The Thomas Merton Center (TMC) was founded in 1972 in response to a desire to end the ravages set forth by the war in Vietnam. Today, TMC is a central hub of peace and justice activity in the greater Pittsburgh area, with an extensive network of committed friends, members, and cornerstone sustainers, who have chosen to work together to create a more peaceful and just world.
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A Prophet in the Monastery: Why Thomas Merton’s Radical Social Vision Still Applies to TMC Four Decades Later
Speech given by Dr. Art McDonald on January 31st, 2012 at East Liberty Presbyterian Church Social Hall.
Nice to be home, and even better to be around great OLD friends. As you can see, my loyalties are a bit divided now; I have an especially difficult time when the “Stillers” play the Patriots; much like Merton, I’m a person full of unresolved conflicts.
When I got the call from Joyce and John (and others, Molly, Betty, etc.), I was caught off guard and wondering why me? What would I say? It reminded me of a call I received 25 year or so ago from Neil McCaulley, who was then President of the Association of Pittsburgh Priests and on the national board of the priest’s association. The annual meeting was to be here in Pittsburgh and they wanted someone to give a talk on, get this, “U.S Foreign Policy and the Catholic Church in History.” Sr. Pat McCann was first choice, a wonderful choice, but she wasn’t able to do it. For some reason she suggested me. I said to Neil, stupidly, I’m willing to give it a go, Neil, but I must tell you I’m not an historian, I know something about the topic but I’d have to do lots of research in order to really say anything of worth. To which Neil responded, Art, you sound like an overachiever, you’ll probably do a good job, we accept.
I had exactly the same reaction to this request. Well, sure, I know Merton a bit and have read a fair amount, especially during my own journey in monastic life (The Seven Storey Mountain, his spiritual autobiography, was defining for many of us Catholics), preached about him and his ideas, but I’d have to do a lot of research to say anything more than most people here probably already know! “Is that a yes,” someone asked? Yet another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into (a little variation for those who might remember Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy). I’m looking out at the audience tonight and imagining who out there has already forgotten more about Merton than I’ll ever know. I saw one of Molly’s e-mails that went out to the likes of Jim Forest and Jim Wallis and Anne Montgomery, and I got really concerned. Suppose they show up? That’s the curse of the overachiever; never sure he knows enough. At least I didn’t see Dan Berrigan’s name on the list, thankfully!
Yet, despite the disclaimers and hesitations, I must admit, I also love this kind of challenge. Merton’s corpus is huge; books, over 30, correspondence, many volumes, lectures, hundreds, etc., not to mention the many books written about Merton. Having spent 10 years of my life as a member of a semi-monastic religious Order, Dominican, Order of Preachers, I have chewed over one of Merton’s favorite topics, “contemplation in a world of action” often, both while I was in the Order and often since leaving in 1982. Even now, as a Unitarian Universalist minister for over 20 years, I still often preach on the relationship and balance between social activism and the contemplative or reflective spirit and practice. No one I know had more to say about this than Merton. And there is nothing more important, in my view, for activists to consider.
So let me frame this talk in the following way with a question: “If Thomas Merton were alive today, would he be a member of the Merton Center?” I have that question in quotes because it’s not original. Nearly 30 years ago, while we were still on the South Side, a great friend of Molly’s from childhood, and a frequent volunteer at the Center, Jack McDonough, was having a bad day, so much so that we had to ask him to leave; to come back when he could behave and cooperate better. He left pretty mad; I can remember the tuna fish splattered all over the walls. The next day Jack returned, sober and somber. He never actually came in but, rather, stood outside the front door with a sign that read: “If Thomas Merton were alive, would he be a member of the Merton Center?” Here, a number of years later, I hope the answer would be yes. I’ll tell you why.
