Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was born in France and lived most of his adult life as a Cistercian or Trappist monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He died tragically in Bangkok of accidental electrocution due to faulty wiring. Merton has been a primary teacher and inspiration to me since I first read his book The Sign of Jonas in a high school seminary library soon after it was written in 1958. I saw Merton once for just a moment, as he (and Mother Teresa, believe it or not) walked by me while I was visiting the monastery in early June of 1961. Little did I know Merton would soon die, nor did I imagine the lasting influence he would have on me and so many people around the world.
I believe Thomas Merton is one of the most significant American Catholics of the twentieth century. His whole life is a parable and a paradox, as are all of our lives. Merton wrote, “I have had to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical. I have also had to learn gradually to get along without apologizing for the fact, even to myself. . . . It is in the paradox itself, the paradox which was and still is a source of insecurity, that I have come to find the greatest security.”
I’m convinced that is the very meaning of faith. Faith is agreeing to live without full resolution. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures make that very clear. We are often called to walk in darkness, where God leads us to that next step which is usually not clear, predictable, or controllable by the rational mind.
”I have become convinced,” Merton goes on to write, “that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me: if only because someone so complicated . . .” (Merton was a Four on the Enneagram–they are complicated) “. . . and so prone to confusion and self-defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.”
Merton had an uncanny ability to describe his inner life with God for the rest of us, and to apply that inner life in the healing of the outer world. A prayer from his Asian Journal, written during a conference on East-West monastic dialogue, is representative:
Oh God, we are one with You. You have made us one with You. You have taught us that if we are open to one another, You dwell in us. Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts. Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection. Oh God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept You, and we thank You, and we adore You, and we love You with our whole being, because our being is in Your being, our spirit is rooted in Your spirit. Fill us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes You present in the world, and which makes You witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. Amen.