Half a century after his death, Thomas Merton remains one of Christianity’s most influential writers. His legacy calls us to analyse society’s problems in the context of prayerful reflection.
Thomas Merton, one of the 20th century’s most influential writers, died 50 years ago this weekTHIS week marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, one of the greatest Christian writers of the 20th century.
He was only 53 when he died on December 10 1968, electrocuted by a faulty fan after having a shower while attending a conference on monasticism in Bangkok.
He was America’s most famous monk whose classic autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had made him a household name and drawn generations to Catholicism.
The details of his life are well known: the boy raised on both sides of the Atlantic, an orphan in his teens, a lonely and self-destructive student at Oakham and Cambridge, dismissed by his British guardian to live in America, enjoying a bohemian lifestyle with his writer friends at New York’s Columbia University, finding his way into the Catholic Church as a young adult, becoming a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Kentucky, and finally dying at a conference of Christian and Buddhist monks in Bangkok.
By means of his writings, Merton radically transformed the way we look at the world and its problems.
Fifty years on, he is something of an industry, generating a library of articles, books and essays, making him probably better known now than he was during his lifetime.
What is often overlooked about Merton, however, is the remarkable change in his thinking from author of the best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain – a book that has never been out of print – and a raft of ‘spiritual’ classics, to the author of books, essays and letters on racism, nuclear weapons and militarism.
He argued that the experience of contemplation and solitude provided him with the openness, detachment and compassion needed to understand the problems of modern society.
The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas MertonAs novice master he even wanted the young monks at Gethsemani to learn something about the currents then buzzing throughout the Church and the world.
He put it bluntly: there could be no monastic prayer worth talking about without such exposure.
Merton was not a theologian in the scholastic sense, but rather someone who wrote out of a deeply centred life of faith and prayer.
He was more concerned with the ‘experience’ than the ‘idea’ of God.
He was, however, a theologian of resistance who helped prepare the ground for a tradition of Christian resistance to the principalities and powers, a tradition badly in need of further nourishment today.
The date of his death is important to note in relation to the changes which were occurring throughout the world at the time; 1968 was the year of the student uprisings in France and anti-Vietnam protests in the USA.
Thomas Merton would also want us to revisit the Church’s teaching on peace and the practice of non-violence for conflict resolution in an age of drones and scientific military technology
It was the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the murder of Robert Kennedy, and of violent unrest in the black ghettoes of American’s largest cities.
In Britain, it was the year of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
At home, Merton was greatly affected by the racial unrest and deeply influenced by the non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr.
In addition to his books, Merton carried on a voluminous correspondence with an extraordinary number of people – estimated at around 2,000 – from every conceivable background and cultural tradition.
Central to his thinking was his belief that the Constantinian era – the era of a Church/State alliance, in which theology served only to reinforce and provide ideological support for the dominant social system – was now over.
He believed that there was something intrinsically flawed about a Church which was so hopelessly compromised with the secular order that it was incapable of passing judgment upon it.
Not surprisingly, his writings sparked controversy and he was accused of compromising the monastic vocation. But he kept on writing.
No Man is an Island, by Thomas MertonSo what can we learn from Merton and what might he be saying and doing today? He would certainly be surprised that the issues and problems he tackled in his writings – the arms trade, the nuclear issue, racism and militarism – are still with us and shocked that we had made such little progress in dealing with them.
He would want us to be radical again by reclaiming our roots as pre-Constantinian Christians, constantly analysing society’s problems in the context of prayerful reflection.
He would also want us to revisit the Church’s teaching on peace and the practice of non-violence for conflict resolution in an age of drones and scientific military technology.
Finally, he would urge us to saturate our prayer life with the cries and sufferings of the victims of violence and warfare.
Our concerns, sadly, are still the same and the need for radical questioning and forensic analysis more urgent than ever before.
Thomas Merton may not have had the answers to all of our questions today, but more than anyone else over the past hundred years, I believe he prepared the groundwork for us, pointed us in the right direction and gave us the hope, inspiration and, above all, the spiritual tools, needed for the tasks.
He may once have thought of himself as a ‘Guilty Bystander’, but Merton today would be no bystander.
Instead, he would be in the thick of things: criticising, protesting, listening, praying and maybe even breaking the law.
As he once said: we have more to do than sing hymns while the ship goes down. Truly, a monk for all seasons.
Fr Gerry McFlynn, a priest of the Down and Connor Diocese, is project manager at the Irish Chaplaincy, a vice-president of Pax Christi UK and a member of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland.