LAST MONDAY was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of one of the most remarkable spiritual figures and writers of the twentieth century, the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He was born in France but brought up in his early life in America, where his mother died when he was very young; later his father moved to England and Tom was educated at Oakham School and for a time (an unhappy time) at Clare College, Cambridge. He returned to the United States and completed his education at Columbia University in New York. In his spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (published in England under the title Elected Silence), one of the great classics of spiritual writing of its age (a best seller and still in print) he describes how he was drawn to be converted to Catholicism, and then at the end of 1941 to become a monk at a very austere monastery in Kentucky.
From now his life is a narrative of contrasts: on the one hand he is a Trappist monk, largely avoiding verbal communication with his fellow monks and living in conditions which few monks or Religious would embrace today, and on the other, from the early 1950s, becoming a best-selling spiritual writer. In his early work he stresses what few did at that time: that all Christians, not just priests and Religious, can live holy lives and grow closer to God through prayer and contemplation (this was affirmed by the Second Vatican Council a decade later, but was striking in the 1950s).
As time went on he also wrote about the relationship between the Catholic faith and psychology, other faiths, and the need to reflect prayerfully on world events. In the 1960s, from his monastery and eventually the hermitage in the monastery grounds in which he was allowed to live in solitude he writes passionately about Christian commitment to peace and our rejection of war, in particular at that time the Vietnam War. For him the monk or nun living the Religious life has not run away from the world and its sufferings: rather, through contemplation, prayer and writing he or she is able to support the Church’s witness for truth.
His writings in the 1960s accompanied the renewal of the Church brought about by Vatican II, particularly in 1968 he was allowed to go on a trip from his monastery to encounter monks in the Buddhist tradition: he met the Dalai Lama in India and then went to a conference in Bangkok, where he was killed in an electrical accident in his hotel room. His influence was profound throughout the Catholic world and beyond, and today there are several societies devoted to him and his works are being translated into many languages. It’s best now that he should speak for himself; in these two examples of his writing (he was writing in the era before inclusive language), he is reflecting on two big themes of Advent and Christmas, the Incarnation and the quest for peace in the world: its clear teachings denouncing modern warfare:
‘Christian social action is first of all action that discovers religion in politics, religion in work, religion in social programs for better wages, Social Security, etc., not all to “win the worker for the Church,” but because God became man, because every man is potentially Christ, because Christ is our brother, and because we have no right to let our brother live in want, or in degradation, or in any form of squalor whether physical or spiritual. In a word, if we really understood the meaning of Christianity in social life we would see it as part of the redemptive work of Christ, liberating man from misery, squalor, subhuman living conditions, economic or political slavery, ignorance, alienation’ (Confessions of a Guilty Bystander p.81).
‘At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves. If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill them, they are still less sure when they may turn around and kill themselves. They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God. It is not only our hatred of others that is dangerous but also and above all our hatred of ourselves: particularly that hatred of ourselves which is too deep and too powerful to be consciously faced. For it is this which makes us see our own evil in others and unable to see it in ourselves.’ (New Seeds of Contemplation p. 112).
As Christians and others all over the world remember Merton this week, we pray that he may rest in peace.