For reasons that have always remained a mystery to me, some Catholics have viewed Father Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk and best-selling author, with suspicion. Any remaining cloud of doubt was unequivocally lifted on Sept. 24, 2015, when Pope Francis addressed a historic joint session of the U.S. Congress during his first apostolic visit to North America. In that now-famous address, the pope named four “great Americans” whom he held up as models of Christian living for contemporary disciples. These were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
Pope Francis introduced Merton as someone who “remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people.” He added: “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.” It is very likely that this latter point was one of the greatest sore subjects for the Merton naysayers in recent decades — that is, some took issue with the fact that Merton was unafraid to reach across ecumenical and interreligious boundaries, thereby both anticipating the pastoral call of the Second Vatican Council and then, later, living out that very same call.
Although Pope Francis highlights the life and legacy of Merton as a source of inspiration and guidance for the whole Church, I would like to explore some of the ways that Merton offers ministerial priests insight, wisdom and guidance in today’s world. The four categories Pope Francis names as key characteristics of Merton’s legacy serve as a helpful framework and are worthy of greater examination. These themes include prayer, challenging certitudes, dialogue and peacemaking.
Thomas Merton is best known for his early writings on prayer and contemplation. After his surprise best-selling spiritual autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain” (1948), his next best-known book is “New Seeds of Contemplation” (1949; 1961). This book, along with others like “Thoughts in Solitude” (1958) and “No Man Is an Island” (1955), offer reflections on the Christian life of interiority and faith. While today we recognize that all women and men have what Lumen Gentium describes as a “universal call to holiness,” few Catholics in the American Church of the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s would have assumed that a personal prayer life was something that pertained to anyone who wasn’t a priest or religious sister or brother. Merton upended that presumption, suggesting that the world in which all women and men find themselves was in fact a world in which God seeks connection and relationship with all people.
Rather than imagine that prayer is something that operates according to our terms, Merton invited all people to consider God as the one who seeks us first, and that we can cultivate practices of attunement to that loving presence of God that is always near us. “We must learn,” Merton wrote in “New Seeds,” “to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His inscrutable love seeks our awakening.”
Even as professional ministers, at times we can slip into old habits of viewing prayer as something we control. We are the ones who open up the breviary, we are the ones who preside at the Eucharist, and we are the ones who run the show. Among other insights about prayer, Merton reminds us that God is in control — in fact, it is God who runs the show. Theologically, this is something we learned in seminary and might know intellectually. It is not we who consecrate the Eucharist, but Christ in the Spirit. It is not we who forgive sins, but God who forgives sin. It is not we who heal the broken and brokenhearted, but the Holy Spirit who heals through our ministry. This, too, is the case with prayer.
Rather than convince ourselves that we must seek God out in particular circumstances and in special locations, can we come to recognize the relationship God has inaugurated with us? That relationship is the very grounding and source of our ministry and life. As priests, we know well that we cannot give to others what we do not have ourselves, and this especially includes spiritual inspiration and guidance. Merton’s writings offer us an opportunity for renewal on this front, allowing us to return to the basics of discovering ourselves in the act of discovering God in prayer.
One of the things that has made Pope Francis extraordinarily popular with many (as well as unpopular with a small handful of others) is his willingness to forgo the “we have always done it this way” attitude so commonplace in leadership structures of the Church. For Pope Francis, the priority must always be the Gospel. This was also the case with Merton who, in the face of pressing social issues and concerns of his day, preferred to draw inspiration and grounding from the Gospel and Christian tradition rather than simply retreat from a difficult situation.
In addition to challenging the presumed elitism of a personal spiritual life previously viewed as the exclusive domain of priests and vowed religious, Merton also challenged some of the certitudes about where the boundaries of the so-called sacred and profane rested in the modern world. In a way that anticipated the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, Merton had an inherent appreciation for the fact that the Body of Christ, which is the Church, did not exist in isolation apart from the realities of others — Christian and non-Christian alike. Merton felt drawn to correspond and enter into relationship with many kinds of people: believers and unbelievers, intellectuals and ordinary people, from around the world. Rather than stay locked in a kind of hermetically sealed religious cloister, Merton was open to engaging with the broader world from within the monastery.
