|Thomas Merton ( photo from goodreads)|
"Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself."
Thomas Merton, Journal, 02/10/58
(See Appendix B for explanation of quote)
Spirituality for the 21st Century GLOBAL MINISTRIES UNIVERSITY
Image Source: http://foodforfaith.org.nz/2014/12/thomas-merton-2/add
INTRODUCTION: THE LINK BETWEEN THOMAS MERTON AND CELTIC SPIRITUALITY
When I was in high school, my grandmother gifted me a first edition copy of Thomas Merton’s renowned memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain. I first read it during a time
when I was frustrated and disappointed with the limitations of church doctrine and practice, and Merton gave me hope. He gave me hope in a church that could be grounded not only on rules and regulations, penance and punishment, but on love, connection,
mysticism, compassion, innate wisdom and acceptance. If Merton was committed to these values, certainly there were others who also were. I remember doing a paper on Merton in my last year of high school, but, over the years, I lost Merton and his wisdom in my frustration with the church. Sadly, in my experience, church authorities who put Merton’s wisdom into action have been few and far between. In recent years, as I’ve found a home in Celtic spiritual thought and practice, my interest in Merton has been rekindled. Although he wasn’t known specifically as a Celtic monk, I have come to believe that Thomas Merton’s life, philosophies and practices were strongly rooted and in accordance with Celtic Spiritual principles.
Is Merton a prophet? Merriam-Webster defines a prophet as, “one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight: especially an inspired poet.” As a writer with more than 70 books to his credit (most in the area of spirituality), Merton certainly has had a profound influence on the spiritual and moral insights of many. In some circles, Merton is known as much for his poetry than for his prose. His reach extends far beyond his own faith, so, in my opinion, he is most definitely a prophet.
So why is Celtic Spirituality an appropriate framework upon which to hang Merton’s contributions? I believe the 21st century is a time of great change and instability ... family structures are evolving, technology is growing, and politically and economically, our world is challenged. This time of general global instability trickles down to the family and to the individual. Activities, practices and beliefs that bring a sense of calmness and mindfulness to the individual have surged in popularity. Whether it’s meditation classes, Soul Cycle sessions, or yoga, there is something drawing people inward. Many people seem to be moving away from rule-bound, restrictive, mainstream religious practices in favour of spiritual communities that are accepting, progressive, open-minded and loving. I believe that, for many people, Celtic Spirituality satisfies this spiritual search.
For a number of years, I have immersed myself in the study of various contemporary Celtic spiritual philosophies and practices. From my readings and research, I have identified a framework of 13 general characteristics (See Appendix A) that are key to Celtic Spirituality. Using selected characteristics from this framework, in this paper, I will show how Thomas Merton modeled them, in various ways, throughout his life, and how his example continues to touch his followers. From his childhood in France to his
2 active years of teaching and writing, to his later years of contemplative interfaith practice, I propose that Thomas Merton is an excellent example of a 21st century Celtic prophet.
BELIEF IN THE TRIUNE GOD
Merton was raised by a Quaker mother and baptized as a young child into the Church of England. In his early years, he eschewed all forms of religious practice and observance and would describe himself during his childhood and adolescence as an atheist who eventually grew into a searching agnostic (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948 p. 204). He recounts his early impressions of God:
I had never had an adequate notion of what Christians meant by God. I had simply taken it for granted that the God in Whom religious people believed, and to Whom they attributed the creation and government of all things, was a noisy and dramatic and passionate character, a vague jealous, hidden being, the objectification of all their own desires and strivings and subjective ideals (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, p. 174).
Merton felt that the notion of God was simply impossible. How could God be, “... infinite yet finite; perfect and imperfect; eternal and yet changing. How could this fatuous, emotional thing be without beginning and without end, the creator of all?” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, p. 174).
How was Merton to know that his spiritual journey would eventually bring him into a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the concept of God? Various philosophy courses he took and texts he read during university awakened a hunger for a deeper knowledge of God. The more he read, the more he felt that “(his) internal contradictions were resolving themselves ...” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, p. 205). How surprised he must have been to experience a “... sweet, strong, gentle, clean urge ...
4 which said: “Go to Mass! Go to Mass!” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, P. 206). It was there that his understanding and acceptance of the Triune God emerged. He heard and accepted for the first time, “That Christ was the Son of God. That, in Him, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God, had assumed a Human Nature, a Human Body and Soul, and had taken Flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and trust: and that this Man, Whom men* called Christ, was God” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, p. 209).