I think the group that dreamed up this evening was really asking the question: does it still make sense to have a center for activism, peace and social justice, to be named after a contemplative monk? And a dead one at that! I think it does, ever more, especially this contemplative monk. If you have doubts about Merton’s relevance to issues of justice and peace in our day, I suggest you pick up two volumes of the interfaith journal Cross Currents, December 2008 and March 2009, both dedicated to Merton, the “Global Prophet,” according to Victor Kramer, a Merton scholar, who goes on to say: “We have never before had a witness like Merton. Awake to all creation; alert to the horrors of the twentieth-century and all of the neo-colonial errors of 500 years.” Though a cloistered monk, “he loved the world” and radically played the role of “prophet.” And “what’s a prophet,” asks Kramer? Simply put: “…one who cuts through great tangled webs of lies.” Truth-teller!
I can’t do justice to the breadth of Merton in this short time but I want to touch upon a few key areas where Merton still speaks to us as if he were in our midst right now. First, something about his vision, his social analysis, and his relationship to some radical social activists of his day, many Catholic but not all, many religious but not all; Second, some thoughts on his complex, somewhat nuanced writings on the question of non-violence and pacifism; Third, his dialogue with the world, especially his interest in the Christian-Marxist dialogue; Fourth, ever so briefly, his journey, both literally and figuratively, to the East and the importance of eastern religion, especially, but not only, Buddhism, to his thought; And, finally, his ultimate defense of monasticism and its worldly role and what it might mean for the Merton Center going forward. Ambitious, I know. Remember, I’m an overachiever. It’s a curse.
First, his vision and impact on activists; much of this happened in the last 10 years of his life, from the late 1950s until his untimely and tragic death in 1968. That’s when Merton wrote most of his social commentary, though he entered the monastery in 1941.
Merton saw so clearly the social reality of his day; his words could have been written yesterday given what we are going through in this recent recession and in our endless wars. While reflecting on the problem and prevalence of violence in our world he writes in Faith and Violence, in the mid-1960s:
“Violence today is white collar violence; the systematically organized bureaucratic and technological destruction of humanity…The real problem (of violence) is not the individual with a revolver but death and even genocide with big business.” Regarding modern warfare, he writes: “…the real moral problems are not to be located in rare instances of hand-to-hand combat, but in the remote planning and organization of technological destruction. The real crimes of modern war are committed not at the front…but in war offices and ministries of defense in which no one ever has to see any blood unless the secretary gets a nosebleed…modern technological mass murder is not directly visible, like individual murder. It is abstract, corporate, businesslike, cool, free of guilt-feelings, and therefore a thousand times more deadly and effective than the eruption of violence out of individual hate. It is this polite, massively organized white-collar machine that threatens the world with destruction, not the violence of a few desperate teenagers in a slum (Faith and Violence, “Toward a Theology of Resistance.”). Has anyone since seen this any clearer?
In another prescient moment given what we have witnessed in these last years of war, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, also published in the mid-1960s, echoing political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, Merton even addresses Torture: “Torture is the instrument of those who fear personality, fear responsibility, and wish to convince themselves again and again that personality does not really exist, that freedom is weaker than natural necessity. That the person can be silenced by the demands of nature. In the calculated use of torture there is also a special evil. The person is pitted against the process by which the process infallibly wins.” (pp.108/09)
One of Merton’s greatest gifts to the world in this period, beyond his writings and his ability to cut through the “web of lies,” was his personal relationship with some of the leading members of what later became known as the Catholic Left. And it was from this group, among others, that Merton learned what was happening in the world beyond the monastery walls. He was a kind of unofficial chaplain to these peace and justice activists, I would judge.
In William Shannon’s book of Merton’s letters to many of these activists, The Hidden Ground of Love, it’s clear Merton had robust and consistent correspondence with two of my key mentors, Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Jesuit priest, and with Molly, plowshares’ activist, Dan Berrigan, as well as co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship in 1964, Jim Forest. The latter two, along with a number of other peace activists, including the great A.J. Muste, made yearly journeys to commune with Merton in Kentucky from 1960-68. During these retreats and sessions, these activists developed a “theology and spirituality of protest,” and often talked about activism and non-violence, civil disobedience and strategies for change. Merton would often remind them of the need for compassion and love, especially love for one’s opponents and enemies, without which neither personal nor social transformation would take place.
