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Center for Action and Contemplation

We Are Already One

Thursday, September 26, 2019


We Are Already One
Thursday, September 26, 2019

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) helped many within and beyond Christianity imagine the oneness at the heart of reality. Catherine Nerney, SSJ, director of the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, shares insights she’s gathered from Merton’s writings:

God’s compassion knows no withholding. This God lives in all and all live in God. We belong together; we belong to one another. My personal identification with [Thomas] Merton’s journey to radical oneness is more than a little autobiographical. . . . As a Sister of St. Joseph, the vision of “living and working that all may be one” is in our DNA; it is our mission, the reason we exist.  Something inside me urges me to sniff out this call to unifying love wherever it can be found. In Merton, the scent of the search for oneness is everywhere. . . .

Thomas Merton’s reflective life of contemplation and action found expression in the written word, particularly in his intimate journals, which . . . open up such needed pathways to life in communion, where all are welcomed into God’s compassionate heart, no exceptions, no exclusion. This vision of “the Oneness we already are” was given to Merton, rather than discovered by him. . . .

Many of us have pondered the powerful lines from Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, where he shares his experience . . . on a crowded street corner in the midst of an ordinary day: . . .

In Louisville, at the corner of 4th [now Muhammad Ali Blvd.] and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, 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. . . . This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is, in fact, the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to one completely immersed in other cares. . . . My solitude, however, is not my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers. . . . If only we could see each other that way all the time. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift. . . . [1]

By the early 1960s, a spiritually mature Merton knew by a contemplative, intuitive grasp that oneness is less a goal toward which life is pressing, as it is a return to the truth in which we have always been held. In October of 1968, just weeks before his death, Merton told a large audience of Asian monks at a Calcutta conference: “My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.” [2]

[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday: 1968), 156-158.

[2] Thomas Merton, Address to International Summit of Monks, Calcutta, India (October 19-27, 1968), published in The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1975), 51.

Catherine T. Nerney, The Compassion Connection: Recovering Our Original Oneness (Orbis Books: 2018), xix-xx.

Image credit: The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (detail), Edwin Henry Landseer, 1837, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: In the weeks before she died, Venus somehow communicated to me that all sadness, whether cosmic, human, or canine, is one and the same. Somehow, her eyes were all eyes, even God’s eyes, and the sadness she expressed was a divine and universal sadness. . . . Creation is one giant symphony of mutual sympathy. —Richard Rohr
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