Trappist Father Thomas Merton is pictured with Dalai Lama in 1968, whom Merton met during his Asia trip. Morgan Atkinson's new documentary on Father Merton, the famed Trappist monk from the Cistercian abbey in Gethsemani, Kentucky, was "40 years in the making," he joked. CNS photo/Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University

Glen Argan: Common ground with Eastern religion can enhance Christianity

  • December 10, 2018

Thomas Merton, the most influential Catholic spiritual writer of the 20th century, spent the last period of his life trying to find points of common ground between Catholic mysticism and the mysticism of the East. Some might argue that Merton’s efforts were folly, but one cannot deny his influence.

In his last talk before his tragic death on Dec. 10, 1968, Merton said, “I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions, because they have gone, from the natural point of view, so much deeper into this than we have.”

Merton opened a floodgate which, over the last 50 years, spiritual writers and retreat house programs have come through with a mighty force.

Merton was fascinated by Zen, originally a form of Buddhism which sees conventional religiosity as a hindrance to mature spiritual development. Logic and language, for the Zen practitioner, are impediments to coming to a direct grasp of reality, Merton wrote in Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Instead, Zen tries to still our desires and awaken the practitioner to a direct awareness of being and non-being.

Christ’s kenosis, His self-emptying of His divine status by becoming human and then of His humanity by His acceptance of death on the cross, can be understood in a Zen-like sense, Merton wrote. By emptying oneself and achieving pure spiritual poverty, one can recover one’s identity in God.

Whether a Zen master would see it that way is another matter. Indeed, it is difficult to see that a Christian can accept Christ’s self-abandonment as similar to the Zen pursuit of the no-self. The person of Jesus Christ is the fullness of what it means to be human. Through participation in Christ’s self-abandonment, we become more human, not less.

Still, Merton was on to something. Western culture “thrives on stimulation and exploitation of egocentric desire,” he said. He was correct in seeing contemplation as a potential path for liberation from society’s obsession with the self and self-affirmation. 

Christianity, he argued, is more than the intellectual acceptance of a religious message handed down through centuries of tradition. Rather, the fullness of life which we find through faith is fed by authoritative teaching and the communion of Christ’s Body, but is deepened through the experience of God’s presence.

For the Christian, all transcendent experience involves participation in the mind of Christ. The core of the Christian faith is that God became flesh, that God was incarnate in one human person.

The incarnation reveals that God is three persons whose love for each other overflows infinitely so that the three are one. Christ shares that divine love with humanity. To have the mind of Christ then is not only to seek contemplative union with God through prayer, but also through a morally upright life. Logic and language cannot capture the experience of God’s presence, but they are forms through which revelation is made known to all.

The traditional path toward union with God involves ongoing self-examination and development of the virtues. Our lives are a constant battle to overcome our dreary sins such as anger, unchastity and infidelity. Yet, we can easily deceive ourselves into believing that our sinful acts are righteous, and contemplation offers no guarantee that we will see our sins with clear-eyed honesty. Honesty requires that we perform the mundane task of daily examining our actions and motivations.

Merton was certainly aware of the importance of private and public morality. He wrote fervently about peacemaking and the immorality of the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons.

Still, if Merton did not provide a full system for spiritual growth, he was a forerunner who emphasized what our practice lacked. The nature of being a forerunner is to overemphasize a dimension that current practice has minimized or forgotten. It is for those who come after to restore the needed balance.

Merton called us to dialogue with and learn from Eastern religions at a time when Christianity was dismissive of those religions and was only beginning to discuss the universal call to holiness. He taught that contemplation was not reserved for the most holy of monks, that lay people too can benefit from meditative forms of prayer.

These messages still need to be spread, but we can thank Merton for raising their profile and making them a lively part of Christian spiritual understanding today.

(Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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