Meanwhile, Merton was in frequent correspondence with Day and send articles for publication to the Catholic Worker newspaper. In fact, it was an article he wrote on the danger of nuclear war that got Dan Berrigan to begin his correspondence with Merton, out of which grew a deep friendship and mentoring from Merton to Berrigan. Berrigan took a good deal of credit for Merton’s deeper involvement in active protests and peace movements. They were tight: “…he was with me while in exile in Latin America,” said Berrigan, “and with me when I was in jail.” (“The Daniel Berrigan Connection,” found on the internet) Berrigan, as were all the others, was devastated when Merton died. Upon hearing of Merton’s death, Berrigan wrote this poem while wandering the streets of New York in mourning:
“Friend, between Bangkok and this new year zeroing in,
How death abounds, for those who try and try,
The odds you took and tossed, on life!
Coffee and hamburg in a Greek hash joint alone;
A Bogie double feature. Winds stir
Dead news in the street, frenzy, bombast. Meat
Sticks in my throat. The gravel voice of dead Bogart
Cheats like a virtuous thief
Usurious times. Merton… (found in With Clumsy Grace: The American Catholic Left, 1961-1975, Charles A. Meconis, p. 37)
Once asked in an interview with an Irish journalist, did the church ever consider making Merton a saint? No chance, Berrigan replied, “He’s much too close to the gospel.” (citation misplaced)
But Merton and the activists weren’t always in agreement as to certain strategies. Berrigan acknowledged that Merton could be challenging and tough on them at times. He blamed the Catholic Peace Fellowship for the for the death of Catholic activist, Roger La Porte in 1965, who immolated himself on the steps of the United Nations’ building and Merton asked to be removed from its list of sponsors, although he later regretted this decision and retracted this after lengthy correspondence with Dorothy Day (the Dean of the group, I would say) about the matter. (Shannon) But he also disapproved of the napalming of the draft files at Catonsville, MD., in 1968. Even though it only involved the destruction of property, Merton worried that the “Peace Movement …might be standing on the edge of violence…thus escalating beyond (mere) peaceful protest.” Merton suggested that it bordered on what he called “prophetic non-violent provocation.” (Thomas Merton on Peace)
This brings me to a consideration of a central and certainly enduring aspect of Merton’s legacy through writings and personal contact with peace activists, i.e., his views on non-violence. They are complicated and profound. They are nuanced and very challenging. Many of his thoughts on the topic appear in different writings, but his bookFaith and Violence explains in detail his position.
As to the question whether or not he considered non-violence as purely a tactic, a pragmatic strategy for promoting change, or a way of life, a way of being, Merton clearly came done on the side of the latter. In a chapter in the book entitled: “Blessed are the Meek,” Merton speaks of Christian non-violence as “…perhaps the most exacting of all forms of struggle…,” because it may involve “suffering evil,” possibly even “death” without “retaliation.” It’s not about “self-interest, even political,” but rather about “truth and right.” It’s not about proving him/herself “virtuous and right,” and his adversary “evil.” It’s not about “upsetting the adversary’s conscience,” or “a form of moral aggression and even a subtle provocation” to bring out the worst in the adversary. Merton suggests that Christian non-violence excludes hatred of a “class” or “social group,” nor does it allow us to dismiss the adversary and consider them “wicked or evil, never reasonable or well-intentioned, and hence never to be listened to.” Who of us can meet that standard?
