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Thomas Merton: The Global Future and Parish Priorities

by Donald Grayston

Dr. Grayston is rector of All Saints Anglican Church, Burnaby, British Columbia. This article appeared in the Christian Centuryá August 29-September 5,1984, p. 802. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It is rare, I believe, for one theologian to be able to give us general priorities for congregational life. Most theological authors are specialists: one interprets the scriptural foundations for preaching and teaching, another explains how to “manage” ministry, and others confine themselves to some particular subsection of parish life -- liturgy, youth work, pastoral care.

In the works of Thomas Merton, however, we find a clear statement of the three most fundamental needs of the human race -- and therefore of the church -- on the edge of the 21st century: the balancing of our spirituality through contemplation; the task of peacemaking, holistically understood; and the encounter in transforming depth of the great faith traditions. From his placing of these concerns critical to our human future before the whole church, I would argue that they should also be priorities for the local church.

To begin, then, here are three related items from my life and work as a suburban pastor.

1. Two streets away from our church is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Down the hill, a Hare Krishna community carries on its daily life. Just beyond the parish boundary, Ismaili Muslims are building their jamatkhana (prayer-house), the largest in North America. On our own street, a Sikh family lives a quiet life of industry and respect for God and neighbor.

2. Some world events highlighted in the media in recent months were Grenada, the Geneva arms talks, the Lebanon debacle, the Iran-Iraq war, Central America, the KAL airliner and, on the other side of the ledger, the hopeful work of the New Ireland Forum.

3. Two young people tell me that they have come back to the church because they fear “what’s happening in our society” (no mention of the attraction of Jesus Christ). A family life authority writes that our personal lives are becoming more and more quantified as we count up our sexual acts and our guaranteed days off. (I read this while rushing off to take a time-management course.)

I offer these selections from my life because they are so very ordinary. How intensely such realities impinge varies, of course, between urban and rural areas and in other ways. Among us, also, there are different levels of awareness of the global nature of the realities which these items point to. All of us are aware of threats to peace, threats that go up or down in psychological throw-weight, but which are always present in the back of our minds. Many are keenly aware of social stress and fragmentation; we know that our communities and personal lives are not what they were, and feel little confidence in regard to a quick return to quieter times.

Probably fewer are aware of the extent of the entry into the “Christian” West of members of the other ancient faiths. (I remember as a child contributing pennies during Lent for the work of our mission in Amritsar, India -- work that I understood as the conversion of all the people there into Anglicans like myself. When I met our Sikh neighbors, I learned that they were from Amritsar. They were the very people my pennies had gone to convert.) Yet the image of members of other traditions as living across the sea is still the dominant one.

All of these realities were major concerns of Thomas Merton, monk, poet, spiritual theologian, Christian contemplative. Born in Europe, he lived most of his life in North America and died in Asia. His American mother and New Zealander father were artists, and Thomas, their first son, was born in France.

On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born [The Seven Storey Mountain (Harcourt Brace, 1948), p. 31.

The death of his mother when he was six and of his father when he was 16 pushed Merton into an intense experience of the vulnerability felt by so many between the wars, and led to a cosmic sense of loss and nearly to a breakdown, both physical and mental -- a vulnerability he described as “living on the doorsill of the Apocalypse” (ibid.). Revulsion at that world, together with his desire to live out a newfound Christian faith in a deep way, took him in 1941 to the Cistercian abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, where he stayed for 27 years. In 1968 he went on a spiritual journey to Asia, and it was at a conference of Asian Christian monastic leaders in Bangkok that he died in a freak accident on December 10.

Even this brief a biographical outline shows connections between the concerns of this article and significant points in Merton’s life. The concern for wholeness arises from his situation as an orphan, an agnostic adolescent, and a functionally stateless adult. The interest in Asian religion so manifest in the 1960s can be traced back to his time at Columbia University in the 30s, where he discussed oriental scriptures with a Hindu monk, Mahabarata Bramachari, who also urged him to read Christian mystical literature, such as the Confessions and the Imitation of Christ. His feeling for peace was probably first aroused unconsciously by his parents’ anxieties as they fled France in 1915, and reached its early culmination in the letter of noncooperation that he wrote to his draft board in late 1941, just before Pearl Harbor.

None of these concerns, however, would have been oriented dynamically toward the future of the human race had it not been for two critical experiences at Gethsemani. The first of these was a 16-month period of psychophysical upheaval during 1949 and 1950, precipitated by two factors: ordination to the priesthood (last of the institutional goals prescribed for him in the order), and the writing of The Seven Storey Mountain. a psychic self-emptying which made him vulnerable to what happened next.

