For Thoughts from the Guide for Catechists, With a Little Help From My Friends

The next time the Easter Vigil rolls around, I will have been a Catholic 4 full years. But those of you who have followed my conversion story know that I sat in the pews with my wife, and later with my children, for close to 18 years, and that I started exploring the faith in earnest in the Fall of 2006.

Eventually, around the Summer of 2007, I read The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s conversion story that was published in 1948. It turns out that 1948 is also the year that Lou Tseng-Tsiang published his Ways of Confucius and of Christ, and his friend John C. H. Wu published his From Confucianism to Catholicism a year later in 1949. More on this synchronicity shortly.

After reading Merton’s best seller, I started reading almost everything I could get my hands on that he had written. In pretty close succession, I read the following:

No Man Is an Island, The New Man, Seeds of Contemplation, The New Seeds of Contemplation, The Wisdom of the Desert:Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Contemplative Prayer. I even looked at Zen and the Birds of Appetite, briefly but then moved on to other authors whose names began with an “S.” (Like St. Anthony, St. Anthanasius, etc.)

I may be a rookie Catholic, but I quickly bumped into the contingent of our brethren who believe Thomas Merton was not a good Catholic. I’m not claiming to be an expert on Merton’s work either. I’m just a guy who has read a goodly amount of his stuff, and who has a wee bit of smarts in my skull, thanks be to God (having survived a wicked head trauma, I could just as easily have wound up a vegetable, if the Lord had willed that).

The critics claim that Merton went loopy over Eastern religions, see, and that is really quite dangerous, or so I am told. Here is an example of one such person’s opinion. It is that of a Jesuit theologian named John A. Hardon,

Thomas Merton, I do believe was never intellectually converted to Christianity. He became a Trappist Monk, became a priest and wrote many books. So his conversion is Seven Storey Mountain. He became very famous, mainly because of his writing. But also, because his ideas, it goes back already to the fifties and sixties. His ideas were very sympathetic with Oriental thought.

So he got a bit of a bad reputation for being sympathetic “with Oriental thought,” huh? Golly, there are only a couple billion Orientals on the globe so maybe Merton had a point? Maybe Hardon has a misguided one? Because this sounds like what happened to one of my favorite Marines, a fellow by the name of Evans Carlson. Carlson had gone to China as a Marine Officer in the 1930′s. He had immersed himself into the culture there, and had been an advisor assigned to Mao Tsedongs Red Army. Uh-oh, wrong army, that. And as a result, it was almost a career killer for Carlson.

Evans Carlson

Hanging around with Mao, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping didn’t sit well when the U.S. decided to back the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek. But Carlson was no Communist. He was the son of a New England Protestant preacher. And all Carlson cared about was learning how the Communist guerillas under Mao were wreaking havoc on the Japanese. Seeing no hope for his career, he resigned his commission, and wrote a book about his experience and hit the lecture circuit about the Japanese threat.

Carlson later was recommissioned (oops, we need you back!) and led the first offensive raid against Japan when he and his small band of Marine Raiders landed on Makin Island. President Roosevelt’s son went on that mission too. The success of that raid salvaged Carlson’s career. This reminds me very much of the risks associated with the unorthodox pursuit of orthodoxy. It is easy to make enemies that way, especially if you are a hero, or become very well known. Envious colleagues become stumbling blocks to you, as happened to Carlson.

Carlson developed the modern Marine Corps Rifle Squad, which helped win World War II and still basically exists unchanged to this day.  And he brought a Chinese phrase into the lexicon of the Marine Corps that all Marines know: Gung-Ho! The phrase means “work together!” and he had learned it from his experience in Mao’s army. Marines either love or hate the phrase, depending on their mood. Sometimes we shorten it to “gungy” and use it as an adjective. “Weathers? I hate that guy! He’s too gungy” in the negative or “Whoa, Dan Daly? That guy was gungy!” for the positive use of it, see?

Flash forward to the reputation of Thomas Merton. I pretty much ignored all the hoopla and the naysaying, because of my experience with his writings (see list above), and my thinking that he was being perhaps unfairly maligned, much like Carlson was. In every book of Merton’s that I had read, he came off as a straight-shooter, no question in my little mind.

Nowadays, I’m reading everything I can get my hands on that has been written by my friends Lou Tseng-Tsiang and John C.H. Wu. It turns out that later on, they were also both correspondents of Merton’s too. Remember the timing of their works being published all around the same time? That probably had something to do with their all getting to know one another. It’s a small world in Catholic publishing, then as it is now. And thinking about how to bring Christ to Asia put the three of them in the same boat too.