In 1938, at the age of 23, Thomas Merton became a Roman Catholic and over the next nine years journeyed, mostly unknowingly, toward ordained life. In 1944, he made his temporary profession of vows and in March of 1947, he took his solemn vows as a Trappist Monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Kentucky. As a professed monk, an understanding of the three consubstantial persons of God would be a key belief. But Merton’s understanding of the third person, the Holy Spirit, played a pivotal role in his spirituality. “The Holy Spirit is the most perfect gift of the Father to men*, and yet He is the one gift which the Father gives most easily” (No Man is an Island, 2005, P. 189). Merton believed in a lived spirituality, not solely in a transcendent God, but in an immanent Divinity. This deep understanding of the Triune God was to lead him, in his later years, to enhance his contemplative Christian practice with eastern mysticism.
*I will address the issue of Merton’s use of exclusive language in the section on Strong Female Role Models. Thomas Merton was, unfortunately, influenced by the linguistic and cultural zeitgeist of his time.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER
It may be somewhat hyperbolic to say that Thomas Merton’s life was a prayer. But it is certainly no exaggeration to suggest that prayer was
(Graphic of Rosary that belonged to Father Remigius McCoy, Missionaries of Africa)
essential to the man he was. As a contemplative monk, he spent much of his time
involved in various forms of prayer. But, unlike some who use prayer in an introspective way, Merton felt that prayer was not only a solitary activity, but a practice that brings us closer to the Divine as well as to others. Rather than isolated, rote prayer, he focussed more on meaningful conversational prayer that creates a dialogue with the Divine. Although he wrote entire books on prayer (e.g., Contemplative Prayer, New Seeds of Contemplation), he is often remembered for one particular honest and candid prayer:
Merton developed a full and deep understanding of the role and power of prayer. In A Body of Broken Bones, a chapter in both Seeds of Contemplation and New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton cautioned against praying or meditating simply because one likes to be alone. “One prays to find one’s identity in the Mystical Christ. As one meditates, one discovers that Christianity is not merely a doctrine or a system of beliefs, but Christ living in us and uniting us to God and to others” (Dekar, 2011, P. 49). We see from this quote that Merton acknowledges both the life-giving and unitive aspects of prayer.
We can take as a model, Merton’s contemplative practice; he was able to go beyond the practice of rote prayer and achieve the ability to pray beyond words. He wrote: “For the first time in my life I am finding you, O solitude. I can count on the fingers of one hand the few short moments of purity, of neutrality, in which I have found you. Now I know I am coming to the day in which I will be free of words: their master rather than their servant, able to live without them if need be” (A Year With Thomas Merton, January 11, 1958, II. 158). Such should be the goal for those of us who meditate. It’s clear that Thomas Merton’s prayer life was exemplary in many ways.
A FOCUS ON MYSTICISM
Thomas Merton is often referred to as a mystic. He had a powerfully intimate relationship with the Divine, and he was able to channel the wisdom that he received and record much of it to be shared with others. It’s clear that his dialogical prayer practices, and his contemplative behaviour were what brought him into this very close relationship with the Divine.
Mysticism is the belief that one can have a direct relationship with the Divine.
Particularly in his later years, Merton spent considerable time in contemplation. He felt
that, "The world . . . has forgotten the joys of silence, the peace of solitude which is necessary, to some extent, for the fullness of human living" (The Silent Life, 1999, P. 167). His embrace of silence is what helped Merton connect with Divine wisdom.
Merton’s call to contemplation had roots in his childhood. In 1925, Merton and his father settled in a small French village called St. Antonin. At the centre of the village was the church; all roads seemed to lead not only geographically, but symbolically to the church. Merton, as a child, noted, “Oh what a thing it is, to live in a place that is so
Knock Shrine, County Mayo,
constructed that you are forced, in spite of yourself, to be at least a virtual contemplative!” (The Seven Story Mountain, 1948, P. 37).
Motivated by the technological, industrial and geopolitical crises of the 21st century, many people are feeling Merton’s call to solitude. We must go inward to find a source of comfort to balance the demands of life. For it is within that we will touch the Great Love that will give us strength through difficult times:
Is it true to say that one goes into solitude to 'get at the root of existence'? It would be better simply to say that in solitude one IS at the root. He who is alone, and is conscious of what his solitude means, finds himself simply in the ground of life.