The purpose of non-violence for Merton is “openness, communication, dialogue” in search of the “common good…where the powerful believe that only power is efficacious, the non-violent resister is persuaded of the superior efficacy of love, openness, peaceful negotiation and above all truth.” No “self-righteousness” here, only “humility and self-restraint.” Ultimately, he asks: “”are we willing to learn something from the adversary?” (pp.14-23)
As I wrote in a short piece for this month’s New People, (February, 2012) Merton preached a very self-critical form of non-violence. As teacher and writer Anthony Padavano, a wonderful interpreter of Merton, wrote in a marvelous book entitled: The Human Journey: Thomas Merton: Symbol of a Century, “Non-violence begins as an act of conscience, a spiritual search, a committed way of life. The enemy is not the other but the tendency in all of us to make the other different and to declare ourselves the norm and the center of human behavior. Non-violence is a contemporary and political form of contemplation, a modern mysticism that has broad social consequences.” (67)
Merton also warned activists about the dangers of excessive activity. Writes Padavano: “…the acceptance of demands and commitments beyond the limits of our endurance, the desire to assist everyone in everything, is a capitulation to the philosophy of violence.” Finally, “…non-violence seeks dialogue, not victory…true non-violence requires spiritual discipline and a deep love for people.”
Though I won’t elaborate on an interesting aspect of Merton’s beliefs and writings on non-violence and his own pacifism, though he thought of himself as a true pacifist, he always held out the possibility of a violent defense of life, at least, he would say, theoretically. At this point he was still drawing off the longstanding just war tradition, especially in its Catholic form. When asked about this, he suggested that oppressed people had the right to revolt when all other means were exhausted. In this sense, he was privy to debates going on among Christians in Latin America as to the idea of just revolutions. Dorothy Day took him to task on this, and there is a somewhat tortured correspondence in one of his letters to Dorothy trying to explain his position, a position Dorothy frowned upon. (Shannon, June 16, 1962) He had such enormous regard for Dorothy as the voice of Catholic pacifism. He always seemed to defer to Dorothy on these matters.
Shifting focus, now, one of the most fascinating themes for me in Merton’s writings involves his very serious dialogue with the Marxist tradition. He read lots of Marxism, especially the Western Marxists, in particular Herbert Marcuse. If you remember, a major theme at Vatican II had to do with the relationship of the church and the world. It was the moment when official Catholicism was quickly trying to make up a few centuries of lost time in its dialogue, or lack thereof, with the modern world. Merton took this on with enthusiasm and, I would say, as we’ve learned, with some insight. In fact, some of you may be aware that Merton’s last lecture, given just a few hours before his death in Bangkok, to a group of Buddhist monks, was entitled: “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.”
After expressing the importance of the Christian-Marxist dialogue, at the same time that liberation theology in Latin America was slowly rising to the surface with its own serious dialogue with Marxism, Merton goes on to relate a story about an encounter with some young, European Marxist student leaders at a conference in California, as he was on his way to the East. When he introduced himself to one young French revolutionary as a monk, one of the students replied: “we are monks also.” Although the student didn’t say as much, Merton suggested that his tone was “We are the true monks; you are not the true monks!” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton) So Merton raises the question: what’s a “true monk?”
Once again, in this his last talk, we hear Merton the prophet, the truth-teller, who suggests that “The monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures,” much like those revolutionary students. “…The monk is somebody who says …that the claims of the world are fraudulent.” So, he goes on, the monk’s withdrawal or refusal of the world is really a call for transformation, for radical change, again, much like the revolutionary students. However, and this is where he draws a difference. As he reads Marxism, it calls for a change in economic structures, whereas the monk, Christian and Buddhist, works for a change in human consciousness, not as a result of a change in structures, but as a primary focus, i.e., the monastic life is for the development of full consciousness, what Merton calls “full realization.” And that’s the monk’s role in society. They are to attain consciousness, then help others do the same.
He then goes on to say that “Communism consists in a society where each gives according to his capacity and each receives according to his needs.” And, “if you think about this for two seconds,” that’s the “definition of a monastic community.” He goes on to suggest that communism is only likely to occur in a monastery. He concludes with the following: “The monk belongs to the world, but the world belongs to him insofar as he has dedicated himself totally to the liberation from it in order to liberate it.” Merton loves paradox. He loves speaking dialectically. One must withdraw in order to engage! (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, pp.326-343).