I wrote a post about how St. Anthony of Padua helped me “find” my new friend John Wu. Another Jesuit priest, named Robert Nash,  had called John a “pagan philosopher.” As I explained in that post, that was wrong on a number of fronts. That is like calling Evans Carlson “a Communist sympathizer” just because he happened to be following the People’s Army around as they fought the Japanese invaders of their homeland. John Wu was now a pagan because he happened to be Chinese? Hmmm.

Here is the heart of the matter and what I am attempting to help dispell. Merton wasn’t perfect, but he was not getting ready to bail out of Christianity in order to become a Zen Buddist monk. He may have met the Dalai Lama, but he didn’t do it as a defector from the Church. Read Merton’s Foreword to John’s book The Golden Age of Zen Masters, and see for yourself.

Below are some passages that I found on the Vatican website regarding Catechists for the Faith.  Look closely and see if you can see Thomas Merton, and my friends John and Lou being described below,

Lou Tseng-Tsiang

Guide for Catechists

“I have made myself all things to all in order to save some at any cost. I do it all for the sake of the gospel” (1Cor 9:22-23; cf. 2Cor 12:15). And again St. Paul says:

“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1Cor 9:16)

“Other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and these too I must lead” (Jn 10:16); “go out to the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). To be able to affirm, like Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20), and to realize with Paul the ideal of apostolic ministry: “the love of Christ overwhelms us” (2Cor 5:14), catechists should have a strong missionary spirit – a spirit that will be all the more effective if they are seen to be convinced of what they say and are enthusiastic and courageous, without ever being ashamed of the gospel (cf. Rom 1:16).

While the wise ones according to this world seek immediate gratification, the catechist will glory only in Christ, who gives strength (cf. Col 1:29), and will wish to know and preach only “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Cor 1:24). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly affirms, from “the loving knowledge of Christ springs out the irresistible desire to announce, to ‘evangelize’ and to lead others to the ‘yes’ of the faith in Jesus Christ. At the same time, one also feels the need to know this faith ever better”.

The Christ whom catechists have come to know is “a crucified Christ” (1Cor 2:2); he whom they preach is “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1Cor 1:23), whom the Father raised from the dead on the third day (cf. Acts 10:40). They should be prepared, therefore, to live in hope the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ in the midst of difficult situations, personal suffering, family problems and obstacles in their apostolic work, as they strive to follow the Lord on his own difficult road: “in my own body I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col 1:24).

Need for inculturation. Like all forms of evangelization, catechesis too is called to bring the gospel into the heart of the different cultures. The process of inculturation takes time, as it is a deep, gradual and all-embracing process. Through it, as Pope John Paul II explains, “the Church makes the gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community; she transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within”.

Catechists, like all missionary personnel, will play an active part in this process. They should be specifically prepared for it, with courses on the elements of cultural anthropology and on their own culture, and should be aware of the guidelines that the Church has laid down on this matter and which may be summarized as follows:

- The gospel message, though it can never be identified with any one culture, is necessarily incarnated in cultures. From its very beginnings it was incarnated in certain specific cultures, and one must take account of this if one is not to deprive the new Churches of values which are now the patrimony of the universal Church.

- The gospel is a force for renewal, and can rectify elements in cultures which do not conform to it.

- The local ecclesial communities, which are the primary subjects of inculturation, live out their daily experience of faith and charity in a particular culture, and the Bishop should indicate the best ways to bring out the positive values in that culture. The experts give incentive and support.

- Inculturation is genuine when it is guided by two principles: it must be founded on the word of God, revealed in the Scriptures, and must follow the Church’s tradition and the guidance of the Magisterium; and it must never go against the Church unity that was willed by the Lord.

- Popular piety, understood as an expression of Catholic devotion colored by local values, traditions and attitudes, when purified of defects caused by ignorance and superstition, expresses the wisdom of God’s people and is a privileged form of inculturation of the gospel.

Following the above directives, catechists should contribute to inculturation by fitting into the overall pastoral plan drawn up by the competent authorities and avoiding adventures into particular experiments that might upset the faithful. They should be convinced that the gospel is strong enough to penetrate any culture and enrich and strengthen it from within.

I don’t know much, but I think this is exactly what Thomas Merton, aka Father Louis, was doing, right up until the day he died. Was he perfect? You know the answer to that. Was he a sinner? Did he stumble? Who among us hasn’t, and doesn’t? Isn’t that why we are Catholic? To be redeemed while helping bring souls to Christ? Of course it is. But was he following Commanders Intent and attempting to fulfill his mission and vocation? I think so.