When the summer of my ordination ended, I found myself face to face with a mystery that was beginning to manifest itself in the depths of my soul and to move me with terror. . .

It was a sort of slow submarine earthquake which produced strange commotions on the . . .

surface of my life, I was summoned to battle with joy and with fear [The Sign of Jonas (Doubleday. 1956), p. 226].

Thus sickness took him into contemplative solitude, where he discovered compassion for himself and others. And solitude restored him to health, to

a peace and a happiness that I had never known before and which subsisted in the face of

nameless, interior terror, as time went on, the peace grew and the terror vanished. It was the peace that was real, and the terror that was an illusion [ibid., p. 226].

But another step remained: he needed to find again his place in the larger world, but without leaving Gethsemani. He records the epiphanic moment (in 1957 or 1958) when this step suddenly was accomplished:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth 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. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . This sense of liberation could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others” [Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, (Doubleday, 1968), pp. 156-57].

Before these experiences, his response to the three concerns of this article had been individualistic, perhaps even self-serving. Although he had found a way of life that was leading to his own wholeness, he still found it necessary to negate other faiths in order to affirm his own (cf. his reference to “the void of nirvana . . . the feeble intellectual light of Platonic idealism [and] the sensual dreams of the Sufis” in Seeds of Contemplation [New Directions, March 1949], p. 49 -- omitted in the December 1949 revision). As far as violence was concerned, it belonged to “the world” he had abandoned in favor of monastic peace.

But after those critical moments reported above, Merton returned with a thump to the 20th century. In 1941 he had turned his face toward God and his back to the world. Now he faced the world, admitted he was part of it, and saw God at work in it. Earlier, his interest was focused in the past; now he was chiefly concerned for the future: of his community, his fellow Christians, other faith communities, and humankind as a whole.

In fleshing out from Merton’s unsystematic corpus his vision of the human future, I begin with personal wholeness. It took no particular originality for him to identify technologism, mass culture, materialism and unchecked urbanization as the chief instruments of our stresses and our dehumanization. It concerned him deeply that the church offered no clear response to these forces, and that Christian communal life was so seriously affected by them.

Merton’s own response was contemplation. He emphasized that it is not a spiritual commodity, not an achievement, not a technique. It is, ultimately, indefinable, and yet it inspires continued attempts at definition: “The highest expression of [our] intellectual and spiritual life . . . that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware . . . a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source . . . an awakening to the Real within all that is real” (New Seeds of Contemplation [New Directions, 1962], pp. 1 and 3).

Through contemplation one arrives not only at personal wholeness, but also, through the activation of the image of God within, at transcultural maturity, so that one can take humankind as the community in which one’s membership matters most. Contemplation, according to Merton, is a universally available way for believers to dispose themselves toward these goals of personal and transcultural maturity.

With regard to interfaith encounter, Merton gives us, once again, not a systematic discussion but a sketch of the kind of person able to take part in such encounter with the necessary quality of engagement. Anyone, he says,

who is to communicate on the level that interests us must be . . . a living example of traditional and inferior realization. He must be wide open to life and to new experience because he has fully utilized his own tradition and gone beyond it. This will permit him to meet a [disciple] of another, apparently remote and alien tradition, and find a common ground of verbal understanding. . . . This I would call “communion” [The Asian Journal, edited by Naomi Burton et al. (New Directions, 1973), p. 315].

Merton has vividly recorded just such an encounter between himself and Chatral Rimpoche; a Tibetan hermit living in the Himalayas:

Chatral looked like a vigorous old peasant. . . .We started talking about dzogchen [inner discovery of transcendent awareness] . . . and “direct realization” and soon saw that we agreed very well. We must have talked for two hours or more, . . . mostly around the idea of dzogchen, but also taking in some points of Christian doctrine compared with Buddhist. . . . He said he had meditated in solitude for 30 years or more and had not attained to perfect emptiness and I said I hadn’t either.

The unspoken or half-spoken message . . . was our complete understanding of each other as people who were somehow on the edge of great realization. . . I was profoundly moved, because he is so obviously a great man . . . marked by complete simplicity and freedom. He was surprised at getting on so well with a Christian [ibid., pp. 143-144].

By filtering this conversation through the criteria that Merton listed (in the sketch quoted above), we recognize its integrity.

