This weekend, Thomas Merton would have been 100 years old. Therefore I felt it was fitting to reflect upon the impact he had on me (and so many others) through his writing. Merton was born on January 31, 1915 and he died somewhat young, on December 10, 1968. In between he lived a rather full life as a Trappist monk, known as Fr. Louis within the monastery.* He never hid his brokenness, nor thought of himself as holy. He exposed his ‘feet of clay,’ an often sarcastic wit, an ability to shake up the social norms with his growing sense of social justice, a yearning for the feminine (his mother died when he was very young, something he never really got over), and a quest for justice in various social issues. All of these characteristics were fed by his insatiable hunger for God. With a continual desire for solitude and contemplation he became very self-aware. He was a man of deep prayer and love which was obvious in his obedience to God’s call. And that is why I think he was indeed holy.
Merton was eventually given permission to live in a hermitage on the grounds of the monastery. However, given his spiritual connection to the world it is almost fitting that he died outside the monastery while in Thailand on a trip which culminated in a religious conference where he was to speak. He was a brilliant man, but he never ceased to be starkly aware of his own struggles and weaknesses. What made him so special is that he managed to always keep his eyes and ears on God such that he could follow a call to “stick his neck out” for the work of the gospel. I do not think he could have contained his thoughts and beliefs if he wanted to do so.
We can learn so very much from Thomas Merton. However, I want to focus on the passion with which he lived. He had passion which was so great that he suffered from a type of loneliness that was not about the lack of people so much as it was a true longing for God. He wanted to know God fully so he could love Him fully, and he sought to express this love through his writing, especially in his desire for justice and peace. This passion is a grace which we, too, should pray to have in our own spiritual life. For what do we yearn passionately? Do we pray asking God to help us work at that which is our passion? While we may never have a ‘4th and Walnut’ experience like Merton, we need to tap into that for which we have most passion because it is there that God dwells deep within our hearts.
While not everyone is a writer as gifted as Merton, and while not everyone is called to be a social activist in the public eye, each of us is called to work for justice by writing with the story of our lives. In other words, we are called to live the gospel in the way that is most suited to the situations of our lives and our unique set of traits. Merton was gifted in prayer and in eloquence. He had a thick skin about the criticism he garnered. But even when he faltered, he knew he needed to stay true to his call, living the gospel as he was created to live it, thus glorifying God. We, too, are called to glorify God with our lives.
May we ask for the intercession of Thomas Merton so that we might find and live our passion! May we learn to be our true self through prayer, realizing that while we are not perfect, we are very loved by God! May we grow in love for God so that everything we do is oriented to the gospel! May we be peacemakers in thought, word, and deed! And may we follow the way of Christ, becoming instruments of healing through our loving actions! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* A good, short biography is found at http://www.law.louisville.edu/cardinallawyer/node/61. If you want more details about Merton's early life, you can read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which only covers the time up until he entered the monastery. There are many good books on Merton that one can find to read more about him. You can find some suggestions of Merton's writings on my book list found at http://www.catanesesd.com/books-about-prayer.html and http://www.catanesesd.com/micheles-book-corner.html
**The quote is from page 27 of Love and Living, a compilation of essays by Thomas Merton, edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Br. Patrick Hart (a fellow monk).
The icon is Holy World Evangelist Thomas Merton, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/1-holy-world-evangelist-thomas-merton-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The photo of Gethsemani Monastery was part of an article actually unrelated to Thomas Merton. Here is the credit:The Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, Ky. (Peter Smith, The Courier-Journal)
The next photo was one I took in Bath, England.
The photo of Thomas Merton is from the monastery archives and can be found at http://www.monks.org/index.php/monks-pages/thomas-merton. This site includes another biography of Merton as well.