In Seeds of Contemplation, Merton writes: “a person cannot be a perfect Christian – that is a saint – unless he is also a communist.” Since “everything belongs to God’ men enjoyed property rights only in so far as they were “administrators of God’s possessions, instruments of His Providence in sharing with others what they themselves do not need.” If you have money, Merton suggested, consider that…God allowed it to fall into your hands…that you might find joy and perfection in throwing it away.” Slightly romantic, I suppose, but, nevertheless, an example of Merton’s economics and protest against poverty, inequality and economic injustice. ( Eugene McCarraher,Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought., p. 117)
So Merton died while going East and sharing monastic thoughts with Buddhist monks. Some have thought Merton might defect to a Buddhist monastery at some point, thus rejecting his Catholic faith. Not likely true. However, writes Padavano, “He was a Catholic writer whose worst writing was Catholic writing. Yet Catholicism was necessary to the development of his artistic talent…He needed Catholicism as a counterpoint, a polarity, a profound experience, but not as a total system. His proximity to and independence from official Catholic teaching provided a creative dimension to his work.”
Apropos of this insight, Merton offered blistering critiques of his own Catholic Church, as well as the Western monastic life itself, lived in certain forms. In a 1967 interview, he says this about his Church (couldn’t this have been written yesterday?):
“There can be no question that the great crisis in the Church today is the crisis of authority brought on by the fact that the Church, as institution and organization, has in fact usurped the place of the Church as a community of persons united in love and in Christ…Love is equated with obedience and conformity within the framework of an impersonal corporation. The Church is preached as a communion, but is run in fact as a collectivity, and even as a totalitarian collectivity.” (Padavano, p. 48) Ouch! Did he say that 45 years ago?!
Merton went East mostly to learn, not to teach, to inquire and to dialogue. He learned much from the Zen masters and wrote about them brilliantly. And he never returned. In the end, he was likely as much a Buddhist as Christian. He saw this convergence, especially thanks to the great Japanese Zen master, D.T. Suzuki. Some of his best work is writing about the East, e.g., Zen and the Birds of Appetite.
So, finally, what are we to make of this monk and the monastic life as it relates to the world? What does a monk or monastic life have to offer the world in search of justice and peace? Merton reflected upon this often and wrote about it at length. He often had to defend the monastic life against charges that it was pointless and simply a withdrawal from human affairs and responsibility. And defend it he did. But he also could be harshly critical of a certain kind of monastic existence. In a spirited letter to Dan Berrigan in 1963, he writes the following:
“And now about the monastic life and ideal, in relation to the world. Look, I hate to be vulgar, but a lot of the monastic party line we are getting…ends up being pure, unadulterated crap…we are told that our life consists in the peaceful and pious meditation on Scripture and a quiet withdrawal from the world. But if one reads the prophets with his ears and eyes open he cannot help recognizing his obligation to shout very loud about God’s will, about God’s truth, and justice of person to person. …Obviously the monastic life is nothing if it does not open a man wide to the Holy Spirit. In actual fact, the head-in-the-ground type of monk is usually in actual practice the most damnable fascist you ever saw…In a word, it is all right for the monk to break his ass putting out packages of cheese and making a pile of money for the old monastery, but as to doing anything that is really fruitful for the Church, that is another matter altogether. What is the contemplative life if one doesn’t listen to God in it? What is the contemplative life if one becomes oblivious to the rights of human beings and the truth of God in the world and in His Church? (Shannon, pp.78-79). How did this get by the censors?
Merton battled constantly with his censors in the monastery. He was silenced and forbidden to write on a number of occasions, being told that writing about such worldly things was a violation of his vocation. In his letters he is constantly warning his friends that the correspondence might be being censored. It made him mad but he accepted it as part of obedience. And each time he rose again. And much has appeared posthumously, thanks to his editors.
