On the Commemoration of Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Today in the Episcopal Church's calendar we celebrate the life and work of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and spiritual writer.

Thomas Merton is important to me because I found and began to read his writings when I was in my early twenties and struggling to make sense of Christianity; a Christianity first communicated to me in the context of Christian fundamentalism and a pronounced anti-Catholic bias.

My father - a Christian pastor - died when I was 19 years old.  Up until then his was the most influential voice in my own faith journey. This doesn't mean that I accepted everything that he said as truth, by any means, but it does mean that his was the most urgent voice in my head and in my heart, because he was my father, after all.  And for my father, Christian faith was his most urgent preoccupation, and when he was diagnosed with melanoma in his mid-fifties, his relationship with God was in crisis mode.  In the final days and hours of his life, he was wondering if God would accept him.  I know this because my father, on the last day of his life, confided in his 19-year-old son his fear that he would be rejected, and asked me for reassurance, which I gave him in the best way a 19-year-old son with his own issues about this matter could give.  I also took note in those days of the fact that my father acknowledged to me that he was receiving great spiritual comfort from the visits of a Catholic priest in the Catholic hospital in which he eventually died.

From the time of my father's death on, I was rather preoccupied with sorting through what I had been bequeathed as the character and content of the Christian religion.  I felt the freedom to explore, and I did, and in the exploration I found that the great gift to me that could not be taken away from me was the gift of a relationship to the person of Jesus Christ.  My father's great gift to me, in the end, was simply that he introduced me to the person at the center of Christian faith.

During my college years, others would help me read the Gospels for the first time.  I would encounter there the person of Jesus in a way that would for the first time in my life begin to assure me that God was good and gracious and forgiving and compassionate.

The depth and breadth of Christian tradition would open itself to me as I kept searching.  I would find things to read. One thing would lead to another.  I can't remember what first introduced me to Thomas Merton, but I suspect it was running across a copy of his autobiography: Seven Story Mountain, which I devoured.

There have been many authors and many voices who have shaped my understanding of the breadth and depth of Christian tradition, but Thomas Merton holds a special place among them as the one who first introduced me to the contemplative dimension of Christian faith.  When I began attending the Eucharist in an Episcopal Church and making retreats with Episcopalians at a nearby Trappist monastery, I would encounter and begin to trust the truth that God is near, that God is for me, and that God's truth is present throughout Creation and is comprehensive enough to allow us to explore everything without fear.

It's been a long journey, and it's a journey not finished.  It's been a journey in which I've had to face my own weaknesses and to sorrow for my sins, but it's been a journey into Love.   What the contemplatives in Christianity have taught me is that God is always present to us in Love, and that, as the Gospel of John affirms, "perfect love casts out fear."  

Now I'm more sure than ever that the contemplative tradition of Christian faith is not simply one option among many, to be engaged by monks and nuns and clergy, but essential to us all.  We're all called to some form of contemplation, which is the turning from distractions to what the late Jesuit Walter Burghardt called "the long, loving look at the real."

To the extent that we don't practice some form of contemplation, whether it be a slow meditative time in silent prayer, a slow, meditative time in the wood-shop, in the flower or vegetable garden, in a hike or a paddle or a walk or at the riverside with a fishing pole in hand or simply looking out the window in wonder, we're going to be estranged from who we truly are, and thus more apt to be estranged from one another.

Contemplative practices place us in relationship with God, in whom we live and move and have our being.  Contemplative practices make us have to confront our inmost thoughts and desires in all their complexity and power.  I've been pretty good at avoiding contemplative practices for much of my life, choosing instead distractions, even when those distractions are not in themselves bad.  Our lives give us plenty of freedom to go here and there seeking distractions.

About this, Thomas Merton wrote:

"A superficial freedom to wander aimlessly here or there, to taste this or that, to make a choice of distractions... is simply a sham.  It claims to be a freedom of 'choice' when it has evaded the basic task of discovering who it is that chooses."*

Contemplative practice is a way of surrendering to the love of God for us, which alone can fulfill us.  Contemplative practices help us acknowledge that we are not in control of our lives, and that our lives are a gift, and that we can trust, and that our lives are interconnected with all other life, and that we are called to serve God in humility.

Thomas Merton's book Thoughts in Solitude made famous a prayer of his that reveals a great deal about what a life of trust looks like; and that I think makes apparent that there is nobody who cannot become a contemplative:

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."

The collect provided by the Episcopal Church for the Commemoration of Thomas Merton is this:

Gracious God, you called your monk Thomas Merton to proclaim your justice out of silence, and moved him in his contemplative writings to perceive and value Christ at work in the faiths of others: Keep us, like him, steadfast in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


*from "Learning to Live," in Love and Living, edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart. (Harvest Books, 2002).

Photo of Merton by Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18293738