During a speech to a joint session of the United States Congress in September 2015, Pope Francis singled out an American monk named Thomas Merton as one of four great Americans who “offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality.”
Placing him alongside such notable figures as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day, Pope Francis described Merton as follows: “Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
This is an accurate and beautiful description of who Thomas Merton was and what he taught. Yet, compared to the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., he’s a relative unknown. While there are many people, both Catholic and not, who continue to buy and read his books, the vast majority of people in this country have little idea who Merton was and what he did.
Thomas Merton lived from 1915-1968. His early life was tumultuous. He lost both parents young, and lived in numerous places — Bermuda, France, England — before moving to New York City to go to Columbia University. He was intellectually and spiritually restless during his time at Columbia, and he gradually became interested in Roman Catholicism, having come under the influence of some prominent Catholic thinkers and writers.
In 1938, at the age of 25, Merton became Catholic. Not long after his conversion, he felt a call to the priesthood and to life in a monastery. He was especially attracted to the Trappists, a monastic order characterized by silence and strict obedience to the sixth-century Rule of St Benedict, and in 1941, he entered the Trappist monastery of the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky.
Seven years after entering the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton published an autobiography titled The Seven Storey Mountain that described his conversion to Catholicism and his decision to become a monk. To the surprise of many, including his publisher, the book became a bestseller, selling an incredible 600,000 copies in the first year alone.
Merton would go on to write many books, most of which continue to be in print. Until the late 1950s, his writings were primarily about prayer and contemplation, and these books had a vast readership. Something changed in the late 1950s, however. Whereas Merton’s early books tended to view the world as something “out there” — outside the walls of the monastery, and as something pernicious — he devoted the last 10 years of his life to writing about issues in the world.
What changed? On March 18, 1958, Merton had an experience that appears to have transformed his understanding of the world and the people around him. He described this experience in detail in his 1965 book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Standing at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville, gazing at the people around him, Merton “was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”
Whereas he had previously supposed that he was separate from others by virtue of his living in isolation from the world in a monastery, he was here struck by the realization that he was in fact profoundly united to them. This union was more than simply a feeling of a shared humanity.
Merton’s eyes were opened to see his fellow humans as God saw them, to see them as immeasurably loved, to see them as so loved by God that God “gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race!” He describes the change in his outlook towards others movingly:
[I]t was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.
In seeing others as God saw them, Merton recognized that his own existence was inextricably bound to theirs.
It is no accident that we see Merton around this date turn his gaze more consciously to the world, focusing on the injustices of a humanity seemingly bent on fragmentation. The monastery separated him from the world physically, but Merton realized that the walls of the monastery did not compromise his essential unity with all humanity. And it was this realization that led Merton not only to write on issues of justice — with particular focus on the dangers of war and the problems of racism — but also to engage in dialogue with a wide range of people from other Christian traditions and other faiths.
Merton came to see that to refuse to dialogue with others, including dialogue with our adversaries, was to fall prey to the logic of a world that fragments rather than unites. For Christians, who are called to unite and to see others as Christ sees them, dialogue is a necessity. And Merton argued that our starting point must be respect for others, who merit being given a hearing even when their positions are opposed to our own. To do otherwise is to be guilty of what Merton calls the “heresy of individualism” — the individualism that causes rather than resolves conflict.
“The true way is just the opposite,” Merton writes. “The more I am able to affirm others, to say ‘yes’ to them in myself, by discovering them in my self and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.”
Merton argued that the truly Christian way to approach others is to approach them from the standpoint of openness and acceptance, to begin from the standpoint of affirmation rather than immediate condemnation. He was clear about the limitations of this approach. There is, he admitted, much that we cannot affirm or accept. But the point is that we must begin by saying yes where we can. For the moment we do that, the moment we approach the other on the solidly Christian ground of love, that person ceases to be an adversary and instead becomes a sister, a brother, an equal.
In 1968, Thomas Merton died accidentally and tragically while in Asia engaging in precisely the kind of dialogue of love to which he exhorted his readers. Thomas Merton’s writings on racism and on war remain unfortunately relevant and important today, 50 years after his death.
Moreover, in a society that seems to be increasingly polarized, in which demonization rather than dialogue too often prevails, Merton’s teaching on dialogue and his example of engaging in loving dialogue merits more attention now than ever.