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Thomas Merton, Part I

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Mysticism: Week 2

Thomas Merton, Part I
Thursday, October 5, 2017

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was born in France and lived most of his adult life as a Cistercian (Trappist) monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He died tragically in Bangkok of accidental electrocution. Merton has been a primary teacher and inspiration to me since I first read his book The Sign of Jonas in my high school seminary library around 1959. Merton almost single-handedly pulled back the veil and revealed the contemplative, mystical wisdom that had been lost in the Western Church for the last five centuries. He remains a spiritual master for many Christians and non-Christians to this day.

Scott Peck explains that Merton “‘left the world’ for the monastery . . . because he was afraid of being contaminated by the world’s institutionalized evil. . . . [But he] continued to consistently and passionately protest the sins of greater society. This burning desire to be in the world but not of the world is the mark of a contemplative.” [1] James Finley, who learned from Merton for six years as a monk in Gethsemani, says Merton would tell him, “We don’t come to the monastery to get away from suffering; we come to hold the suffering of all the world.” [2] This can only be done by plugging into a larger consciousness through contemplation. No longer focused on our individual private perfection—or what Merton called “our personal salvation project”—we become fully usable by God.

Merton wrote, “Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings. . . . All life tends to grow like this, in mystery inscaped with paradox and contradiction, yet centered, in its very heart, on the divine mercy . . . and the realization of the ‘new life’ that is in us who believe, by the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [3]

It was in the power of this Spirit that Merton struggled against “the evil [that is also] in us all . . . [and] the blindness of a world that wants to end itself.” He fought against violence, war, racism, poverty, and consumerism. He said, “Those who continue to struggle are at peace. If God wills, they can pacify the world.” [4]

My friend, John Dear writes of Merton:

The contemplative work of inner conversion, inner disarmament, and inner peacemaking as the key to peace for the world held Merton’s interest throughout his life. It’s what he admired most about Mahatma Gandhi, and what he tried to achieve for himself. . . . Merton observed that Gandhi’s political revolution sprang from an inner, spiritual revolution of the heart. . . . Merton wrote . . . “The whole Gandhian concept of nonviolent action and satyagraha is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved.” [5]

Gateway to Silence:
We are all one with You.

[1] M. Scott Peck, “Introduction,” A Thomas Merton Reader, ed. Thomas P. McDonnell, rev. ed. (Doubleday Image: 1996), 5-6.
[2] James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 4 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download.
[3] Thomas Merton, A Thomas Merton Reader, 16-17.
[4] Ibid., 18.
[5] John Dear, Thomas Merton, Peacemaker: Meditations on Merton, Peacemaking, and the Spiritual Life (Orbis Books: 2015), 17,

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 161; and
Jesus and Buddha: Paths to Awakening, disc 4 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2008), CD, DVD, MP3 download. 

Image credit: 4th and Walnut Streets, Louisville, Kentucky, looking south, 1956.
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