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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Thomas Merton -- Kentucky Monk, Author, and World Figure

 

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

--Thomas Merton

Perhaps you have never even heard of Thomas Merton. Sometimes a truly influential figure uses a quiet voice to help bring about important change. Merton found that "happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm, and harmony." Devoting his life to better understand the human spirit and its relation to the world, Merton found his voice in solitude. In doing so, he discovered that “we live in a world that is absolutely transparent” and that “the divine is shining through it all the time.” 
 
But there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” 
 
--Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, (1915 – 1968) was an American Catholic writer and mystic. He was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky; a poet; a social activist, and a student of comparative religion.

Merton wrote more than 50 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice, and pacifism. He is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages.

“The theology of love must seek to deal realistically with the evil and injustice in the world, and not merely to compromise with them.”

 --Thomas Merton

Merton was one of four Americans mentioned by Pope Francis in his speech to a joint meeting of the United States Congress on September 24, 2015. (Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day were the other three.) The Pope used Merton’s legacy to transition into praising the United States’ renewed commitment to mending relationships with other nations.

Pope Francis said, "A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War (World War I), 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.' 

Francis continued, "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."

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”

--Thomas Merton

 

Brief Biography

Thomas Mertin was born in Prades, France. His New Zealand-born father, Owen Mertin, and his American-born mother, Ruth Jenkins, were both artists.

Later, Mertin went to private school in England and then to Cambridge. Both of his parents were deceased by the time Merton was a young teen. After a rambunctious youth and adolescence, he eventually moved to his grandparents' home in the United States to finish his education at Columbia University in New York City. There, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism.

“We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.”

--Thomas Merton

In 1940, Mertin took a position teaching English at St Bonaventure College in Olean, New York. In December 1941, he resigned his teaching post there and journeyed to the Abbey of Gethsemani. There, Merton undertook the life of a scholar and man of letters, in addition to his formation as a Cistercian monk.

The twenty-seven years he spent in Gethsemani brought about profound changes in his self-understanding. This ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena, where he became, according to Daniel Berrigan, the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960's.

Referring to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time, Merton was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he called "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." For his social activism Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk.

“First of all, although men have a common destiny, each individual also has to work out 
his own personal salvation for himself in fear and trembling. We can help one another 
to find the meaning of life no doubt. But in the last analysis, the individual person is 
responsible for living his own life and for "finding himself." If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence. You cannot tell me who I am and I cannot tell you who you are. If you do not know your own identity, who is going to identify you?” 

--Thomas Merton


During his last years, he became deeply interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk's trip to the Far East in 1968, the Dalai Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. It was during this trip to a conference on East-West monastic dialogue that Merton died, in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, the victim of an accidental electrocution. The date marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of his entrance to Gethsemani.

“The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the move you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt.”

--Thomas Merton



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