From our service on August 1, 2021, a story of the inspiring life of Thomas Merton, as recounted by Colin Mills.
This week, Pastor Eric’s sermon focuses on spiritual growth, and developing a mature religious perspective that sees value in many spiritual traditions. Few people have better exemplified this trajectory than Thomas Merton. Taking the strict vows of a Trappist monk, his faith grew broader as it grew deeper. He went from looking inward to looking outward at issues of social justice, and he embraced the value of Eastern religious practice while remaining true to his Catholic faith.
Merton was born in France in 1915. Though he was baptized Anglican, his parents were not very religious and he considered himself agnostic. After his mother died when he was 6, young Thomas bounced between European boarding schools and his grandparents’ home on Long Island while his father pursued artistic success. His adolescence got worse at age 15 when his father also died.
Trying to get his life in order after a drunken and unhappy year at Cambridge, he moved back in with his grandparents and attended Columbia. There he found friends and mentors, and got serious about religion. Reading about Roman Catholicism, he found himself drawn to it. In time, he felt powerfully called to the priesthood.
Seeking a sign from God, he opened his Bible randomly and found a verse from Luke’s Gospel: “Behold, thou shalt be silent.” Heeding the call, he joined the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941. He would remain with the order for the rest of his life.
Merton lived by the mantra “To write is to think and to live — even to pray.” During his lifetime, Merton wrote over 50 books. His spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, became a surprise best-seller and encouraged thousands of young men to consider monastic life.
As Merton gained fame for his works, however, he increasingly felt that his inward-focused life at the abbey led him to ignore the problems of the outside world. In the turbulent 1960s, his writings advocated for peace, racial harmony, and social equality. Merton considered these views consistent with his Christian beliefs. In a 1965 essay, he wrote that Christ’s “place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated.”
Merton corresponded with civil rights leaders and peace activists. He called the civil rights movement “the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.” Catholic priest and anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan called Merton the conscience of the peace movement.
Also during this time, Merton began exploring Eastern spirituality. He had first become interested in college, when he met a Hindu monk. Now in later life, he began seriously studying Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, and other faiths. He engaged in interfaith dialogues, rare in Catholicism then, with Eastern spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama, D.T. Suzuki, and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
Though Merton did not subscribe to their doctrines, he felt that the practices of Eastern faiths, especially Buddhism, provided valuable perspective on Western traditions. He found Eastern religions open to mysticism in a way modern Christianity was not. He saw parallels between Zen Buddhism and early Christian mystics like the Desert Fathers.
By exploring the connections between Eastern and Western religions, Merton hoped to restore the “original unity” of all people as children of God. “If I can unite… the thought of the East and the West,” he wrote, “I will create in myself a reunion of the divided Church, and from that unity in myself can come the exterior and visible unity of the Church. For, if we want to bring together East and West, we cannot do it by imposing one upon the other. We must contain both in ourselves and transcend them both in Christ.”
Sadly, Merton’s life was cut short by a tragic accident during a pilgrimage to the Far East at the age of 53.
Merton’s legacy is celebrated by Eastern and Western religious leaders alike. The Dalai Lama said Merton understood Buddhism more profoundly than any Christian he had ever known. Pope Francis praised Merton as “a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
If you wish to develop a more mature spirituality, look to the example of Thomas Merton, who understood the deep truths that transcend individual faiths and connect us all. As he told his fellow monks during his Eastern pilgrimage: “My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”
Watch this segment on video (starting at 3:14):