton, Thomas, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Image Books, NY, 1989, p. xiii