Whereas a major certitude of religious life in his time was that he should fuga mundi (“flee the world”), Merton instead saw a ministerial opportunity to turn to the world and help preach the Gospel. In 1958, Merton wrote to Pope John XXIII and described this way of ministry, writing that “with the approval of my superiors, I have exercised an apostolate — small and limited though it be — within a circle of intellectuals from other parts of the world; and it has been quite simply an apostolate of friendship.”
A potential “certitude of our time” remains a sense of ministerial identity that keeps us apart from others. The notion of a cultic model of priesthood places a significant value on a kind of priestly isolationism; you don’t have to be a monk to live a kind of fuga mundi existence. Merton’s “apostolate of friendship” allowed him to remain true to his vows of obedience and stability, while also being open to the experiences, insights, challenges and wisdom of others. He also learned of the “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties” of people he would otherwise never have met or have the opportunity to know.
One of the ways Merton provides us with guidance and a challenge today is by encouraging us to step outside our comfort zones to engage with the concerns of those around us locally and those throughout the world. Whereas Merton had to rely on the letter-writing technology of his time, our age presents us with almost instantaneous access to news and information from around the globe. Merton’s insight allows us to reconsider the presuppositions we have about what is or is not off limits in terms of engaging the cultures and realities of the world around us with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We would do well to develop our own “apostolate of friendship.”
A key element of Merton’s “apostolate of friendship” was his openness to learning about and dialoguing with people of other religious traditions and worldviews. He recognized he did not have the answer to every question life presented him with and that those outside the usual circles of mid-20th-century Catholicism in America might have some insight to share.
Merton was no supporter of syncretism or relativism. He believed one could only pursue honest and real interreligious or ecumenical dialogue first by being deeply grounded in one’s own tradition. On Easter 1965, Merton wrote to a student named Marco Pallis and explained this point: “If one is genuinely living his own tradition, he is capable of seeing where other traditions say and attain the same thing, and where they are different. The differences must be respected, not brushed aside, even and especially where they are irreconcilable with one’s own view.”
Merton challenges us to be more open to dialogue with those of differing religious traditions, political perspectives, cultural commitments and the like. Whereas some shy away from such openness, Merton’s invitation is for contemporary priests truly to be men of relationship and mercy who must first be deeply grounded in their own Catholic Christianity so as to take part in fruitful discussions with others. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us in Nostra Aetate, there is nothing true or good in other religions and traditions that the Catholic Church rejects. The question is: Are we committed enough to our faith to be open to learning from the wisdom and experiences of others?
Promoters of Peace
Merton’s commitment to peacemaking is well known among scholars of his writings, but not particularly well known by the general public. This is, in part, because Merton’s superiors censored much of his writings on topics like racism and war, peace and violence, during his lifetime, fearing that it would be scandal for those people who did not feel it appropriate for a Catholic monk to write on such pressing and, at times, controversial subjects. Fortunately, he did receive permission to circulate his writings among a small group of Catholic leaders and intellectuals. And since his death, Merton’s writings have become widely accessible.
For Merton, the vocation of peacemaking was not something reserved for a few but the requirement of all the baptized who bear the name Christian. In his posthumously published book “Passion for Peace: The Social Essays of Thomas Merton” (1997), he wrote: “Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war. First of all there is much to be studied, much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves.”
While Merton envisions Christian peacemaking a Gospel mandate for all disciples, the last point he makes here is aimed at us: ministerial priests. He challenges us to do our research, know the circumstances of our time, familiarize ourselves with the tradition of Catholic social teaching, preach peace and nonviolence to our congregations and model peacemaking by our words and deeds. Indeed, this is no easy task. But it is our task, as Pope Francis continually reminds us. In the same book, Merton later writes that this pastoral ministry of peacemaking “is the great Christian task of our time.” Fortunately for us, Merton has left us volumes of insight to aid us in preparing for this task, such as in his books “Faith and Violence” (1968); “Seeds of Destruction” (1964); “Peace in the Post-Christian Era” (2004); and “The Cold War Letters” (2006), among others.
At a time when global tensions are on the rise, the threat of terrorism always looms large, the rhetoric of politicians and public figures offend and divide, and physical violence is an all-too-familiar reality for many people, Merton points us in the direction of our fundamental vocation as priests and ministers: to always be men of prayer, dialogue and peacemaking who are not afraid to challenge the certitudes of our time.
FATHER DANIEL P. HORAN, OFM, Ph.D., is a Franciscan friar of Holy Name Province, assistant professor of systematic theology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and former member of the International Thomas Merton Society board of directors.