Yesterday was the birthday of someone who had a significant influence on my progress toward spiritual awakening. Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (born Jan. 31, 1915 in France) was a 20th century Anglo-American Catholic writer. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, social activist and student of comparative religion. In 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood and given the name Father Louis.
Merton wrote more than 70 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice and a quiet pacifism, as well as scores of essays and reviews, including his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which sent scores of disillusioned World War II veterans, students, and even teen-agers flocking to monasteries across the US, and was also featured in National Review’s list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century.
His writings, which bridge Eastern and Western spiritual thought, continue to inspire us with their real possibilities for immediate and direct experience of the divine. He advocated an immediate experience of union with God that could not be caused by psychological techniques and was direct and wordless, totally a gift from God.
In Merton’s view all Christians were called to live a mystical life in some way, no matter how preparatory compared to the full life of contemplation which he judged a relatively few people would actually experience. Merton says that contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is active. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being.
The contemplative, in Merton’s view, is a person who sees beyond the false self or ego into the “mystery in which God reveals Himself to us as the very center of our own most intimate self. Merton’s mysticism is centered upon the union of the true self with God and the transformation which both fosters that union and is a fruit of it.
Merton once remarked: “There’s only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.” For this contemplative, such profound discoveries were often best made in or through silence …
“To deliver oneself up, hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hill, or sea, or desert: to sit still while the sun comes up over the land and fills its silences with light. To pray and work in the morning and to labor in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars. This is a true and special vocation. There are few who are willing to belong completely to such silence, to let it soak into their bones, to breathe nothing but silence, to feed on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life into a living and vigilant silence.”
He was a keen proponent of interfaith understanding. He pioneered dialogue with prominent Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, D.T. Suzuki, the Japanese writer on the Zen tradition, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. This is what we would expect with Christian mystics, Zen Buddhists, Sufi Muslims etc. who all go beyond religious traditions, theoligical dogmas and rigid belief systems to discover the ability to see the divine in simply living, loving and being, and in all life as we know it.
Merton has been the subject of several biographies. In some, he has been referred to as a ‘lapsed monk’ primarily because at the end of his life he was engaged in dialogue with Eastern and Western monks.
During his trip to Asia, he had a profound experience which he described in his journal. It happened in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) less than a week before his death and describes a powerful insight. He was visiting a Buddhist shrine at Polonnaruwa where there are huge statues of the Buddha. Merton, barefooted, approached the Buddhas through the wet grass:
“Then the smile of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing … Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious … The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery.” All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear … everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination … I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.”
Merton died suddenly on Dec. 10, 1968, apparently as the result of an electrical accicent while attending an inter-faith monastic conference in Bangkok, Thailand.
For all the criticism he received and the fame that came his way, Merton was a traditional Christian. His pilgrimage had gone from an early triumphalism to a critical, but human, embrace of the world. He never abandoned his roots, but went deeper and deeper into those roots: “… he did not so much reach out for contact with other traditions, but rather went so deeply into his own that he could not help discovering the common roots.”
PS ~ You may enjoy a song for all beings by Jennifer Berezan and friends entitled: In These Arms I’m sure TM would have loved it.