Here is what my friend John C.H. Wu says about him in letters I found in William H. Shannon’s edited book of Merton’s correspondence entitled The Hidden Ground of Love. This from a letter dated September 6, 1966,

John C.H Wu as
a young judge in China

The beautiful thing about you is that your heart is as great as your mind. Thus in you, love and knowledge are united organically. Herein lies your profound significance for this great age of synthesis of East and West.

Shortly thereafter, in a letter dated November 28th, John writes, after having just read Merton’s book The New Man,

It is, he says, “a living synthesis of East and West…It seems to me that you read contemplatively. You are so deeply Christian that you cannot help touching the vital springs of other religions.”

That, I think, is an opinion of Merton from someone who actually knows something about what he is talking about. Both John and Dom Lou argue convincingly about how to spread the Good News to our brothers and sisters throughout Asia. Thankfully, it appears that the leadership of the Church has been listening, even if a few naysayers didn’t get the memo.

Forgive the length of this post folks, but there is more to share. Given what has been stated in the Guide to Catechists above, it should come as no surprise that the esteemed Servant of God, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, could say this:

Someday Buddha and Confucius may be to the Eastern Catholic theology what Plato and Aristotle were to St. Thomas and Augustine.

If that idea curdles your milk, I respectfully submit that you re-read the scriptures that preface the Guide for Catechists again:

“I have made myself all things to all in order to save some at any cost. I do it all for the sake of the gospel” (1Cor 9:22-23; cf. 2Cor 12:15).

“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1Cor 9:16)

“Other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and these too I must lead” (Jn 10:16); “go out to the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).

From posts I’ve shared with you in the past, you know that both John and Dom Lou grasped the idea that Sheen wrote of, and they not only grasped it, but they put it into action as soon as they became Catholics. Archbishop Sheen grasped it as well, which is why he would write in his autobiography Treasures in Clay,

Our missionaries, I felt, should start with what is good in the religions they find in their countries, as Our Lord started with a drink of cold water in converting a Samaritan, as Claudia began with a dream in understanding Christ far better than a rational husband, and as Paul began with an inscription to a pagan diety to convert two souls in Athens.

Sheen himself would actively help others to see the True Faith from the kernel of it contained in other beliefs. Here is another example from his autobiography:

During my teaching days at the university, I visited Madame Koo, the wife of the last ambassador from China to the United States before the Communist takeover. She told me she was not interested in Christianity because she considered that original sin was the most stupid doctrine she had ever heard of in her life. I asked her what religion she preferred. She told me she was a Buddhist. I then asked her to describe for me the eightfold path, which she did. When she had finished I said:

“If man is perfect, why do you think Buddha offered these ways of purification? Was it not because he saw that in human nature there were certain endemic evils, as well as emotions and instincts, which had to be controlled?”

Madame Koo saw the light and later on brought her Buddhism to perfection in Christianity.

He went on to say,

I have always contended in talking to missionaries that we are not so much to bring Christ to peoples as we are to bring Christ out of them…Christ is hidden in all world religions, though as yet His face is veiled as it was to Moses, who asked to see it.

I’ll wrap this post up with one of Archbishop Sheen’s videos that speaks of embracing all humanity to bring them the Truth.

Lord, I lack the master emotion of love. Help me to receive it and share the Good News to all.

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  • Sandy

    <3 I think in his work Merton did many things, but the most important was to touch the heart of the Wisdom traditions of Asian philosophy and further illuminate them through his own experience of Christ. His own experience of God deepened exactly because he met these remarkable individuals, and their experience as well was altered because they allowed it.Far too many today confuse respect for the other's traditions with abandoning God or somehow being unfaithful. You can respect the other's customs and traditions without agreeing with them or becoming one of them. When we forget to respect, we see all the various forms of violence that are tearing us apart as a faith community and as individuals. Respect creates the space for that still small voice to become real and change a situation.Thanks again, Frank.

  • Shannon

    This bit from Hardon makes me laugh: >>But also, because his ideas, it goes back already to the fifties and sixties.<<Given that Merton died in 1968, what did Hardon expect? The wisdom of the 90s?