In his own way, Merton was deeply immersed in the world, despite living mostly behind monastic walls. He was more comfortable in dialogue with and writing about Marxists, atheists, the Marcuse’s and Camus of the world than he was with religious figures such as the more overtly religious people such as Billy Graham. He loved Camus and thought this secular atheist had wonderful, monastic insights about asceticism and contemplation, poverty and simplicity (Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 241).
Though a sharp critic of a certain type of monasticism, he also defended it. He believed deeply in his vocation and the place of the monk and contemplation in a world full of action. To the sharp criticisms of feminist and liberation theologian Rosemary Reuther, who in 1967 wrote to Merton suggesting that monasticism was “…archaic, anomalous, institution bound, in service of its own mythology…with its creation-denying
ethos …and history of flight from the world,” Merton fired back: “Monastic life is in closer contact with God’s good creation and is simpler, saner more human than life in the supposedly pleasurable world.” He went on to argue that monks were actually “conservationists” and reminded Reuther how many “…hundreds of pine saplings I have planted myself and with the novices only to see them bulldozed by some ass a year later.”
Maybe, he facetiously suggests to Reuther, “…American monks should administer and protect our national forests! “In a word,” he concludes in his letter, “to my mind the monk is one who not only saves the world in a theological sense, but saves it literally, protecting it against the destructiveness of the rampaging city of greed, war…And this loving care for the natural creatures becomes in some sense, a warrant of the monk’s theological mission and ministry as a person of contemplation.” (Cross Currents, December 2008, pp, 264-265, Kathleen Deignan).
Merton defined contemplation in this way: “Contemplation is the highest expression of a person’s intellectual and spiritual life, it is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that source.’ (New Seeds of Contemplation.)
“What is the relation of this to action,” he asks, in Contemplation in a World of Action? And here he is at his prophetic best.
“Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action to which men are driven by their own Faustian misunderstandings and misapprehensions. We have more power at our disposal today than we have ever had, and yet we are more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and of love than we have ever been. The result of this is evident. We are living through the greatest crisis in the history of man; and the crisis is centered precisely in the country that has made a fetish out of action and has lost (or perhaps never had) the sense of contemplation. Far from being irrelevant, prayer, meditation and contemplation are of the utmost importance in America today. (178-179).
Ever the radical, yet ever questioning and always open to serious dialogue, in a letter to Daniel Berrigan in March of 1967, Merton suggested the following regarding the future of monasticism:
“I just got walloped with a terrific idea: a happening that could be possible down here. A get together of extreme people to talk of community and particularly on the most radical level the prophetic and monastic type community and in what terms monasticism is even tolerable as a Christian concept any more. To be against would be Rosemary Ruether …to be in the middle and a quasi-monastic type thing, Dorothy Day…to be for at least a kind of continuity with traditional monasticism, myself…and then you and perhaps Jim Forest as free floaters. Wonderful too if we could get Corita…Let me know what you think and I can begin working on it. Get Joan Baez too maybe. (Shannon, p. 93)
How to sum up Merton and his contribution to the world we live in? I turn to Padavano:
“Merton is also prescient and sensitive. He deals with the fusion of contemplation and social action years before turbulent prophetic protest racks America. He envisioned a global system of social justice where racism and militarism were eliminated, where technology and affluence were relied on less for the solution of human problems. He offered spiritual and contemplative alternatives a generation before they became widely discussed possibilities for the enrichment of life. He struggles with the difficult area where the claims of authority and the prerogatives of conscience intersect. He does this almost from the beginning of his monastic life but most assuredly some fifteen years before the conclusion of the second Vatican Council. He speaks of some atheists as secular mystics and of oriental religions as sources of grace and truth long before it became fashionable so to regard them. Merton explores the relationship between the secular and the sacred and between East and West as the twentieth century becomes fascinated with the correspondence between Church and world and with the compatibility of divergent cultural and religious systems.” (p. 27)
Though a clearly very serious fellow, Merton was not without humor. His summation of his own spiritual life: “What I do is live, how I pray is breathe, what I wear is pants.” (notes from Prof. Padraic O’Hare, Merrimack College)
Merton, “Symbol of a Century,” writes Padavano; Truly a “global prophet,” then and now, according to Cross Currents!
