In honor of the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton
When I first encountered a book about the man who become my primary spiritual guide, I put it on a shelf unread for 15 years. I was not ready when I first heard of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer. I was 25 and on a blind date with a clean-cut Catholic architect named Tom. A roommate who had recently returned to the Catholic Church had set us up. Tom talked a lot about how Merton had changed his life and faith.
The date did not go well. I had the distinct impression Tom was trying to get me to return to a church I disdained as a progressive, intellectual journalist. I knew God did not exist because I had experienced too much suffering too young.
I don’t recall having more than one date with this man, who I snobbishly dismissed, yet somehow I ended up with a book of his, “Merton: By Those Who Knew Him Best.” For mysterious reasons, I never sold or disposed of the book, which moved with me five times and kept this unknown smiling monk Thomas Merton on the periphery of consciousness.
Perhaps that is part of the reason that, 15 years later, I was drawn to a light-green volume of Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” filed in the middle of the one row of books on spirituality at the newly opened Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. A few weeks earlier I had returned to worship at a Catholic Church after an experience of God one dark night. I was trying to understand the overwhelming experience of God’s grace and was hungry for anything I could learn about prayer or living a Christian life.
I read on the back cover:
“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.”
I knew innumerable seeds had drifted past me for 40 years, yet one had finally taken root within. And from the beginning of ‘“New Seeds of Contemplation” I experienced a recognition in what Merton wrote:
“Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within all that is real. A vivid awareness of infinite Being at the roots of our own limited being. An awareness of our contingent reality as received, as a present from God, as a free gift of love. This is the existential contact of which we speak when we use the metaphor of being ‘touched by God.’”
Two pages later, Merton wrote that contemplation “is awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life.”
I did not know anything formal about contemplation at this time – I was re-learning the rosary and the most basic forms of prayer. And yet I knew what Merton wrote was true.
“For the contemplative there is no cogito (“I think”) and no ergo (“therefore”) but only SUM, I AM. Not in the sense of a futile assertion of our individuality as ultimately real, but in the humble realization of our mysterious being as persons in whom God dwells, with infinite sweetness and inalienable power.”
For my whole adult life up to that point I had identified my thoughts with my being. I thought that what I knew and did created me and defined me, and it was up to me and me alone to do something special to justify my existence on this chaotic and disturbing planet. So the sudden clear knowledge that God dwells within and that the world was created and is still sustained in God’s love was a stunning radical transformation.
What Merton did for me, especially in the early years of returning to faith, is describe and validate the gift of conversion that I experienced. He gave language for understanding my experience and shined a light on the path of contemplation and prophetic witness.
After “New Seeds,” I read “The Seven Storey Mountain,” Merton’s autobiography of his early years in France and England, the death of his father when he was 16, and the worldly life he led until his conversion to Catholicism and entering a Trappist monastery. Although the surface details of Merton’s life were quite different than mine, I still identified deeply with his story of alienation from God, of attempts to achieve success in the secular intellectual world as a writer, of a dissipated life as a young adult focused on pleasure, drinking and playing games with the opposite sex, and of an early recognition of the unjustness and outright lies of the dominant commercial culture.
Merton in retrospect saw the grace of God working in his acute awareness of alienation and misery while pursuing nothing but self-will. The idea that my misery in pursuing all the wrong things had been a grace, a sign of God working in me all along, was new to me.
“For in my greatest misery He would shed, into my soul, enough light to see how miserable I was, and to admit that it was my own fault and my own work. And always I was to be punished for my sins by my sins themselves, and to realize, at least obscurely, that I was being so punished and burn in the flames of my own hell, and rot in the hell of my own corrupt will until I was forced at last, by my own intense misery, to give up my own will.”
Later, Merton described an illuminating experience of God in the Church of St. Francis in Havana, Cuba:
“But what a thing it was, this awareness: it was so intangible, and yet it struck me like a thunderclap. It was a light so bright that it had no relation to any visible light and so profound and so intimate that it seemed like a neutralization of any lesser experience.
“And yet the thing that struck me most of all was that this light was in a certain sense ‘ordinary’ – it was a light (and this most of all was what took my breath away) that was offered to all, to everybody, and there was nothing fancy or strange about it. It was the light of faith deepened and reduced to an extreme and sudden obviousness.
It was as if I had been suddenly illuminated by being blinded by the manifestation of God’s presence.”
He added something that I starred in the margin because it resonated so deeply. “But it was easy to see that there was nothing I could do to give any act of faith that peculiar quality of sudden obviousness: that was a gift and had to come from somewhere else, beyond and above myself.”
I will end with one of my favorite passages from Merton, the concluding paragraphs of “New Seeds of Contemplation,” often quoted by Jim Finley, one of Merton’s spiritual directees at the monastery. To me it represents the essence of the joy of the Christian life in a world created by a mysterious and benevolent God.
“What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash – at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the ‘newness,’ the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.
“For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
“Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”