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Is Merton Still Relevant?

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Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

–Pope Francis

I was surprised and taken aback when Pope Francis honored Thomas Merton in his speech before the U.S. Congress. It is not that I wasn’t not happy about it, but considering the bad blood between Merton and the American Catholic Church hierarchy — it was quite unexpected.

Who is Thomas Merton? Why did Pope Francis honor him? Is he still relevant for our times?

Thomas Merton was an American writer and intellectual who became a Trappist monk, officially known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, which is considered one of the strictest Catholic religious orders, in 1941 at the age of 26. Before that, he was a restless young man living a troubled life. But in 1938 he converted to Catholicism; he was only 23 years old. He spent the next 27 years of his life living at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

It was not an easy decision for him to become a monk, considering his extroverted and gregarious personality. But, above all, it wasn’t easy for him to give up writing. The Trappists are known to live a simple life of prayer and manual labor. And intellectual pursuits, like writing, are not encouraged in the monastery. Fortunately, his abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, was a man who valued and appreciated Merton’s writing abilities. Thanks to him, thousands upon thousands of people have been and are still inspired by Merton’s books.

In 1948 he wrote his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which became a best-seller. On a personal note, I read this book when I was in my teens and it changed my life. His autobiography as well as the many books he wrote later inspired not only monks and nuns, but also ordinary people, even non Christians, to live spiritual lives. For Merton, the experience of God’s presence and love is something that is available to everyone.

Later in his life he became a social activist, who was involved in the peace and civil rights movement in the 60s. Unfortunately, this drew heavy criticism from officials of the Catholic Church. This rift between Merton and the Catholic establishment continues to this day.

10 years ago the first national catechism for adults was published in the U.S. Included in an earlier draft was Merton’s story. Sadly, though, his story was removed from the final version. It was a bad decision, because Merton’s story is significant and central to 20th-century American Catholicism.

Two influential Catholic officials considered him a lapsed Catholic, due to the fact that he was involved in dialogue with people of other faith traditions, especially Buddhists. They said he spent his last days “wandering in the East, seeking consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality… ” I find this incomprehensible. The Vatican II Council, a gathering of Catholic bishops in the 60s, came out with an official document encouraging dialogue with other faith traditions. In the document, Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Catholics are encouraged to respect and even learn from other religions. It states:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men…

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions… they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

Cardinal Wuerl, who was often seen at the side of the Pope Francis during his visit to the U.S., was the chairman of the committee tasked to write the catechism. When the catechism was published, the then U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president Bishop William Skylstad said they were deeply disturbed by the exclusion of Merton. He said:

Merton, has played a crucial role in the faith journeys of thousands upon thousands of Catholics (as well as other Christians and even non-Christians) both during his lifetime and since his death, and we believe his inclusion in the catechism can and should be a significant way to extend the powerful witness of his life and writings to a new audience.

Merton’s pursuit of a deeper spiritual life led him to embark on a trip to Asia in 1968. During that trip he explored Eastern spirituality and met with people of other faith traditions. One of the most significant persons that he met with was the Dalai Lama, who continues to talk about Thomas Merton as his “brother.”

He met an untimely death, at the age of 53, in Bangkok, Thailand, electrocuted by a faulty fan.

Almost 50 years after his death, Merton continues to be an inspiration to many people, especially through his books.

Pope Francis, in spite of the rejection of Merton by the official American Catholic hierarchy, honored him:

Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

So, if you ask me: “Is Merton still relevant?” My resounding answer is “Yes!”

And here are some of the reasons why:

His Humanity

Merton was a genuine human being; he was no plaster saint. He didn’t like pretense and phoniness. He had his share of struggles, weaknesses and failures, and didn’t attempt to hide them. He wrote about his doubts and questions. Towards the end of his life he writes:

When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of ‘answers.’ But as I grow old in the monastic life and advance further in solitude, I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions… I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts…

His Respect for People

During Merton’s Asian trip, John Stier, an American government official, hosted him during his stay at Sri Lanka. As they were discussing Buddhism, Stier asserted that Buddhism was a negative approach to life. Having studied Buddhism in-depth, Merton disagreed with him. Stier says: “He was surprisingly gentle in disagreement, he had a wonderful way about him.” Hundreds of the people that Merton related and corresponded with will agree with Stier’s observation. Merton respected and responded to people in their uniqueness; he accepted them as they are.

His Openness

Merton is known to have cultivated many interests; he also related with people of diverse cultures, races, and religions. He was capable of communicating with people who had a different background and tradition than his own. He wrote about William Blake, James Joyce, Boris Pasternak, William Faulkner, Louis Zukofsky, Flannery O’Connor. His correspondence was voluminous, having written to a great number of people. Here are few of the names: Jacques Maritain, Erich Fromm, Ernesto Cardenal, Dorothy Day, Catherine Doherty, Aldous Huxley, Bernard Haring, Henry Miller, Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Paul Tillich, Rosemary Radford Ruether, D.T. Suzuki, Rachel Carson, Louis Massignon, Mark Van Doren. This gave him a great insight into the human condition that enabled him to articulate our deepest longings; his insights transcended that of his own life and his own generation.

His Deep Spirituality

Once Merton stated that he didn’t want to have any disciples. He urged people not to follow him but to follow Christ. But in spite of his protestations he has become the spiritual director of many people. He wrote about the spiritual life in a fresh and attractive way; he articulated the depths and riches of the spiritual life in a way that can relate to the modern person. Whether he liked it or not, he guided the spiritual journey of many people, even those who didn’t have any link with any institutional religion. For these people, his writings will continue to be a continual source of inspiration and guidance.

–Matt

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Written by MattAndJojang

October 16, 2015 at 4:13 pm

2 Responses

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  1. As a Solitary and with some thoughts (and doubts) that I’m sure many in the established church would call heretical, I consider Thomas Merton to be one of the most relevant writers that there has ever been. His observation that between religions, one always compares the best of our own to the worst of others and his request that we take the worst of our own and compare it to the best of others is painfully relevant in a world wounded by wars between nations and peoples who essentially have a different name for their God. Then on an individual level he leads us through the many landscapes of personal, interior prayer giving a new commissioning, decernment and ultimately empowerment to the reader’s own spiritual journey. Matt, thank you for this wonderful comment, I’m definitely “on the same page”.

    God bless you loads

    Senan.

    Senan of Somerset

    October 17, 2015 at 10:37 am

  2. Senan, I agree 100% with your observations.

    Merton was right when he asserted that many of our problems is caused by the “I’m right, You’re wrong” attitude of many so-called religious people. It is truly the cause of so much pain, violence and even death. Some people label them as “Fundamentalists,” and the worst example of these in our times are the ISIS. My religion, Catholicism, sad to say, has also been guilty in the past of this form of religious extremism (Crusades, Inquisition, Clerical Abuses, etc.).

    This is not to say that religion always has a negative effect on people as some strident atheists claim. Just like anything religion can be a force of good or a force of evil. There is such a thing as healthy religion as well as toxic religion.

    Merton is an example of the former. Religion when properly understood and applied can be a source of personal change and transformation. People who take the time to take care of their interior lives through the practice of solitude, prayer, compassion and love often make a positive difference in our society.

    Don’t worry about having “heretical” views, Senan. The great men who took the spiritual life seriously, like Thomas Merton, were misunderstood and persecuted by the official church authorities. I have to admit that I myself harbor views what the conservative and fundamentalist part of the church consider as “heretical.”

    Thank you for your perceptive comments.

    Blessings,

    Matt

    MattAndJojang

    October 17, 2015 at 5:52 pm


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