Reading Father Thomas Merton: Convergence of Spirits

by Jack McLean

posted August 5, 2009

This morning the same routine: coffee at Starbucks and reading, writing, conversation or combinations thereof. These three, in addition to my formal Bahá’í activities, form the basis of my spiritual life. Of late, I must add to this mélange, the volunteer work I do with the handicapped at the Jack Purcell gym on Friday mornings. It brings enormous satisfaction to do something that is both practical and “hands on” rather than just spending my quality time working out keen thoughts or attempting to communicate truth through conversation and social interaction. Through this volunteer work, I have been able to experience a little of the joy that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá alluded to when he exhorted the friends to “bring joy to the hearts.” It is true that when one brings joy to the hearts’ of others, one brings joy to one’s own heart—but this must not be the motive for such service, for then the motive would be selfish not selfless. (Pardon this necessary moralizing).

Today I brought with me Lawrence S. Cunningham’s compilation, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master (The Essential Writings). The fluent, spiritually alert, richly poetic and sometimes homiletic Merton is without doubt one of the great spiritual geniuses of the twentieth century, and he deserves to rank among the greatest spirituals of any age. While he may have been a Roman Catholic monk, he belonged to all religions and all humanity because Merton was a universal thinker who transcended doctrinal barriers. The Catholic Church could not really hold him. To claim him as a Catholic, in the strict sense of word, is not really to describe him accurately. I even read the remarkable statement in one of his own writings that he could not “stand Catholics.” He was speaking, of course, of the narrowly dogmatic, authoritarian types within the church, not all of whom made his life particularly easy.

His transformative, brilliantly clear, light and pure mystical vision of the reclining Buddha while viewing the Polonnaruwa sculptures during a visit to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), just days before his sudden death, is so powerful that it could be read as an non-explicit conversion to Buddhism. But I am sure that Merton felt no pressing need to change his religious affiliation since he penetrated to the common esoteric or intrinsic mystical core of truth which lies at the heart of all the imponderable realities contained in the world’s great faiths.

He practiced interreligious dialogue in a time when it was only beginning to be taken seriously in the field of comparative religious studies, but he knew that true interreligious dialogue was not sitting down for innocuous conversation while sounding platitudes and holding hands. He knew that the truth meant saying “Yes” to whatever struck him as being genuine within the faith tradition of the other and saying “No” to whatever was spurious, whatever rang false or seemed unacceptable to him. He knew that truth was worth defending and that silence on vital, fundamental issues, while it may have served to avoid controversy, and to maintain polite decorum and courtesy, did not serve the real interests of dialogue and truth-telling, whose fundamental purpose is to create revolutionary new understandings, to draw us closer together and to become one. He understood that only Truth could unite; compromise on essential beliefs had to mean saying No or starting over again, in a spirit of patient humility, until the point was made—if it could be made at all.

The best work of Thomas Merton is the Merton who is not speaking in his persona as monk, the Merton who is not serving the needs of apologetics or piety. Although he betrays a slight affectation in some passages, Merton knew better than to take himself too seriously, whether as writer, poet, theologian or spiritual master and teacher. He writes best when he is relaxed and speaking from his heart, when he is at a little distance from his subject and not trying too hard. When he does this, he is wonderfully illuminating to read.

He knew that the so-called “self”, the projected image of who we are, or more precisely how we wish to appear in the eyes of others, is not the real self, but a manufactured self. He knew that the real self is very much hidden and mysterious. Loving the true self is to love, with the heart of faith, all the potential one may see in each child of God, loving the striving, struggling self that is ever a work-in-progress. To make a somewhat different but related point: I believe that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá commanded us to love the unlovable for the precise reason that they feel, beneath their pain, sorrow and anger, they are not worthy of love and consequently, and paradoxically, need it most of all.

Merton despised, as I do, artifice, self-righteousness and pretensions to piety, for he knew that it was only in humility and the obliteration of self that one could, as a hollow reed, become an instrument of God. He could not stand conventionally “religious” or pious people, for they do not serve the noblest and best interests of higher religion.

In his 1961 essay “Learning to Live,” his response to Columbia University’s award, the “University Medal for Excellence,” that was presented to his friend and mentor, Mark van Doren–church authorities would not allow Merton to attend—Thomas Merton calls himself a “hermit.” While technically that may well have been the case, Merton’s sort of hermitic life was a very peopled one. His intensely energetic mind was ever-fruitful in insights; he wrote constantly; the public had access to him and he to them; he had a certain freedom of movement and travelled abroad; he conducted a voluminous correspondence with intellectuals and religious figures around the world. This is obviously not being a hermit in the fully Catholic sense of the word.

Nor is falling in love with his young student nurse “M.” after a painful back operation. (I am just glad that his male instincts and his very large romantic heart were still working irrationally well). This I hasten to add is not gossip, but history. It is well documented in Merton’s own writings and correspondence that he kept a journal about M. and wrote love poems to her. But through it all, Merton kept his vows. The intrusive church authorities demanded that Merton end the relationship, but by the time that Merton had received the order from the Abbot, he responded in writing to the request that the relationship had already ended and that his former Irish-American nurse was already engaged to be married. Church hierarchy being what is, and in light of the vows taken by monks, the church really had no choice. Merton must have realized that the affair was doomed since he had no real intention of leaving holy orders. But given his attraction to women, the affair with M. highlights once again the complexities and challenges of Merton’s life as a monk and is just another example of his constant run-ins with his immediate superiors. The particular case of Merton and M. is now closed, but the larger question that it raised, that of the priest’s relationship to women, still remains problematic for the church.

As the French doubter and sceptic Voltaire might have exclaimed, had he been Merton’s contemporary, just as he once praised, in another age, the remarkable spiritual activist and reformer St. Vincent de Paul:“Thomas Merton. Now there’s a monk for me!” I say with a smile that I heartily concur with Voltaire!

Finally, during this morning’s reading of Thomas Merton, outside on the small terrace at Starbucks on Elgin and Jack Purcell Lane here in Ottawa, I looked up for a moment and suddenly experienced a quiet visitation, an altered state of consciousness, one that I did not at all expect at that moment. (One can never command the true mystical experience in any case). As I watched the stream of passers by, walking in one’s, two’s and three’s, moving up and down Elgin Street, that “peace that passeth all understanding” (St. Paul) came over me. I saw all these folk walking as if in a slow-motion, stream of consciousness, and I thought to myself that this might just be a tiny, incomplete vision of the peace that we will experience in the next life, when we will perform all our activities in and for God alone, when our very motion will be in and for God alone, without toil, trouble and sin.

Then I looked down again at the page and read this: “Man is the image of God, not his shadow. At present we have decided that God is dead and that we are his shadow…Take a picture of that Jack!” (p. 138). Well, God does indeed have a wonderful sense of humour! I smiled and wondered whether, in the convergence of spirits that sometimes takes place, Merton might not be speaking to me, John Allan, Jack McLean. Yes, love is stronger than death, as Meister Eckhart says, but harder than hell. Those living in heaven can reach down from their lofty heights and still touch those bound to the earth in a variety of ways and means. Despite time and space, life and death, aspiring spirits can meet aspiring spirits in an existential moment.

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