The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton’s witness and wisdom can help those of us seeking to integrate contemplation and action today. Who would have thought that a cloistered monk, writing from behind the gated boundaries of the austere Cistercian order, would become a counter-culture hero, the “conscience of the peace movement,” as Daniel Berrigan called him, and a spiritual teacher to millions?
Merton first published a spiritual autobiography narrating his conversion to Catholicism and the monastic life entitled The Seven Storey Mountain. It’s a book about a sincere spiritual seeker turning his back on the contradictions and alienation of modern life in favor of the disciplined, sacred severity of the monastery. Merton’s spiritual awakening accelerated while on a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane, in Louisville, Kentucky, the Trappist monastery he later joined. He described a sense of unity and wholeness about his first days there; he declared that the monastery is “the center of America.” He wrote, “I had been wondering what was holding this country together, what was keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart.” And, he wrote, “It is places like this monastery.”
Merton published over 60 books in many genres. His poetry appeared in the New Yorker; his essays in Harpers; there’s a retrospective exhibit of his writing at Columbia University right now. Much to the chagrin of Catholic conservatives, his voice beamed with laser-like spiritual precision into the many social crises facing America in the tumultuous decades of the 50s and 60s. Voices on the left chastised him for not becoming more involved in the social movements; voices on the right chastised him for writing about social concerns at all. His essays on the Vietnam War, the nuclear escalation with Russia, the civil rights movement, and nonviolence have become must reads for Christians thinking about how their faith relates to political concerns. Merton also functioned as a spiritual director, mentor, and letter correspondent with many of the most significant activists, thinkers, and religious leaders of his day. From his cell of monastic solitude, he wrote letters back and forth with folk singer Joan Baez, revolutionary Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, the feminist eco-theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther, psychoanalyst and writer Erich Fromm, Aldous Huxley, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and many more.
On the surface, Thomas Merton’s life would seem to perpetuate the stereotype that the spiritual life is separate from the active life. That Mary and Martha have nothing in common.His choice to spurn the “world” in favor of solitude and silence can be perceived as throwing in the towel on the “lower” active life in favor of a “higher” spiritual calling. Merton admitted later that when he entered the monastery he viewed the cloistered life as a way to flee the world’s evils in pursuit of heaven’s treasure. He confessed that the original notoriety he gained from the immense popularity of the Seven Storey Mountain was based on a false distinction between “the world” and the spirit. Even though the book sold copies into the millions and was chosen by National Review as one of the best 100 non-fiction books of the century, Merton himself downplayed the book’s importance. Seven years after entering the monastery, he wondered in his book The Sign of Jonas if the “world that he once despised was not instead a projection caused by his own defects.” Many years later, he had these self-deprecating words to say: “Due to a book I wrote 30 years ago, I have myself become a sort of stereotype of the world-denying contemplative—the man who spurned New York, spat on Chicago, and tromped on Louisville, heading for the woods with Thoreau in one pocket, John of the Cross in another, and holding the Bible open at the Apocalypse.”
As Merton continued in monastic life, however, he lit upon the paradoxical resolution of the age-old tension between contemplation and action. On the one hand, he became more and more drawn to the hermit life. As it turned out, even the Trappists did not prove solitary enough for his search. By 1968, the year of his death, even though he already had a hermitage of his own, countless visitors were flocking to see him, including Martin Luther King Jr, who had scheduled a retreat at the Abbey. Yet Merton had already started to cast his eye out to California and New Mexico and Alaska for a different location to live and be alone. At the same time, it was Merton’s intense and ever-deepening commitment to silence and solitude that taught him about his inextricable connectedness with the world.
He stood on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky while on a break from the monastery walls, and he had an epiphany of his own divine, radiant, ordinariness. He described this experience in a beloved passage from the book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Having looked around at the passersby, he wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to each other even though we were total strangers. The whole illusion of a separate, holy existence is a dream. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God, that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” Contemplation, for Merton, evolved in his life to be not something only that monks did, but an awakening to the divine unity of reality that all could taste.
Thomas Merton matters for emerging Christians, most of all, because we are busy. And unless we ground our busyness in practice, prayer, reflection, silence, solitude, worship, and attentiveness to the traditions of Christian spirituality, we will simply be bees buzzing in all directions without purpose and clarity. Those of us starting innovative churches and helming creative ministries will find ourselves lacking depth and deficient in wisdom. We must ensure that we seek salvation from the limitless well of God’s grace rather than our frenetic and compulsive commitment to activity and achievement. How we resolve the tension of prayer and action might just be the question at the heart of sustainable spiritual vitality for Emergence Christianity.