Thomas Merton (1915–1968) was a Roman Catholic monk in the Trappist tradition and was one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the 20th century. He authored more than 60 books, including the story of his conversion, Seven Storey Mountain, which is considered a modern spiritual classic.
Merton, however, became a rather controversial figure within his monastery at Gethsemani in Kentucky and within the Roman Catholic Church in general. Some have called him an unfaithful Catholic and others have called him a prophet.
Jesuit priest Father James Martin, S.J. wrote an extensive article on Merton and pin-pointed seven particular things that Merton did which influenced Father Martin greatly and serves as a “Seven Pillars of Liberal Monastic Thought.”
Martin wrote, “He surely changed people’s lives, and if that’s not enough to change the world, I’m not sure what is.”
I do not and would not disagree with Father Martin’s assessment or his list. His list is as follows but I write personally regarding the list.
1 – “He wrote The Seven Storey Mountain.” It was first released in 1948 and is a beautifully written account of his sad childhood, followed by teenage years of loneliness and a libidinous young manhood. His conversion and entrance into the Trappist monastery was quickly done. He wrote tenderly of being “lost” and slowly finding his way into the monastic life. He was as much a poet as a chronicler.
It was a phenomenal best-seller and why? Was it just the amazing writing? Did he speak to people on some deep level? For me, it was like reading Jeremiah who so open and honest about himself, revealing mistakes and wrong motivations. It was okay to make mistakes but not okay to remain in them. Something wonderful awaits when we find ourselves in something beyond ourselves.
2 – “He reminded people that prayer was not just for monks.” The idea had been expressed before and often. Merton’s point—and remember that this was before Vatican Council II—was that contemplation and prayerfulness was not the sole vocation of those in the religious life. As a matter of fact, Merton once wrote that the layperson who lives out a contemplative life may be beyond the monastic who has the support of a community of monastics.
One of the worst intellectual sparring-matches of my graduate school life was debating that very topic with a phalanx of monks, nuns and priests. I had written a “position paper” on the topic of “Do monastics represent the elite of the Church?” My professor (Bless him.) read it aloud to the class and I was set-upon. If only I had read Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation by that time, I would have had an ally.
3 – “Merton wrote this: For me to be a saint means to be myself.” It is an idea that follows closely on the previous item. It is not saintly to become something I am not. It means so much more to fully become the person I am and was meant to be. In the practice of Shinto in Japan, there is only one object in the Shinto shrine. It is a mirror. This was something that fascinated Merton and he saw that as the quest the “clean the mirror” more and more until the true person is reflected. Merton was say that we would finally see the person that God intended us to be.
4 – “He made it okay to look to the East.” This also builds on the previous point. Merton was fascinated by Zen, Buddhism, Shinto and other Eastern traditions. It was this issue that made him questionable in the eyes of so many Catholic writers both then and now.
Later, a Jesuit named William Johnston would write extensively on the compatibility of Eastern practice and Christian thinking. Johnston’s book “Christian Zen” was pivotal in showing Christians that Zen was not a religion but a practice in mindfulness and was very much in harmony with a Christian theology.
Merton was so very interested in Eastern monastic practices. He wanted to bring monastics from all tradition—Catholics, Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, Anglicans, Hindus and more—into an understanding and fellowship with each other and learn from each other.
He finally convene
d a “congress” of monastics from all over the world to meet in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968. He had met with the Dalai Lama (who still calls Merton his “brother”) and was encouraged to press on with the congress. He had removed his monk’s habit by this time and was wearing blue jeans and t-shirts.
5 – “He wrote this: Why do we spend our lives striving to be something we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our times doing things, which, if we only stopped to think about them, are the opposite of what we were made for?” Think about that for yourselves for a moment or two. It still has profound meaning for me.
6 – “He worked tirelessly for social justice.” Even after he had secluded himself at the monastery in Gethsemani, he did not continue to write and concentrate on prayer and meditation. Rather, he began to work for social justice. He was criticized for “abandoning” his pious writings on prayer but Merton had found his life’s concern was for others. He had encountered God in his prayers and the result was the craving to encounter others.
7 – “He reminded us that everyone is extraordinary and everyone is ordinary.” In Louisville, Kentucky, there is a plaque that marks the spot where Merton had his greatest understanding. I have been to that spot and have seen the plaque. As Father Martin says, “Best to let Merton tell the story.”
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut,” he wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Just before the very first meeting in that very first monastic congress, Thomas Merton had just showered and was getting ready to dress. He reached to switch on an electric fan and was electrocuted. The congress disbanded and has never convened again.