Friday, October 12, 2012

Thomas Merton

During one of my admissions interviews for seminary, I spent a portion of an afternoon with a very pleasant history professor in his fantastic townhouse apartment; one of the perks of being a faculty member at the original General Theological Seminary.  By a very high window in his living room, we spoke of the pilgrimage that one takes to one or more of the Holy Orders of the Episcopal Church.  Even though he was stuck with interviewing me, as it was summer and most of the other faculty were gone, he was game for it and asked good questions and offered sound advice.

One of those questions was, "So, what theologians do you favor?"

Now, I was a 25-year-old high school teacher from Ohio who had just gotten through the labyrinthine diocesan process one must endure to simply receive permission to apply to a seminary, and at no time during that process did anyone discuss any theologian outside of St. Paul.  As the history professor and I had already spoken of St. Paul, I didn't want to go to that Tarsusian well once more, so a flailed a bit, not wanting to admit that I couldn't name a theologian to save my life.  In desperation  I mentioned that I had read a bit of Thomas Merton that summer and was currently enjoying a biography of him.

"Really?," he brightened.  "That book was written here."
"At the seminary?"
"I mean 'here' in this apartment."

I think I may have heard the sound of a bat hitting a ball out of the stands right at that moment, along with the cheers of a crowd, but that may have just been my imagination.

So, Thomas Merton, the former Anglican turned Roman Catholic monk, the great hermit and author, fourteen years after his very untimely demise, gave me a marvelous assist into the world that would claim the next thirty years of my life.  Shortly after being accepted by General Seminary, I became a novitiate in the Society of St. Barnabas, then a monastic order of the Episcopal Church.  I wish I could have thanked him in person.

Slightly less than a decade later, wearing a cassock and seated with a Buddhist monk in his saffron robe, I had the best conversation about prayer and contemplation that I've yet known.  So good, that I was made an honorary member of his Buddhist monastery.  What did the monk and I speak about?  Why, Merton, of course.  He'd read his books, too.

Thomas Merton's biography, in a helpful timeline, may be found at the website that bears his name.  He was perhaps the most eloquent of the ascetical theologians of the 20th century, wrote a great many books, and inspired a great many young people, especially during the post-WWII period, to enter into religious life.  The order to which he belonged, that of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, graced him with life as a hermit, from which some of the most forward thinking notions about the role of contemplation, prayer, and meditation were conceived.  He died in an absurd accident while visiting southeast Asia and meeting with monks in the Buddhist tradition.

He once offered the following prescient observation:

Nothing is more repellent than a pseudo-scientific definition of the contemplative experience. One reason for this is that he who attempts such a definition is tempted to procede psychologically, and there is really no adequate psychology of contemplation. To describe “reactions” and “feelings” is to situate contemplation where it is not to be found, in the superficial consciousness where it can be observed by reflection.

Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Norton. Kindle Edition.


Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial “doubt.” This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious “faith” of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion.

Merton, Thomas (2007-10-18). New Seeds of Contemplation (Kindle Locations 287-291). Norton. Kindle Edition.

And from his examination of East/West meditative traditions:

It was assumed until quite recently that the experience of the first Christians was still accessible to fervent Christians of our day in all its purity, provided certain conditions were faithfully fulfilled. The consciousness of the modern Christian was thought to be essentially the same as that of the Christian of the Apostolic age. If it differed, it did so only in certain accidentals of culture, due to the expansion of the Church in time and space. Modern scholarship has thoroughly questioned this assumption. It has raised the problem of a radical discontinuity between the experience of the first Christians and that of later generations. The first Christians experienced themselves as men “of the last days,” newly created in Christ as members of his new kingdom, expecting his imminent return: they were men entirely delivered from the “old aeon” and from all its concerns. They experienced a new life of liberation “in the Spirit” and the perfect freedom of men who received all from God as pure gift, in Christ, with no further responsibility to “this world” than to announce the glad tidings of the imminent” reestablishment of all things in Christ.” They were, in a word, prepared for entry into the kingdom and the new creation in their own lifetime. “Let grace come,” said the Didache, and let this world pass away!”

Merton, Thomas (2010-07-27). Zen and the Birds of Appetite (Kindle Location 267). Norton. Kindle Edition.

He should not be known just in the small, and shrinking, monastic world, nor just in the Roman tradition of Christianity.  In fact, his birth as an Anglican/Episcopalian is often forgotten or unknown by my Anglican/Episcopal colleagues.  I quoted Merton while in conversation with one of the new ordinands with whom I spent time this summer, and was summarily dismissed by the young man. 

Just wait, whelp.  A life in the church, if lived correctly, will teach you much.  If you're lucky, maybe even ten percent of what Merton knew and shared.