A little tribute to Thomas Merton, a monk who for many became a ‘spiritual friend’

a bare branch of a rose-white text2
I came into the kitchen, where I love to sit and write; especially when it is quiet and no one else is around. It is sunny, winter trees stand tall, the field in front of the house rests in its greenness and the wind, though I cannot see it moving through the trees, hushes around the house with a fierce strength making itself heard. The Sun is even warm through the window as it falls into the kitchen on the flowers that silently stand here next to me.

I’m thinking of Thomas Merton and his influence on my life. Today is 100 years since his birth, so I am giving thanks to God for the very fact that Merton was born and marked the world with many grace-filled words and thoughts. These words of his have been planted like seeds and they are still blossoming in many unlikely places. Yet I have somehow outgrown him, but not in a way that he is no longer valuable or influential anymore. I don’t think you can outgrow the giants, like he was, in such a way. More in a way that there was a time a few years ago, a season, where reading Thomas Merton was unlocking depths in me that I did not know how else to address but through poetry; you know those depths that when you start to explore them you think no one would understand had you tried to put it into words. Yet when I read Merton to my own puzzlement it seemed at the time that ‘he’ was reading ‘me’, he understood, and perhaps he gave me a language for what until that point was beyond language, unable to be spoken. That season is now gone; I no longer ‘depend’ on him, or rather no longer read him as often as then. But the echo of his words can still fill me with joy, they carry life and truth in them, they carry meaning above and beyond all rational meanings: they carry God. And that I think is his greatness.

I initially encountered Merton’s writings after the summer 2008 when I came home from the World Youth Day in Australia. I bought a ‘Thomas Merton Book of Hours’, with thoughts from his many books, as I wanted to organise my prayer a little. At times I would pray the ‘dawn prayer’ at noon, the ‘dusk’ (evening) or ‘dark’ (night) prayer much after the time they were allocated to, but I tried. Gradually Merton’s thoughts started to shape my beliefs; I would remember his words as I was walking in the garden, among the trees, observing the flowers, when I walked in the city, when I studied, or just when I looked through the window, eyes gazing at the sky. Merton started to influence my world, and the way I see the reality started to change under his guidance, inspiring my own reflections that were often an echo of something he had already said. That led me to discovery of many of his books, to which at one time I would have returned quite often even if I have read them a long time ago.

The thing with Merton is that, even though there possibly is a real danger for all of us influenced by him to make him ‘an idol’ or idealise him in order for him to suit our own image of him, that in all effect he never distracted me from the real search – that of uncovering of my true self, and the search for God. On the contrary, he facilitated the search. And perhaps that is why I can say ‘I outgrown’ him for it was never really about him. He took my hand, showed me something of what he had discovered in his own journey with God, and then released my hand to go and walk further; his voice still echoing inside my soul from time to time.

There are two main thoughts, almost like principles, that stand out for me as something I learned from him. First, gradually in his life he came to realise that contemplation is not necessarily an escape from the world but rather that the world has to have a place in our contemplation, it has to be embraced by it. Contemplation in this way becomes a means of loving the world, a means of conversion, if you like. That is strongly reflected in Merton’s writings when he dialogued with those from various religious traditions and used his pen to be a voice for peace.
In Merton’s words:

“The true contemplative is not less interested than others in normal life, not less concerned with what goes on in the world, but more interested, more concerned. The fact that he or she is a contemplative makes them capable of a greater interest and a deeper concern. The contemplative has the inestimable gift of appreciating at their real worth values that are permanent, authentically deep, human, truly spiritual and even divine. Their mission is to be a complete and whole person, with an instinctive and generous need to further the same wholeness in others, and in all humanity. They arrive at this, however, not by superior gifts and talents, but by the simplicity and poverty which are essential to their state because these alone keep one traveling in the way that is spiritual, divine and beyond understanding.”

Traditionally one became a contemplative by joining a contemplative order, as Merton did by joining the Cistercians. And that is still true to this day. And yet Merton was among those who brought about the awareness that contemplative life extends beyond the monastic walls. This links with the second thought, an insight, I gained through Merton. Namely, Merton explained that a monastic journey is not so much about the externals as much as it is a search for God. So it seems that no matter what walk of life we are called to live, we can be on our own journey closer towards God. Perhaps that is also one of the reasons why at one time, a few years ago, I entertained the idea of monasticism as attractive, and yet monasticism proved to be just a means, a tool, for facilitating this deep innate search that springs from our very being.

So now as I still sit in this kitchen, pondering about Merton, about the change in direction of what I thought I want and need, one thing is still clear. God was alluring me at the time I was reading Merton’s works, and He does so still. And that my dear friends is my tribute not only to a man who influenced so many with his authenticity, beauty and clarity of his writings, but to his God too, whom Merton so eagerly loved and searched. This God still searches the depths of our hearts, and allures us with His beauty; sometimes directly, sometimes through nature, sometimes through other people, always through love. Merton is a testament that with all the turmoil in the world and in our own lives, sometimes things turn just right: through a soul that with all its weaknesses has committed its life into the loving hands of God.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 31st January 2015)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

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