Merton Again

There was nothing perfect about Thomas Merton. He is a man with flaws and misgivings. The center of his life though, I believe, was his passionate relationship with Jesus. It was Christ that called him in his rebellious times, it was Christ that made him a monk and priest, it was Christ that gave him the skill and wisdom to write and it was Christ who forgave him when he fell. I believe it was his confidence in the orthodox faith that allowed him to get close to some in the religious East. It was Jesus who gave him the restlessness of another country, a restlessness that never left him. Two final reflections, first, it was his Christ-centeredness that made his visits to Asia important and second, it was Jesus who undergirded his desire for compassion and justice.First, Christ brought Merton to Asia.  Merton writes, “I may be interested in Oriental religions, etc, but there can be no obscuring the essential difference—this personal communion with Christ at the center and heart of reality as a source of grace and life.”[1] Merton saw the way the West had struck militarily against the East and how that had damaged and broken the world. He saw in himself the opportunity to be Christ to them. He did not proselytize, but in his silence he was able to have an impact. A nun in China asked why the Catholics were not evangelizing more in their context and Merton replied, “What we are asked to do at present is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.”[2]For Merton there was no agenda, no approach, no strategy to convince Buddhists and Hindus of the truth of Christianity; only an appreciation of them and what they had to offer the world. He saw the West lacking what they possessed. He writes, “We need the religious genius of Asia and Asian culture to inject a fresh dimension of depth into our aimless thrashing about. I would almost say an element of heart, of bhakti, of love.”[3] This was not a capitulation to Eastern religions but an acknowledgment of beauty and truth wherever it may be found. Merton may have gone further than many Christians would be comfortable but in the end the Dali Lama said of Merton, “Whenever someone speaks to me about Jesus Christ, I think of Thomas Merton.”[4]            As an important aside, Merton felt even more passionate about unity with the Christian East, who though divided from Catholics and Protestants, still share the same faith. Merton’s beautiful quote is one I hope to emulate in my own life. He writes, “If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians…We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.”[5]            Lastly, it was Jesus who brought Merton to a place of non-violence and a longing for justice in his own heart. Merton spent time in a Catholic community in Harlem and also met and corresponded with Dorothy Day. He saw the need for peace internationally but also in race-divided America. Vatican II was happening towards the end of Merton’s life and with it theological and liturgical reform, not all of which Merton thought was a good thing. The validity of monasticism itself was in question. He sought to bring healing in the world, not through innovation but through a ‘living tradition’ and through the peaceful presence of Jesus himself.In fact, he disdained much of the liberal theology that had become avant garde.  He was attacked verbally by some ‘progressed Catholics’ on a number of occasions. He says of some of the liberal theologians, “there is no uglier species on the face of the earth…mean, frivolous, ungainly, inarticulate, venomous, and bursting at the seams with progress into the secular cities and…subways. The [conservative Cardinals] are bad, but these are infinitely worse. You wait and see.”[6]            For Merton, peace came through a mining of tradition, not an abandoning of it. Monastic Christianity and orthodox Christianity, as he saw it, was the eschatological witness the world needed. He writes, “The monastery is not an ‘escape’ from the world. On the contrary, by being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world.”[7] He would say not to run from tradition in seeking peace and justice, but “go further with the examination of tradition”[8] to seek change.                Merton’s life was a Christ-centered life. “Christ is the principle and end of absolutely everything that a Trappist does, right down to breathing.” Jesus drew him to do what he did and to be what he was. From the time he was drawn to the Icons in Rome even in his rebellious times to the time he drew his last breath, Christ was his companion on the way.            To conclude, I close with the words of Jim Forest, “Perhaps part of what draws so many of us to Merton is how this astonishingly gifted writer opens a door to a deeper spiritual life without pretending he is far ahead of us on the ladder to heaven. We recognize in him someone whose struggles with various demons (success, fame, sensual pleasures, the quest for greener pastures) are not hugely different from our own…Like us, he was a product of the modern world with all its attraction and distractions. But in the end, by an amazing working of grace, he was able to maintain is search for true wisdom. He attracts us because he is more than a gifted theologian and brilliant writer. He is a brother in Christ who was—and through his writing still is—able to show us the way.”[9] 

[1]Jim Forest, Living with Wisdom, 215.

[2] Ibid., 240.

[3] Ibid., 230.

[4] Ibid., 243.

[5] Ibid., 129.

[6] Ibid., 206.

[7] Ibid., 133.

[8] Ibid., 223.

[9] Ibid., 245.

2 thoughts on “Merton Again

  1. I have shied away from Merton since my youth, as from someone who I thought was syncretistic, and I don’t think I have ever read any of his books, just excerpts. There is something about him that bothers me, but I don’t know what it is. My personal witness is centered on Christ the Word, on bridging the gaps whenever possible between all followers of Jesus who accept the historic faith of the Council of Nicaea, but at the same time I eschew official ecumenism as dangerous folly. I have a comprehensive experience as well as knowledge of South Asian (Hinduism) and East Asian (Chinese religions, and Shinto) religions, and I am willing to bridge the gaps with them, incorporating their traditions into my Christian witness as a kind of “Old Testament”, and so by some I might seem syncretistic as well.

    Just thinking out loud, but the subject of Merton has recently come up as I am dialogging with a local Buddhist who is also feeling drawn to Orthodox Christianity, and so this post of your drew my attention.

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