He is 'in love.' He is in love with all, with everyone, with Everything ... One disappears into Love, in order to 'be Love'
(Love and Living, 1986, P. 22).
Much has been written about Merton’s later interest in eastern mysticism. Some have criticized this interest, but Merton had merely reached a point in his spiritual maturity where he did not feel restricted to the practices of one denomination. His spirituality was based on love. More about his embrace of eastern mysticism will be discussed in the section on Hospitality.
A RESPECT FOR LIMINAL OR “THIN” PLACES
Liminal or “thin” places are where our connection with the Divine and understanding of
ourselves is felt more profoundly
Ballintubber Abbey, Claremorris, Ireland (2015) One of my “thin” places.
As we look back on our lives, we all have places or moments that are pivotal in a profoundly spiritual way. Perhaps it is places we have visited or experiences we have had where the connection between “the now” and “the beyond” is palpable. These “thin places” have strong spiritual significance. For me, a visit to Ballintubber Abbey in Claremorris, Ireland was a “thin” place. If affected me in a physical as well as spiritual way ... the energy, the history, the souls who had come before ... I could feel them in a profoundly physical way.
Very early in his life, Thomas Merton recognized France, the place of his birth, as a special “thin” place. When he returned to France in 1925 at the age of 10, he remarked, “When I went to France ... I was also returned to the fountains of the intellectual and spiritual life of the world to which I belonged” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, P. 30). Often, the power of a thin place transcends words and defies description. The beauty, the awe touches a deep spiritual place within us. As Merton said, “I did not have time, at the age of ten, to make anything out of this city, but already I knew I was going to like France” (The Seven Story Mountain, 1948, P. 31).
Throughout his life, nature was also a profound “thin” place for Merton. When he surrounded himself with the pastoral beauty of nature, he wrote of his powerful connection with the Divine. Although it wasn’t common practice, in his last years of life, Merton had asked his superior to be allowed to live permanently in a hermitage at Gethsemani, so he could surround himself with nature’s solitude. He embraced his “thin place” and the peace that it brought him. In return, his connection to the Divine deepened.
POWERFUL FEMALE ROLE MODELS
The church (needs) a new way of worship in which everyone would have a part ...
Our Lady of Ballintubber, Claremorris, Ireland (2015)
Thomas Merton lived during a time when female leadership anywhere, but specifically within the church, was a relatively unknown concept. Therefore, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see Merton use exclusive language in his writings. This is not to say, though, that he was unaware of the power of female leadership. We can see many times throughout his life when he was touched by the wisdom of women. We need to read beyond the words Merton used to truly appreciate the concepts that he was proposing. It’s clear that even as a child Merton did not reject the power of leadership based on gender.
It was there, too, that Father told me about Joan of Arc,
and I suppose the thought of her was with me, at least in
the back of my mind, all day long. Maybe the thought of her, acting as a kind of implicit prayer by the veneration and love
it kindled in me, won me her intercession in heaven, so that through her I was able to get some sort of actual grace out of
the sacrament of her land, and to contemplate God without realizing it in all the poplars along those streams, in the woods and the farms and the bridged rivers (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, P. 32).
Contrary to what the Roman Catholic church was proposing in the 1950s, Merton was ahead of time by his hunger for and acceptance of the Divine Feminine. In 1963, Merton wrote a prose poem entitled Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) that explores his longing for the Divine Feminine:
All the perfections of created things are also in God; and therefore, He is at once Father and Mother. As Father He stands in solitary might surrounded by darkness. As Mother His shining is diffused, embracing all His creatures with merciful tenderness and light. The Diffuse Shining of God
is Hagia Sophia (Merton, 1963, Hagia Sophia).
In 2011, the Thomas Merton Society awarded Christopher Pramuk the Thomas Merton Award for his 2009 book, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton. This book reviews with great insight, Merton’s Hagia Sophia. Many hail Pramuk’s book as the “best book ever written about Merton” (Dear, 2010). In the book, Pramuk outlines Merton’s Christology drawing insights from contemporary Christianity, Russian sophiology and eastern mysticism. Merton scholar Larry Cunningham says the book is “far and away the most sophisticated theological study ever done on the writings of
Thomas Merton” (Dear, 2010).
