Monday, December 10, 2018

Remembering Thomas Merton

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the untimely death of one of my favorite spiritual thinkers, Thomas Merton -- mystic, contemplative, advocate for peace and equality, friend to other religious traditions. He met with and befriended the Dalai Lama and became quite enamored of the Zen tradition toward the end of his life. He even translated his own version of the Chuang-tzu, a key Taoist text.

Merton found the Divine in the silence of the monastery, but also in the faces of the poor and needy. When I find myself getting too cynical, I remind myself of the words he wrote to Dorothy Day: 
Our job is to love others, without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.
Or if I get too full of myself, I sometimes meditate on his humbling prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Merton also had an intimate understanding of the ever-presence and the importance of Holy Sophia, how she awakens us to the Sacred Feminine, and how in Mary he saw Sophia's human face. These lines, appropriate to the Advent season, come from his poem Hagia Sophia:
Now the Blessed Virgin Mary is the one created being who enacts and shows forth in her life all that is hidden in Sophia. Because of this she can be said to be a personal manifestation of Sophia, Who in God is Ousia rather than Person.  
Natura in Mary becomes pure Mother. In her, Natura is as she was from the origin from her divine birth. In Mary Natura is all wise and is manifested as an all-prudent, all-loving, all-pure person: not a Creator, and not a Redeemer, but perfect Creature, perfectly Redeemed, the fruit of all God’s great power, the perfect expression of wisdom in mercy.  
It is she, it is Mary, Sophia, who in sadness and joy, with the full awareness of what she is doing, sets upon the Second Person, the Logos, a crown which is His Human Nature. Thus her consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God.  
God enters into His creation. Through her wise answer, through her obedient understanding, through the sweet yielding consent of Sophia, God enters without publicity into the city of rapacious men. 
Photo by John Howard Griffin.
Not only were Merton's words and actions beautiful and inspiring, but he was also very relatable by being very human. He struggled with his monastic vows. He thought about leaving his cloistered life behind. He most likely had an intimate affair with a much younger nurse whom he loved deeply. His struggles were the same ones we all face, yet his faith persevered till the end. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, still stands as one of the greatest and most inspiring spiritual classics of all time.

I used to tell people I was a Thomas Merton-Dorothy Day Catholic, given his peace activism and contemplative spirituality and her lifelong dedication to "the least of these." If there were more Thomas Mertons and Dorothy Days in the church, I might still be a part of it today. Even so, they both continue to exert a significant influence on my spiritual path.

And so on this anniversary, I extend my thanks to Thomas Merton and highly recommend his writings to anyone looking to deepen their own spiritual lives. Like his friend Dorothy Day, he is a modern-day saint, even if the church hasn't officially canonized him.

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