Why Read Thomas Merton?

John Wu, Jr.

The monk/writer, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Cistersian monastery, near Louisville, Kentucky on December 10, 1941. One reason was to give up his first love¡Xwriting. After he became a Catholic in 1938 at age 23, he found writing an obstacle to the real goal of his life: contemplative prayer given over completely to God. We who have profited from Merton's writings owe a debt of gratitude to his wise superiors. They encouraged the young monk to cultivate the gift of words that God had so generously endowed him with. About sixty books, nearly all of which are still in print and on an astonishing range of subjects, are attributed to Thomas Merton.

I first read Merton's writings in the 1960s in college. My father had many of his books, including The Seven Storey Mountain, The Seeds of Contemplation, and some poetry collections. The first two were already regarded as religious classics. Thereafter, I literally devoured many of his books. In looking back, I believe 20th century spirituality, especially the interior life, would hardly be as rich had Merton not existed. When the monk suddenly passed away in Bangkok, Thailand on December 10, 1968¡Xexactly 27 years to the day he had entered the monastery¡Xhis teacher and lifelong friend, Mark Van Doren said, one hundred years hence, when people wished to know what went on in the depths of the 20th century soul, they would find it in Merton's writings. He enriched all of our lives with his gifted pen. Equally important, he brought much needed human culture and the Confucian love of learning into our lives too.

Towards Asians and Asian thought he felt an intimate kinship that he sometimes did not feel as deeply with his own people and ideas. Some Asians who knew him¡Xthe Dalai Lama, the Vietnamese monk/poet Thich Nhat Hanh, my father, John C. H. Wu, the Pakistani Sufi, Reza Arasteh, the Russian poet/novelist Boris Pasternak, and D. T. Suzuki¡Xattested to Merton's thoroughgoing ¡§Asianness¡¨ in his personal and intimate feeling for life. The monk loved Asia as much as any person from the West could.

Yet, despite such deep feelings for his Eastern brethrens, a close examination of his thought indicates he was orthodox to the core with regard to his own spiritual past. His gift for finding the living Christ in those representing diverse religious and spiritual traditions is an unresolved paradox. Perhaps it can only be understood in the lived experience of the oneness of humanity held together by the compassionate heart of Christ.

Merton appeared to have perceived everything by way of that Universal Heart as embodied in his Savior. If he could love and cherish Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, Confucius and Mencius, and Huineng and other Zen adepts equally or as deeply as he loved St. John of the Cross, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Meister Eckhart and the Little Flower, it was because his large heart could hold them all at once. His interior life was bolstered by the belief that, despite our differences, humanity is in fact the creation of the one and only God who is not only the God of the Judeo-Christians but of all humankind.

The American monk's love for wise men of the East, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and the saints of his own Church was complemented by his tireless effort to dialogue¡XI think courageously¡Xwith contemporary figures representing diverse spiritual traditions. Scholars estimate the monk corresponded with over 1800 people, many of them poets, painters and men and women of religion. Among them included the Nobel laureates, Pasternak and Czeslaw Milosz, Jacques and Raissa Maritain, the feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement who devoted her life to the poor, Erich Fromm and Aldous Huxley. In many cases, Merton initiated the contact. Before writing or meeting anyone, he thoroughly knew their work and ideas.

This was certainly true in his relationship with Dr. Suzuki and my father, and with the Dalai Lama with whom Merton spent three fruitful days. The warm manner in which the Tibetan spiritual leader speaks of Merton is typical of the way people responded to him. The following is from Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama's autobiography where he recalls his days with Merton in Dharamsala, India in Novemeber, 1968, a few weeks before the monk's tragic death In Bangkok:

I could see he was a truly humble and spiritual man. This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity. Since then, I have come across others with similar qualities, but it was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word ¡§Christian¡¨.

Merton was both humorous and well-informed¡K I was keen to learn all that I could about the monastic tradition in the West¡KMerton wanted to know all he could about the Bodhisattva ideal¡KAltogether, it was a most useful exchange¡KMerton acted as a strong bridge between our two very different religious traditions. Above all, he helped me to realize that every major religion, with its teaching of love and compassion, can produce good human beings.

I am attracted to Thomas Merton for many reasons. One was his love of diverse cultures through books, art and music; another, perhaps, more important reason was his fearlessness in going towards whatever direction¡Xnot he, but¡XGod wanted him to take. There have been many writers¡Xsecular and religious¡Xwho read as much as Merton; but it would be difficult to find one who absorbed and cared as much about ideas as deeply as he did. As an intellectual, he learned to use his ideas to touch¡Xand to be touched by¡Xthe heart of Christ at every rung of the ladder as he proceeded upward. He is mindful in keeping all the intellectual, aesthetic and ethical possibilities open, and his cultivation became so refined that even in the presence of so-called secular ideas, he heard distinctly the voice of God and the way God wanted him to perceive those ideas.

For a Catholic layperson, this is important for I live not in a religious community but in secular society where I brush elbows with people who sometimes have no religious feeling nor believe in ¡§life of the spirit.¡¨ Merton has helped me to see God's presence everywhere, in every person, whether Christian or not, in their typically human joys and sufferings. Merton took the Incarnation with utmost seriousness. Many of his writings remind us that Christ, as the New Adam, regained Paradise for us. Moreover, he taught us to expect epiphanies of God at unexpected moments and unlikely places. In fact, there are no such things; after all, time and space are His creations too.

In his writings there are countless examples of God entering ever so quietly, yet making His Presence felt in a very deep way. This is especially true of Merton's prayers, some of which resemble the Psalms. They allow us to enter into that sublime depth where solitude and contemplation work to transform mere words into a song through which we converse on a plain and personal level with our loving heavenly Father.

Solitude and contemplation: is this not the ¡§geography¡¨ around which our spiritual life and life of prayer live and thrive, where the human heart communes with our Creator? Is this not where words become the very bricks we use to build its tabernacle to God, where even God¡Xthirsting for our affection¡Xfinds solace in us? And, is it not in solitude and contemplation that we are privileged to be given glimpses of Divine Life, where He, in hiddenness and darkness, speaks to and touches our hearts¡Xwhen we are least expecting His presence?

Prayer is not something we say only with our mouths. Sometimes, the deepest prayer comes when we find our tongues stuck on the roof of our mouths, when we are unable to say another word. Those are moments when we learn the prayer of the heart, when we are so overwhelmed either by our troubles or by God's love for us that we find ourselves speechless. Merton says at such times, ¡§There are no answers, and one realizes finally the only Answer is God Himself.¡¨ The feeling could even be one of utter despair. But because I believe God loves me and He has a purpose that I can not see with my dim eyes, it can¡Xin an act of faith¡Xbe suddenly transformed into a ¡§happy despair¡¨ in which I believe firmly my very despairing life is held lovingly together in the palms of God's hands. Could there be anything more joyful than this? Indeed, faith takes over when we realize ¡§nothing works.¡¨ At that moment, we are allowed to take the first steps back into our lost Eden and, if God sees fit, He might even allow us a momentary glimpse of his Face.