Pope Francis on Merton: ‘Man of dialogue’
When Pope Francis was choosing four Americans to cite in his speech to the US Congress assembly in New York, he had plenty to pick from. That he decided to pick Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and more so Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton says a lot about him.
Lincoln and King stand big in American history; even schoolchildren know who they are. But Day and Merton are perhaps familiar only to Americans who are Catholics, and not even to all of them. Day had her day caring for the dispossessed; Merton, a Trappist monk (a member of the contemplative Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance that follows the Benedictine Rule), was an intellectual and prolific writer known especially among those in the contemplative religious life and those with contemplative and literary inclinations.
Let me get ahead of myself by saying that because Merton, long before ecumenism and religious dialogue became catchwords, had made personal inroads into non-Christian faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism, Hasidic Judaism, Sufism, etc.), dialogued with them and soaked himself in them, there was the question: Was Merton, a monk, still a Catholic? The same question is asked of Pope Francis: Is he still a Catholic? It could be a left-handed compliment because of his inclusive ways.
When Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” first came out in 1948, little did he, his superiors and publishers know it would become a blockbuster. It is sometimes considered a modern-day “Confessions of St. Augustine.”
I think I first read it as “Elected Silence” (British edition). I will not attempt to describe its effect on me. Years ago, while on a journalism program in the United States, I stopped by a cavernous hall full of old books on sale. I found a cloth-bound 1949 edition of “The Seven Storey Mountain” and bought it for $3. Books by Merton are in the dozens, published while he was alive and after his death, but those about him are just as many. I have a small pile.
So why Merton? Pope Francis called Merton “a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” He mentioned the word “dialogue” 12 times in his speech.
“On the last day of January 1915,” wrote Merton, “under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.” In his speech, Pope Francis quoted the next lines of Merton’s first paragraph, how he “was the image of the world into which I was born.” Had he lived a long life, Merton would be 100 this year.
Born of a New Zealander father and an American mother, Merton had an only brother whose plane crashed into the sea during World War II. Merton joined Our Lady of Gethsemane Trappist Abbey in Kentucky in 1941 and became Fr. Louis OCSO. (You can have a Trappist experience in Our Lady of the Philippines Trappist Abbey in Guimaras.)
Merton was 53 when he died by accidental electrocution while at a religious conference in Bangkok in 1968. (I know two Benedictines who were there.) The conference was a highlight of his spiritual journey into Asia and his dialogues with people of other faiths. One can read about these dialogues in “The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton” published after his death. His eastward voyage had taken him to Calcutta, New Delhi, the Himalayas, Madras, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
After many books on prayer, contemplation, the monastic life, poetry and even a “macaronic journal” (“The Sign of Jonas,” “The Ascent to Truth,” “The Tears of the Blind Lions,” “My Argument with the Gestapo,” among them), Merton came out with “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” (1965), which he described as “a personal version of the world in the 1960s … an implicit dialogue with other minds, a dialogue in which questions are asked…” Culled from his notebooks, the conjectures ranged from nuclear arms, the Cuban crisis, and Marx to the Church and the world.
Merton must have left such a profound impression on Pope Francis (22 years Merton’s junior) that almost 50 years after Merton’s death he would bring up the name at the US Congress Assembly, pointing out Merton’s “capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”
Said the Pope: “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
Dialogue and that “contemplative style” should remain in style today. Didn’t the Pope say that walls should be broken down instead of built?
In her “Merton: A Biography,” Monica Furlong wrote: “One of the most influential Christian figures of the 20th century, Thomas Merton was a spiritual writer and poet, a social activist, a Trappist monk vowed to a life of silence and solitude. Yet he was also a dynamic, flesh-and-blood man, dedicated to his search for a meaningful existence, at the core of which was a profound love for God.”
Much of what Merton did and “broke down” would have been lost to my generation had he not been a writer. In “Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton and the Vocation of Writing” edited by Robert Inchausti (my latest acquisition), one finds a compilation of Merton’s thoughts on writing and not writing.
Included in Merton’s “Raids on the Unspeakable” (1965) is his message read to young Latin-American poets gathered in Mexico City in 1964 wherein he said—and this stumped me: “We are stronger than the bomb.”
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