By Bill J. Leonard
In a letter dated November 9, 1968, Thomas Merton, Catholic priest and Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, best-selling author and pioneer of interfaith dialogue, wrote from New Delhi, India, to friends in the United States:
I can say that so far my contacts with Asian monks have been very fruitful and rewarding. We seem to understand one another very well indeed. I have been dealing with Buddhists mostly, and I find that the Tibetans above all are very alive and also generally well trained. They are wonderful people...Talking with them is a real pleasure.
Merton concluded: "I hope the blessing of God will be upon these meetings, and I hope much mutual benefit will come from them. I also hope I can bring back to my monastery something of the Asian wisdom with which I am fortunate to be in contact—but it is something very hard to put into words."
Sadly, the words never came. Barely a month later, in Bangkok, Merton was found dead in his room, electrocuted in a freak accident shortly after lecturing to a gathering of Buddhist and Catholic monks. That Merton should die so far from his monastic home is one of multiple ironies that characterize the life of this amazing individual.
In some sense, Merton was a man of the world, engaging life at its depths from the very beginning. His artist parents carted him and his younger brother John Paul from France to England and then America where both father and mother died before their sons reached adulthood. His early "worldliness" led to poor grades and dismissal from Cambridge University, then took him to Columbia University where he thrived on literature and philosophy, cigarettes and night life. A gifted teacher and literary talent, he was, by his own confession, "a true child of the modern world, completely tangled up in petty and useless concerns with myself...."
Ultimately, Merton found himself by withdrawing from that world in 1942, entering the Trappist order that provided community, solitude, spiritual sustenance and an opportunity to reflect and write. And did he write! Ironically, the literature he produced from that cloistered environment became the source of an extensive international reputation, a phenomenon neither he nor his monastic superiors anticipated. In the book Thoughts in Solitude (1956), Merton knowingly or unknowingly described something of his own pilgrimage:
The good man comes from God and returns to Him. He starts with the gift of being and with capacities God has given him. He reaches the age of reason and begins to make choices. The character of his choices is already to a great extent influenced by what has happened to him in the first years of his life, and by the temperament with which he is born. It will continue to be influenced by the actions of others around him, by the events of the world in which he lives, by the character of his society. Nevertheless it remains fundamentally free.
It is that freedom in and out of solitude that makes Merton one of the world's most widely read Christian writers more than forty years after his untimely death.
Merton's appeal is multi-faceted and complex. Unashamedly Christian, his literary skills and spiritual insights continue to impact persons of varied faiths and of no discernable faith at all. An articulate guide to the solitary life, he also sought to confront the world, addressing the challenges of his own day including the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, peace and nuclear proliferation. Drawn to faith by the spiritual and liturgical traditions of Catholicism, Merton died at the very moment when he was forging spiritual exploration with Buddhists, anticipating interfaith dialogue amid religious pluralism. His extensive literary corpus (Merton seems never to have had an unpublished thought) offers guidance in meditation, contemplation, self-examination and spiritual discipline for individuals inside and outside the Catholic Church. He now represents certain classic monastic ideals at a time when almost no one (at least in the West) wants to become a monk.
To read Merton is often to be captivated by his use of words, his spiritual insights, and his quest for the mysteries of life and death, faith, hope and love. Sometimes his essays are so incredibly profound that you return to them again and again; sometimes his ideas are so obscure, convoluted or frightening that you revisit them at your peril. From his early, best-selling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain to his final thoughts in The Asian Journal, Merton’s life is in full review, ever a struggle with sin and salvation, doubt and celebration.
What draws us back to Merton forty years after his death is his haunting ability to unite the spiritual and the worldly, the inner and outer life with wondrous prose (and occasional poetry). This call to prayer and action occurs throughout his writing, often as relevant now as when he wrote it a half century ago. In this year of continuing economic and social crisis, we hear his prophetic word one more time:
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak...tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.
Thomas Merton and his word, like that Word, haunt us yet.
Dr. Bill J. Leonard is dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is the author or editor of 15 books, his most recent being Baptists in America.