1. “A living example of traditional and interior realization.” Merton was steeped in personal and common prayer; Chatral had been meditating in solitude for 30 years.

2. “Wide open to life and to new experience because he has fully utilized his own tradition and gone beyond it.” This statement is entirely applicable to Merton, perhaps less so to Chatral, who nonetheless was open to Merton’s Christian experience.

3. “A common ground of verbal understanding.” Merton’s comments that “we agreed very well” and “taking in some points of Christian doctrine compared with Buddhist” attest to the “common ground,” as does Chatral’s comment that he was surprised at “getting on so well with a Christian.”

4. “Communion” (i.e., something beyond dialogue). This was shown by their “complete understanding of each other as people who were somehow on the edge of great realization.”

Whether or not Merton and Chatral were permanently changed by this brief meeting, Merton’s account of it presents a beautiful icon of interfaith encounter (I think of the images of Peter and Paul embracing, or Francis and Dominic). Here we have a Buddhist and a Christian embracing, both deeply moved, and each continuing in his own tradition. (Chatral was still living in 1980; how fascinating it would be, if he is alive today, for someone to take down his memory of that meeting.)

Finally, the task of peacemaking. Merton’s witness to the possibility of personal wholeness through contemplation and to inter-religious encounter in depth is inseparable from his espousal of the peace witness. To have become a contemplative, he asserts, is to have touched the center of peace with the discovery that God is one’s other and true Self. Interestingly, he uses the word “nonviolent” to describe mature contemplative prayer in New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 249). Freed from egoism, the contemplative can approach the disciple of another way with peacefulness instead of disguised aggression.

On the social level the contemplative easily intuits the roots of war: fear of self and others that springs from inability to trust God; the unrecognized self-hatred that we project onto others; the illusory view that our political ideals are purer than our opponents’, and the accompanying moral paralysis that stems from an exaggerated sense of guilt about holding this illusion.

In response, Merton calls for a spirituality of loving resistance, emphasizing that a quiet (miscalled meek) disposition is no guarantee of success either as a contemplative or as a peacemaker. Rather, being meek in the beatitudinal sense means having an eschatological consciousness about violence, believing deeply that God has acted/is acting/will act in vindication of his beloved ones -- who are, of course, the members of the human race in its entirety (cf. John 3:16). (Space limitations prevent a fuller development of Merton’s views on peace, but I must affirm that his teaching is not na´ve.)

I hope I am innocent of uncritical adulation, but I do believe that Merton is a prime candidate for multiple-ticket sainthood in the emerging global community. Each faith has its own saints, but would we not benefit from a galaxy of holy ones with -- so to speak -- dual or triple citizenship? (Gandhi is another obvious candidate.) With Thomas Berry, I believe that we need spiritual leaders who will assume the global human heritage as [their] own individual heritage,” who through contact with other traditions will come to know their own traditions very deeply, and through whose “own self-integration a healing comes to all [humankind] . . . and the human community is brought into the divine presence.” (“Contemporary Spirituality: The Journey of the Human Community,” Cross Currents 24 [1974], pp. 172, 183).

As one such person, Merton -- through his life as a Christian even more than through his writings -- calls into question the way in which we spend time, energy and money in our parishes. On the basis of his priorities, it can be argued that every local Christian congregation should be actively nourishing personal wholeness through contemplation, preparing people for transforming encounter with members of other faiths, and training them in nonviolent spiritual resistance to the forces of destruction in our nuclear age. Although little is being done in these areas now, that fact does not mean that these priorities are not realistic or achievable. Nor does it mean that what ministers are already doing to enable their parishioners to live lives of loving neighborliness is not important, nor that we must renounce evangelism.

But what difference might it make to our society if Merton’s priorities were to become operative in the world’s vast network of Christian congregations? And what difference might it make if persons with mature competencies in these areas of concern were coming forth from our parishes in noticeable numbers? Simultaneously on the edge of a 21st century of unimaginable potential for good and on the edge of unimaginable self-destruction at any moment, do we know a better way for our parishes to travel into the future?

Merton was himself a man who lived on the edge: the edge of great realization and great compassion, the edge of the future that was also the edge of his own growth -- a growth directed toward ever-increasing personal and global apprehension of the depths of God. His great concerns offer us and our churches a very useful litmus test or checklist by which to sort out all the possibilities that come at us in parish life. Never himself a member of a parish, Merton paradoxically offers us a clear way ahead toward the contemporary edge of mission.


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