  • Stefanie

    Great post, Frank!Especially good to be reminded of this which you quoted from the C.C.C.: "They should be convinced that the gospel is strong enough to penetrate any culture and enrich and strengthen it from within."Papa Ben said as much during his interview with the press on the plane as he was flying towards Great Britain last week. He was asked, "Can anything be done to make the Church as an institution, more credible and attractive to everyone?" His reply: "I would say that a Church that seeks to be particularly attractive is already on the wrong path because the Church does not work for her own ends, she does not work to increase numbers and thus power. The Church is at the service of another: she serves, not for herself, not to be a strong body (institution), rather she serves to make the proclamation of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths and great forces of love, reconciling love that appeared in this figure and that always comes from the presence of Jesus Christ. In this regard, the Church does not seek to be attractive in and of herself, but must be transparent for Jesus Christ to the the extent that she is not out for herself, as a strong and powerful body in the world, that wants power, but is simply the voice of another, she becomes truly transparent for the great figure of Christ and the great truth that He has brought to humanity. The power of love, in this moment, one listens, one accepts."

  • Frank

    What a great quote from Our Pope!

  • Adrienne

    Merton's work is very much of interest to me because most of my own friends have rejected the Catholic faith and prefer Eastern philosophies. Anything I can do to bridge the two without watering down the truth is more precious than gold to me.I just want to say please, let's be careful critizing Fr. John Hardon. He was no sourpuss. Those who knew him say he radiated Christ's peace and love. He did great work and his cause for canonization is underway. As far as I know Merton's is not. Personally, I admire Thomas Merton and love The Seven Storey Mountain and some of his other writings, but some of them also give me the sense that at least at the time of their writing he was not entirely standing on solid ground in his Christian faith while venturing into Eastern thought. I admire Merton as a man and fellow truth-seeker who found his way out of wilderness of the modern secular world into the love of Christ; but I don't venerate him as a saint, because I sense he was working at it like the rest of us but not there yet. Let's be careful not to canonize him before the Church does.

  • Frank

    Adrienne: Thanks for your comment. Your friends may be interested in John Wu's and Lou Tseng-Tsiangs work.

  • Adrienne

    I haven't heard of those. I'll check them out. Thanks, Frank. Also, I just wanted to say I just found your blog and I'm really enjoying it. I also get along well with mathematics and love Blaise Pascal. Nice to meet you!

  • Frank

    @Adrienne: Just saw this over at New Advent,A Ratzinger from Four Centuries Ago. In Beijing.

  • Brian Crane

    "This bit from Hardon makes me laugh: >>But also, because his ideas, it goes back already to the fifties and sixties.<<Given that Merton died in 1968, what did Hardon expect? The wisdom of the 90s?" Shannon, I can understand how that comes across, but if you read the whole comment (and it was an interview transcript rather than something he wrote) Fr. Hardon was asked about the new age movement. He traced it back to Merton and other Christian writers saying the new age movement ("it") goes back to the fifties and sixties.

  • Robert

    Sorry but I'll have to go with Fr Hardon on this one rather than Merton. Before you criticize Fr Hardon I would recommend you read his works and note that he was also Mother Theresa's spiritual director and one of her principal confessors. He was also an excellent and high caliber theologian- he and Merton were contemporaries. I wouldn't recommend treating Fr Hardon so flippantly because he was critical of Merton- he didn't make statements of that caliber with out a good reason.Here is a link to a short biography Hardon was very sound and knowledgeable about the affairs of the Church (much due to personal experience). Not only that he was willing to call a spade a spade as our Lord often did out of charity. Probably Merton was sincere but failed to recognize the value of orthopraxis- something very much in the mind of the Early Fathers whose mysticism he sought to reconcile with that of Zen and seems to actually believe they were similar or at least related experiences. Connecting Merton's situation with Carlson's is like comparing oranges and apples. from your article it doesn't appear that Carlson was advocating the US to take on Mao's perspectives and practices. It is a little different from Merton who felt that Eastern Religions had little to offer Catholicism in doctrine but much in experience and perspective. Such an attitude does not sit well with the teachings of the Church or the saints. It is of someone that does not highly value Catholic Tradition(or perhaps understand it). All legitimate traditions have their root in doctrine. From my understanding his earlier writings were sounder though.

  • Christian Mathis

    With all due respect to those who disagree with Frank on this subject, I must say that my own reading of Merton is that is very misunderstood, both by those on the Catholic side who seem to think he was a proponent of the new age movement, as well as those in the new age movement who seem to think he was a proponent of the new age movement. If one takes the time to read his works and study his history it appears to portray him as a priest and monk who was obedient to his superiors. It also shows a man who was open to learning from everyone, while being faithful to his own tradition.

  • Jo

    Glad I found this blog….I returned to the Church after many years estranged this evening. Glad to be home. :)

  • Frank

    Jo, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit! That is fabulous news. Here's a dedication for you,Non nobis Domine

  • Jo

    Thank you, Frank!