LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Bishop Fintan Monahan, who heads the Diocese of Killaloe in Ireland, was introduced to the writings of Thomas Merton in seminary and said the mid-20th century monk appealed to him due to his “contemporary flavor.”
Merton was an American Trappist at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Kentucky. He became famous for his 1948 autobiography and spiritual classic, The Seven Storey Mountain.
The monk later became a leader in interfaith dialogue and an advocate for social justice in the turbulent 1960’s before tragically dying in an electrical accident while attending a conference in Thailand in 1968 at the age of 53.
Monahan was not yet 2-years-old when Merton died, but the Irish prelate told Crux the American monk’s “words are as valid today as they were back then.”
“He would be saddened to see that over a half century later that the issue of racism become so topical again during this past summer. I think he would have been heartened by the Black lives Matter movement. I feel if he was alive today, he would be to the forefront of that movement,” the bishop said.
Monahan speaks about his devotion to Merton in a new book, Peace Smiles: Rediscovering Thomas Merton.
He spoke to Crux about his new book.
Crux: Why did you want to write this book?
Monahan: I was introduced to the writings of Thomas Merton as a seminarian and I have grown in my appreciation of his work ever since. Like many, my first taste of Merton was his The Seven Storey Mountain. It is a great work – the story of his life and conversion and his early years in the monastery. Its appeal for me then and since was the contemporary flavor of his language in which he told the story of a contemporary journey and the struggle to make sense of and to find faith in the modern world. It spoke to me at that time and of course I went on to read practically everything Merton wrote after that. My genuine enthusiasm for Merton is why I wrote my book – I wanted to share it with others.
Merton rose to fame with The Seven Storey Mountain – but he later somewhat repudiated it – Can you tell us something about Merton’s spiritual journey?
I think Merton was somewhat embarrassed in later years by maybe the exuberance and enthusiasm of the zeal of the convert and what he regarded as a young man in a hurry. In some instances, perhaps he felt he demonstrated a degree of arrogance or too much certainty in his views and at times somewhat of an intolerance of others less immersed than he was in the life of faith. I like to refer to it as the zeal of the convert that can sometimes come over as intolerance.
Merton’s spiritual journey was characterized by three distinct phases:
Firstly, living the life of a wild and disparate youth in France, England and America and all the while searching for meaning in the trends, fashions and pleasures of the modern world of the early 20th century.
Secondly, following an epiphany moment on 6th Avenue in New York with his friend Bob Lax in which he felt called to the higher choice of entering a Trappist Monastery. During his time in the monastery, as a result of prolonged periods of solitude, study, prayer and contemplation he experienced God at a very deep level and wrote much about this in his works.
Again, following another famous ‘epiphany’ moment in Louisville on Fourth and Walnut, he felt called to another phase of his faith journey by re-immersing himself in the world around him sharing the Gospel wisdom through the peace movement, social justice, exploring and dialoguing with other faith traditions. Merton wanted to share the monastic experience with a wider world.
Merton became a voice for social justice in the turbulent period of the 1960’s – does he still have something to say to us today?
Yes. One need search no further for a summation of Merton’s views on race than the line, ‘They are brothers (sisters) in the fullest sense of the word.’
Merton had an enormous correspondence with many people with literary, spiritual, theological, and social activist backgrounds. Through both his own prayerful reflection and his engagement with these people he became an influential advocate for peace, social justice, and the battle against racism.
He would be saddened to see that over a half century later that the issue of racism become so topical again during this past summer. I think he would have been heartened by the Black Lives Matter movement. I feel if he was alive today, he would be to the forefront of that movement. I have devoted a chapter in my book to the social issues Merton engaged with in his lifetime. This chapter is called “Social Issues Then and Now.”
Merton was unapologetically Catholic and Christian in his approach to the Peace Movement and the question of Race. He is saying to us today too that the gospel values of equality and love are key to resolving the problems of war and racial discrimination. He went so far to say that Catholicism was an ideal vehicle for understanding and solving racial discrimination. He wrote tellingly and unflinchingly to the heart of the matter when he wrote: “White calls for black just as black calls for white. Our significance as white men is to be seen entirely in the fact that all men are not white. Until this fact is grasped, we will never realize our true place in the world, and we will never achieve what we are meant to achieve in it.”
His words are as valid today as they were back then. For some it may sound too idealistic, whereas Merton would hold that racism will always prevail unless everyone has a personal conversion or Fourth and Walnut moment. In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander he puts it like this: “if only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more greed … But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
For Merton, the gift is a change of heart that must happen in the God space of every human being.
Merton was famous to looking to Eastern forms of monasticism for inspiration – how did this influence his thought?
Merton’s spiritual intellect knew no boundaries. He looked to the four corners of thought and he found great riches in the East. Having studied the early desert fathers and the medieval mystics, somewhat like Alexander the Great having no more immediate worlds to conquer, he set his sights on broadening his vista with the wisdom of the East.
Merton was as much at home with the masters of the Zen, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Tao traditions as he was with Christianity. In the estimation of the Merton scholar Michael W. Higgins, ‘He didn’t discover the East: The East discovered him.’
Thomas Merton was on the cusp of enlightening the Christian world through what he was exploring in Asian traditions. His wisdom and scholarship were capable of piecing together the many fragmented approaches of various faith traditions into a unified synthesis. It was not to be, however, because his life on earth was brought to an abrupt end. Merton’s legacy is his collection of writing, which can be analyzed in order to seek the unity between all religious believers that he felt, was close at hand.
It must be stressed, however, that Merton was not so much concerned with religious unity as he was with each religious tradition respecting each other’s faith tradition. Edward Rice puts it thus in a most interesting little work entitled The Man in the Sycamore Tree: “He did not try to ‘baptize’ Buddhism as the average Christian might. He was not interested in picking odds and ends from the East and amalgamating them into Christianity. Buddhism has its own very valid and true existence, and he was trying to shed the restrictions of the Western mind in reaching out for it.”
Merton’s sudden death in the East put an end to his Eastern journey in a very literal sense. A forest of ‘what ifs’ grew, speculating on whether he would have embraced Buddhism and stayed in the East or returned to Gethsemani for short intervals, coming and going as a nomadic monk. Personally, I think he would have returned to Gethsemani and from there shared a broader vision of Catholic faith with the world. It was not to be, but we do have his collected works to inspire the seeker after truth in all of us.
You say “hope” permeates his writings. Can you explain?
Merton’s writings and life are indeed a testimony to a profound hope at the core of our Christian faith. Having experienced the desolation and emptiness resulting from a wayward youth and desperately seeking an antidote to that he found great consolation and fulfilment and hope in the life of faith. It is something we overlook that a life of faith itself gives us hope.
Even within the monastery with his ongoing struggles and the many challenges, his difficulties with the discipline, order and rigor of the Trappist life all combined in an almost contradictory way to give him hope. His search for more solitude and the hermitical life was itself an expression of hope – the ever-present hope that he could pursue the life of the writer and contemplative to the best of his human ability. He was pulled and drawn in many directions, but he never despaired of the monastic life. Looking East and West he remained utterly hopeful and loyal to the monastic vocation and to the message of hope at the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.
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