Thomas Merton Speaks To The 21st Century

Thomas Merton Speaks To The 21st Century November 16, 2014

We recently observed the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

Back when I was in college, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such an event was simply inconceivable. It had been, after all, only 33 years earlier that the Soviet Premier, Nikita Krushchev, had proclaimed that communism would economically – and perhaps in other ways as well – bury the West (although some slight alternate translations have been proposed).

Not having grown up with fall-out shelters in school basements or nuclear bomb safety drills which drove us, incomprehensively, under our flimsy school desks for protection, it’s no doubt difficult for anyone under 35 or 40 to comprehend the power of that perceived threat. But it was very real and it was ever present.

Although the Catholic Church has a rich history and tradition of addressing social issues such as workplace alienation and economic justice – among the most noteworthy being Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical on Capital and Labor, Rerum Novarum – it’s clear that both the Church and most other major Christian traditions have always considered communism antithetical.

In Martin Luther King’s papers, for example, one can find that while he believed that Christianity is:

sympathetic to communism’s core concern with social justice, [he also] complained that with its ‘‘cold atheism wrapped in the garments of materialism, communism provides no place for God or Christ.’’

Today, only a handful of countries claim to be run by a communist party. But even these have, more or less, successfully encouraged market-driven economies that are flourishing, with China and Viet Nam being prime examples.

But while communism has taken a back seat in our minds, this generation has its own minefields, its own impending threats of doom.

So it was with great interest tonight that I ran across a 45-year old video that I think still speaks to us today.

One hour before the great, challenging, and sometimes problematic Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, was electrocuted in 1968 while visiting Bangkok, he gave a lecture which discussed the interplay between communism and the monastic life.

In a brief video excerpt from that lecture (embedded below), Merton concluded that one of communism’s best known “community” tenets – from each according to his ability, to each according to his need – is unworkable everywhere except in the monastic life.

Merton also observed that modern man – whether under capitalism or communism – often lives under conditions determined by somebody else.

Merton noted that even the Dalai Lama himself had made every effort to co-exist with communism (a condition imposed upon him), but that he had failed. Given this failure, the Dalai Lama, according to Merton, finally arrived at the hard conclusion that “everyone [must] stand on his own feet.”

But this, Merton maintained, is what Buddhism is all about, what the monastic life is all about, and, ultimately, what Christianity is all about – if you understand it in terms of grace, meaning that no one can ever again safely rely upon being supported by the power structures which may be destroyed at any moment by the political powers that be.

That’s as much a radical observation as it is, perhaps, a most practical one.

So it seems to me that what Merton had to say back in 1968 is applicable even today.

We seem, more and more each day, to feel less and less certain about our political and governing institutions. We feel bitter. We feel angry. And we feel alienated.

There is a suspicion that almost everything around us is swinging wildly out of control. And we are losing faith in just about every one of our man-made institutions – whether political, economic, or religious.

Now, whether any of this is accidental or intentional I don’t know. I do know, however, that the fear is very real and growing.

But I think that much good can arise.

For with our prayers, and with God’s grace, we just might be coming to the realization – as did the Dalai Lama so many years ago – that we can and should be learning to stand on our own feet, that we can and should be placing less reliance upon man-made institutions, and more and more upon His grace, love, and mercy.

I think that that was Merton’s point back then. And it contains much wisdom for today.

In any event, it’s certainly something to think and pray about during these ever turbulent times.



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  • MeanLizzie

    I agree with him about communism only working in a monastic setting — have actually written about that a few times. In a monastic setting it works b/c it is not compelled, but willingly embraced. Human choice matters.

    • Tom Zampino

      I couldn’t agree more