Disclosure: I do not practice or align myself with any religion. I have in the past, I no longer do. This blog is not about what I do or don’t believe.
I’ve never known when someone would come into my life and make a difference. There have been many, both good and bad. Many have shaped who and what I’ve become. Such influential encounters have happened more times than I can remember. One of those people is the subject of today’s Frat Friday blog.
I’ve never met this man. He was accidently killed in 1968 during my sophomore year in college. At that time, I had never heard of him, and if I had, I would’ve had no interest in him, his life, or his outlook. I discovered Thomas Merton in the late 90s, almost 30 years after his death. I was inspired and intrigued by his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948. Through his writing, I met the right person at the right time.
Thomas Merton was one of the most prolific spiritual writers of the 20th Century, a Cistercian Monk, and a mystic. In 1915, he was born in France of a New Zealander father and American Quaker mother, both artists. His mother died in 1921 and he was raised by her family. Merton wrote and published more than 60 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice, and pacifism. He wrote many essays and reviews. Another 30 (or so) of his works were published posthumously and many other of his writings have been released to the public.
What impressed me about this man was his complexity, his courage, and what I see as his wisdom. His life journey and the decisions he made will likely prevent him from ever being canonized a saint by the Catholic Church. Yet those foibles are exactly what attracted me to him twenty years ago, and continue to influence my thinking. The man was a real person – a human being who behaved like one. If they did make him a saint, I think he would be among the most human of that group.
In the early 1940s, Merton went to a Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, knocked on the door, and told whoever answered that he wanted to be one of them. Trappist Monks are strict aesthetics and followers of the Order of Saint Benedict. Merton chose this life and lived it until his death. The Frank Sinatra song, I Did It My Way, comes to mind despite the obedience pledge of Trappists.
Beginning about 1937 during his conversion to Catholicism, Merton was fascinated by what he learned about the eastern religions. From then on, he studied Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sufism.
His primary interest was in Zen, particularly as it applied to Christianity, from his point of view. Within limits, Merton supported interfaith understanding. He pioneered dialogue with the likes of the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, the Thai Buddhist monk Buddhadasa, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Many of Merton’s books on Zen Buddhism and Taoism are still in print.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” ~ Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island
My favorite description of him was by Paul Hendrickson in the Washington Post on December 22, 1998: “Thomas Merton: that bohemian and poet and extreme sensualist, lover of jazz, prolific man, traveler of the new idea. A 20th-century prophet and mystic. Not a theologian so much as a kind of freelance spiritual thinker.”
While I can’t honestly say that Merton makes as much of a difference in my life today, he did at a time when he was the right person with the right thinking. He had prepared for me, fifty years before I needed it. I am not sure exactly what it is that still holds my admiration for and curiosity about him, but I suspect it is how he lived within his human condition.