by Ken Sehested
My favorite definition of God is Thomas Merton’s:
God is “mercy within mercy within mercy.” —Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB
A special issue of “Signs of the Times” devoted to Thomas Merton (31 January 1915 – 10 December 1968) quotes was already in the works, to mark the centennial of his birth. But when Pope Francis, in his historic address to a joint session of Congress, lifted his name for special recognition (along with three other Americans), it seemed timely to move up the schedule.
Brother Louis, as he was called in his Trappist community at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, is likely the most influential American Catholic of the twentieth century. His bibliography exceeds 60 books, hundreds of poems and articles, some translated into at least 15 languages.
He is most widely known for one of his first books, The Seven Storey Mountain, which has sold over one million copies. Acclaimed for his work on prayer and contemplation, he also wrote passionately on civil rights, militarism, and nonviolence.
In rereading some of his work, I marvel, especially, at the way he identified the frailty of white liberal response to our ongoing racial trauma. (“Religion and Race in the United States,” a chapter in Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, is thankfully available online. See The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University for a biographical sketch and a complete bibliography of Merton’s published writings.)
Pope Francis’ choice to publicly name Merton along with Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln is stunning in a number of ways. Two were assassinated, one of them a Baptist pastor, the other who presided over the first contentious step in unraveling our nation’s brutal racial history. No surprise two others were Roman Catholics, but neither were ecclesial leaders. In fact, both gave fits to church hierarchies when they were alive.
In a 25 September 2015 “Democracy Now!” interview, Robert Ellsberg, editor of Orbis Press, the imprint of the Maryknoll order, expressed his own surprise.
“[Pope Francis’ mention of Thomas Merton in his speech to a joint session of Congress] was the surprise for me. Just 10 years ago, the American Catholic bishops decided to remove his name from a list of exemplary Catholics to be included in a catechism for young adults, because they felt uncomfortable with him. He was a prophet. He was a man on the margins, who didn't fit into any kind of prefab Catholic Churchy kind of idea of holiness, although he was a Trappist monk and a priest through most of his life. . .
“His own Trappist order censored him and wouldn't allow him to publish on those topics for some years. And he became, in some ways, a kind of a renegade, a kind of troublesome figure. He said, ‘I want my whole life to be a protest against war and political tyranny. No to everything that destroys life. Yes to everything that affirms it. . . .’
“I'm sure there were a lot of people in the House [of Representatives, where the joint session met] who were scratching their heads at the mention of this Trappist monk. . . . It was interesting the way [Francis] used Merton as a figure of dialogue, of somebody who overcomes polarization.” (The interview and transcript are available at “Pope Francis Compares Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day to Lincoln and MLK”)
At least some in the US Catholic Church leadership are still leery of Merton’s influence. As Rose Berger wrote in a 25 September 2015 Washington Post article, just recently “the Northern California chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society attempted to host a talk by a Merton scholar and well-respected theologian on the topic of Merton’s interreligious dialogue. But the bishop asked the local Catholic Church to host it off-site.” (“What Pope Francis can teach the US Catholic Church about Thomas Merton”)
The great paradox of Merton’s life lay in the tension between his being, on the one hand, a cloistered monk, with a vigorous commitment to silence, and on the other hand a prolific writer. Initially, after making his final vows, he swore off his writing habit in favor of his Cistercian vow of silence. That resolve didn’t last, and in fact his superiors encouraged him to see his writing on prayer and contemplation as part of his monastic duties.
Merton’s attention to the life of prayer eventually did what genuine prayer always does—coaxing attention to God’s intention for a bruised and battered world. “Prayer does not blind us to the world,” he wrote, “but it transforms our vision of the world, and makes us see everyone and everything in the light of God.”
His superiors were not happy about his critical social commentary. Merton resorted to mimeographed circulation of his writing among friends. In a 1963 letter to French philosopher Jacques Maritain, Merton complained:
“I am putting into the mail a copy of my 'unpublishable' book on 'Peace in the Post Christian Era.' Unpublishable because forbidden by our upright and upstanding Abbot General who does not want to leave Christian civilization without the bomb to crown its history of honor. He says that my defense of peace 'fausserait le message de la vie contemplative' [would falsify the message of the contemplative life]. The fact that a monk should be concerned about this issue is thought—by 'good monks'—to be scandalous. A hateful distraction, withdrawing one's mind from Baby Jesus in the Crib. Strange to say, no one seems concerned at the fact that the crib is directly under the bomb.”
Of course, it was his burgeoning dialogue with Buddhism that caused (and still causes) the most consternation from his orthodox handlers. That East-ward pilgrimage was cut short, in his 53rd year, after his first address to an interfaith conference on comparative monastic traditions held in Bangkok, Thailand. A final paradox: He died, electrocuted by faulty wiring on a fan in his room, twenty-seven years to the day of his arrival at the Gethsemani monastery.
The Pope was right to name Br. Louis—and Dorothy and Martin and Abraham—as especially bright lights in the cloud of witnesses, for this land and at this hour. We need to follow that lead.
# # #
•See the special "Merton Quotes" edition of "Signs of the Times," 1 October 2015, No. 40.
•An extended collection of Merton quotes ("More Merton quotes") is also available on this site.
©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org