So, The Merton Center, 40 years later, does it still make sense to continue to name a center of justice and peace activism after a dead monk? As I reread some of Merton for this sharing, I was reminded how clearly he saw things from a distance and how profoundly he challenged us to become our best selves. Times change, issues come and go, but the need for a prophetic voice goes on. A voice like Merton and the Merton Center are ever needed as corporate greed and the ever addictive war machine grind on.
I so well remember around 1985 or 86, as I had transitioned to the Board, a new board member whose name I can’t recall, said that she had agreed to serve not because she shared a particular spiritual or religious view of many of us, but because there was something about the spirit of the Merton Center that was in it for the long haul. She had been in other activist groups that had burned out along the way. She experienced something in the Merton Center that seemed burned–out proof and wanted to draw from it. And here we are today, 40 years later, still in it for the long haul. Lots of questions, I know.
In one of his last books, basically a journal, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton described this journal as an”…implicit dialogue with other minds, a dialogue in which questions are raised. But do not expect to find answers. I do not have clear answers to current questions. I do have questions, and, as a matter of fact, I think a person is known better by her questions than by his answers.”
He was never settled in his life or ideas. As Padavano writes, “There would always be something unfinished about Thomas Merton.” A fellow monk summed up his “elusiveness” by citing a Haiku death poem: “Would you seek to trace me? Ha! Try catching the tempest in a net.”
When I was a member of the semi-monastic Dominican Order for that 10 year period, an Order that prided itself on a life of balance between the active ministry and the life of prayer and contemplation, I must admit I never really got the contemplative part; I wasn’t very good at it and didn’t much work on it. My loss. Now, many years later, and doing ministry in a very different context, one I think Merton would understand well, even if some of my former brother monks don’t, I am better at that balance. Maybe it’s because I am ageing. But reading Merton now I have much greater appreciation than I did years ago for the importance of the contemplative and reflective side. His writing seems as relevant and as prophetic as ever, whether he is writing about Marxism’s action-reflection model, or monasticism’s contemplation- action dialectic.
So I’ll leave you with this: while I was a Dominican, from 1972-82, shortly after the end of Vatican II, I remember all Catholic religious communities were going through periods of renewal and were asked to renew the charism of the group’s founder, in our case St. Dominic, a great preacher and intellectual. What was that initial inspiration and how did it work for the betterment of the world? How was it transformative and how can we make the same difference today, we asked?
I would suggest on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Merton Center, the current leadership seriously consider renewing its commitment to the vision those initial activists had when they chose the name of a monk, Thomas Merton, and ask what was the foundation of that vision? Undoubtedly there was a deep spiritual foundation to that original vision and, I presume, an appreciation for the contemplative and reflective side of life. For an activist, taking time to reflect and contemplate and rethink and evaluate is essential, according to Merton. (and Marx!) I would recommend returning to those roots, knowing that much has changed, our analytical tools have deepened, and our understanding of the spiritual life has expanded. It is more universal (Merton already knew this) and, like Merton, it invites all people of good will to join in the adventure; Catholics, Protestants, Quakers, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists, Atheists and, yes, maybe even a few Unitarian Universalists! Merton would want to dialogue and renew with all of the best people and minds for the sake of bringing justice and peace to our broken world and creating what Dr. King referred to as the “beloved community.” We should aspire to no less. His inspiration is as vital and vibrant as ever. Would that we all had such insight about the world and humanity as this contemplative monk!
So as we celebrate together this great history, with its triumphs and failures, doubts, uncertainties and questions, let us, once again, renew the vision and ask the question of ourselves, first posed by our old friend, Jack McDonough, some 30 years ago, “if Thomas Merton were alive today, would he be a member of the Merton Center?” I hope the answer is yes and, if so, we will be making an enormous contribution to the cause of justice and peace and spiritual renewal in a very troubling time.