Thomas Merton, the famed spiritual writer, died on 10 December 1968. His writings are still as relevant as his life story is fascinating, particularly his treatment of ‘difference’, a word that ‘now commands an attention that would never have been possible fifty years ago,’ writes Michael Barnes SJ. The fiftieth anniversary of Merton’s death, particularly as it falls in Advent, is an opportunity to contemplate with him the action of the Spirit.
It is fifty years since the death of Thomas Merton, the finest spiritual writer of his generation and a prominent icon of inter-religious dialogue. By a strange chance, an even more influential Christian writer, the Reformed theologian Karl Barth, died the same day – 10 December 1968.
Maybe one way to celebrate a remarkable writer who continues to inspire admiration and controversy in equal measure is to ponder on a few words in his autobiography when he speaks of the day he entered the monastery – the same date, remember, that he died.
Liturgically speaking, you could hardly find a better time to become a monk than Advent. You begin a new life, you enter into a new world at the beginning of a new liturgical year. And everything that the Church gives you to sing, every prayer that you say in and with Christ in His Mystical Body is a cry of ardent desire for grace, for help, for the coming of the Messiah, the Redeemer.
Quite how the Spirit prompts us, evoking memory, awaking echoes, stimulating links and connections, is infinitely mysterious. But contemplative attention cannot be separated from ascetical discipline, any more than any act of communication can afford to overlook the painstaking craft of working with words, whether written or spoken.
Both Merton and Barth dealt in very different literary genres, but what they produced were truly works of art, magnificent testaments to the religious imagination that continue to inspire and entrance. This is no mere artifice, a contrived rhetoric that seeks to make a case against some imagined other. What they share is the instinct, manifest in the lives of contemplatives in every religious tradition, that they are confronted by the magnificent otherness of Creation that is only ever mediated through created things. Yet, paradoxically, in their being grasped and responding to the empowering experience of the Word that is beyond words, speech becomes possible, a halting speech no doubt, but one that – for the Christian contemplative, certainly – is understood as a Word that is addressed to all manner of people and in all manner of idioms.
Maybe that’s what Merton came to see.
The books matter less than the Spirit that inspires them. The tragedy of a life cut short is only tragic in the sense that the perplexing intuition of a fullness of all things in God can only ever be glimpsed and never fully articulated.
The tragedy lies in not learning the lesson of Advent, that human lives are founded not on the assurance of what can be safely spoken but on the hope that continues to wonder at the beauty and mystery of each moment of Creation. For Merton the monk, what made such a contemplation possible was the rhythm of the liturgy and the annual cycle of Christian prayer, the ascetical ‘platform’ on which the Spirit could act.
See link to the full and inspiring article by Michael Barnes SJ is Professor of Interreligious Relations at the University of Roehampton: Thomas Merton – the embrace of Difference in www.thinkingfaith.org