“When we are alone on a starlit night, when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children, when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet, Basho, we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash - at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the "newness," the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, all these provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.”
How often I’ve wished I could express myself as beautifully, as openly, as did Thomas Merton. He wrote many books back in the late 40’s, the 50’s and the 60’s of the twentieth century that were widely read, spanning over two decades of great social and political conflict in America—from post-WW2 Europe to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s UAC and Lenny Bruce to Gov. George Wallace and Woodstock.
The books made him famous. He displeased many within the Catholic Church (he was a Cistercian Trappist monk) because through his poetry and his prose he championed not only an active participation in the conflict and its social consequences, but a solitary, silent path to direct awareness of unitary reality in all its fullness, which he came to see as not only the creation but part of the being of God. His search led him, later in life, to Eastern religions’ thought and practices, especially to Zen Buddhism, in which he found common ground with his own mystic form of Christianity. Officially his handshake with Zen was rejected by the Catholic Church—most strongly by Pope Benedict XVI, who proclaimed that the “autoerotic” spirituality of Buddhism would supplant Marxism as the primary adversary of Catholicism, because the non-dualism of its ideas denies the belief of Christians in the separateness of Creator and his creation—until just recently when Pope Francis in his 2017 Address to Congress reversed that posture and recognized Merton (along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day) as a noble and brave exemplar of Catholic Christianity.
That woke things up. Benedict’s conservative American Bishops were appalled; they’d been at the forefront in excising any notion or reference to him from the official new catechism, in spite of a large outcry from Catholics and followers of Merton. To no avail, until Francis. Here’s what the new Pope said:
"A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a "pointless slaughter", another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: 'I came into the world, free by nature, in the image of God. I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.' 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."
After his academic studies at Cambridge and Columbia, and teaching English at St. Bonaventure, Merton was accepted as novice by Our Lady of Gethsemane, a Trappist monastic community in Kentucky, and finally in 1947 he took holy vows there. His poetry had long been published and noticed, and his famous autobiography ‘The Seven Story Mountain’ was penned early at Gethsemane, followed by other popular, acclaimed volumes, essays, and poetry. Most importantly, his love of contemplation—discovered while he taught at St. Bonaventure’s—deepened, and in the ripeness of time the mystic lightning hit him. A sign has been erected on the spot to designate its significance:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I 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. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
It came after years of isolation and prayer in his retreat surrounded by nature. But although he lived a mystical life of contemplation, it didn’t happen at the monastery. It happened suddenly in such an unexpected place as downtown Louisville, amidst all the hubbub and cacophony of the city. I’m reminded of WB Yeats’s mystical awakening, coming for him after a lifetime of occult studies and practice and immersion in nature; similar to Merton’s signal epiphany, Yeats’s struck while blandly looking out a window into the streets of London. He set the experience to verse in one of his enduring volumes:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
in a crowded London shop,
an open book and empty cup
on the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
my body of a sudden blazed;
and twenty minutes more or less
it seemed, so great my happiness,
that I was blessed and could bless.
It doesn’t work this way always. A few people don’t have a long foundation of spiritual practice to set the stage for their mystical strike, yet they have one anyway. And anybody can achieve small epiphanies that set us thinking and feeling the depth of our experience with and of the world, the universe. However, the history of mystics shows that long religious practice, such as immersive prayer or meditation, may be a contributing factor to that blast of mystical unity; in fact, it is regularly asserted that just such practice is necessary, even by Merton himself. The medieval Christian mystics, the Zen mystics, the Sufi mystics all indicate that this preparation of mind and body sets the groundwork for a mystical life and its ultimate moment, the great flash of insight that changes one’s outlook indefinitely. It’s truly beyond our understanding.
Later, Merton would go on to explain: “There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious unity and integrity is wisdom, the mother of us all, "natura naturans." There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fountain of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness, and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being.”
Here’s a link to Merton’s essay “Is Mysticism Normal”, published originally in 1949, two years after his taking of vows into the Cistercian order, nine years before his mystical strike, and long before his explorations into Zen: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/mysticism-normal
After his experience on the street corner in Louisville, he knew he’d changed in a significant way. His quietist Trappist life, isolated and silent (speech is almost entirely foresworn in the monastery) and which had been his shelter and foundation for so long, was no longer the locus of his world. He saw that he was part of the peopled world and that his mysticism also came from there, with an urgency he couldn't hold at Gethsemane. He informed himself about what was happening with civilization, and he was laid low by it. The forces that he had seen destroy Europe in the Second World War still existed; and he saw where they were leading. He saw the nuclear weapons danger, the ripening social unrest, the pressure of materialism, the sleight-of-hand of the news media, the racial hypocrisy and violence, the war in Korea and then in Viet Nam and he was horrified. His writing took on these dimensions and themes, and his superiors at the monastery were concerned. They warned him. His writing became more brilliant, more compelling, more lucid. He befriended Martin Luther King. He connected with Suzuki who introduced him to the mystical world of Zen. He went to Japan and observed the Zen monks there. He made other connections with leaders of eastern religions and formed bridges with them; he wrote about it. Eventually the Catholic Church at large tried to contain him and silence him; he’d gone beyond the bounds of a Trappist monk they said.
On October 15, 1968 he boarded a plane in San Francisco to attend an ecumenical council in Thailand. There, he died in a strange, freak accident; supposedly as he emerged from a bath in his room, he slipped—and a standing electric fan turned over, struck him, and electrocuted him. He was found face down on the floor, a large wound livid on the back of his skull.
“Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By "they" I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.”
Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama