Saturday, May 12, 2007

Thomas Merton

Although I've mentioned Thomas Merton in previous posts, I've never elaborated on his life, his profound spirituality, or who he was. For a searcher like myself Merton is a beacon in the night, a pair of eyes that have witnessed something extraordinary, and report it back to those of us whose truncated vision cannot pierce the walls of the hidden God.

Briefly: Thomas Merton was born in 1915 in Prades, France but immigrated to the United States that same year due to difficulties brought on by WWI. Baptized in the Anglican Church with parents who were mostly irreligious, Merton, during his youth, felt a strange attraction to the emptied monasteries that stood close to his humble homestead. At the age of eighteen, while on visitation to Rome, he began exploring the local churches, but never attended mass. Instead, he appreciated their interior, and was especially drawn to a mosaic of Christ located on the apse of one particular church. In 1938 Merton began his graduate studies at Columbia University, and in that same year was introduced to a Hindu monk by a close associate. Expecting this monk to impart the wisdom of his Hindu tradition, he instead suggested to Merton that he read The Confessions of St. Augustine as well as the Imitation of Christ. Surprised the monk had recommended Catholic literature, Merton read both books and began to pray regularly. In 1939 he applied but was quickly turned down for a novitiate with the Franciscans; and although he felt dispirited by the rejection, Merton continued to follow his attraction to a priestly vocation. In 1941 he arrived at the Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky and spent three days in the guest house of the abbey awaiting acceptance to the order, and on December 14 was welcomed as a postulant into the Trappist community. Later, in March of 1942 he was accepted as a novice monk, and in 1949 was ordained a priest on Ascension Thursday.

His untimely death came in Bangkok on December 10, 1968 when he touched a poorly grounded electric fan as he stepped out of his bath. Ironically, towards the end of his autobiography,The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton writes a mysterious speech spoken by God, "I will give you what you desire. I will lead you into solitude.... Everything that touches you shall burn you, and you will draw your hand away in pain, until you have withdrawn yourself from all things. Then you will be all alone....That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men."

Thomas Merton was a man who saw God in everything and everyone and was absolutely befuddled by the racist temperament of the America of his time. He began a dialogue between Buddhist monks and Catholic monks, when he befriended a very young Dalai Lama, that continues to this very day.

"There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."
- Thomas Merton

"The very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God's mercy to me.”
- Thomas Merton

The words of a true mystic.

Take care,

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