In his last decade, Merton more fully developed this awareness of and reverence for Sophia, the Divine Wisdom of God. These insights motivated him to envision a church that included "a new way of worship in which everyone would have a part and where you'd have no hierarchical aspects" (Murphy, 1997). Clearly, Merton had feminist, inclusive views of the church, long before Vatican II flung open the windows and let some fresh air into church doctrine. Yet, here we are, more than 50 years later, with the
Church still dragging her feet on accepting and recognizing the many gifts and
contributions of women. Merton has much to teach those stuck on the necessity of a male leadership model.
THE ROLE OF PEREGRINATIO
"Peregrinatio, or "going
forth into strange
countries," was a
form of asceticism (The
Celtic Monk Blog, 2010).
To leave one’s family, one’s
familiar surroundings to
follow the call to
something more is the way of the pilgrim. Many authors have branded Merton with the soul of a pilgrim. “Alongside such metaphors as solitary explorer, guilty bystander, stranger, wanderer, marginal person, Merton also used the metaphor of pilgrim for himself” (Pearson, n.d.).
Since early childhood, Merton journeyed physically with his artist father, searching out interesting landscapes to paint. Then, as a young adult, he journeyed far and wide in his search for wisdom, love and peace. Even after he took his final vows, his searching soul continued to lead him to a deeper and more genuine relationship with the Divine. A few years before his death, Merton received a copy of The Voyage of St. Brendan, a literary text thought to be written in Ireland sometime around the year 800. This text opened Merton’s eyes to Celtic Monasticism. He was entranced by, “the myth of pilgrimage, the quest for the impossible island, the earthly paradise, the ultimate ideal (Pearson, n.d.).
We are all pilgrims on a journey to the Divine. If we remain focussed on the journey, we find ourselves along the way.
Galway, Ireland (2015)
Pearson goes on to suggest that, “the important concept Merton found so attractive in Celtic Monasticism was its understanding of pilgrimage” (Pearson, n.d.).
Even in his own writings, Merton notes the journey of the pilgrim: "It is possible to speak of the exterior self as a mask: to do so is not necessarily to reprove it. The mask that each man wears may well be a disguise not only for that man's inner self but for God, wandering as a pilgrim and exile in His own creation" (Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 2007).
Merton’s entire life was a pilgrimage ... a journey deeper within Self to the Indwelling Presence of the Divine. His pilgrimage took him physically to far areas of the world, as well as deep within his own spiritual identity. He journeyed from atheist to agnostic to Christian to mystic. In his final days, his pilgrim’s journey took him full circle back to his Celtic heritage where he undoubtedly found his most true and authentic self.
REJECTION OF DUALISM
“What we must do,” Merton told his
brother monks at Gethsemani toward
the end of his life, “is live our
theology” (Dear, 2010). For Merton,
theology was not just an intellectual
and spiritual practice, but a physical
one as well. He rejected the dualistic
notion that we need to prize doing
over being. “We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time or imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are, but for what they do or what they have—for their usefulness" (Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 2014, P. 312).
A cursory glance through some of Merton’s writings would give even the naïve reader a clear indication that Merton was in touch with his humanity, with all its glories and frailties. He rejected the notion that the body and soul were separate entities, with the soul to be gloried and the body mortified. “To deny the desires of one’s flesh, and even to practice certain disciplines that punch and mortify those desires: until this day, these things had never succeeded in giving me anything but gooseflesh” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, P. 185). For Merton, it was important to take time to contemplate, to relax, to pray and to just be. "If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being
Embodied spiritual practices reject the concept of dualism
into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth" (Merton, No Man is an Island, 2005, P. 134).
Instead of suggesting the dualistic notion that the mind and soul must be freed from the body, Merton suggests that if we can free ourselves from the constraints of our mind, we can truly embrace a sense of embodied spirituality. "What is important is not liberation from the body, but liberation from the mind. We are not entangled in our own body, but entangled in our own mind" (Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, 1975, P. 90). When we embrace the body in our spiritual practices, we enter into a rich and full expression of prayer. Merton was profoundly human ... he accepted his humanity, not in opposition to his spirituality, but in communion with it.
THE IMPORTANCE OF AN ANAM CARA
An anam cara is very special Celtic spiritual concept. It refers to an influential and powerful soul friend. So crucial is our need for spiritual companionship and support on our life’s journey, that St. Brigid of Ireland said that a person without an anam cara is like a body without a head. An anam cara is not just a friend; it’s someone we can learn from, who shares the benefit of their wisdom, points us in the right direction, challenges us, and affirms that we are moving toward a deeper relationship with the Divine.
John O’Donohue, Celtic writer, philosopher, theologian and mystic defines an anam cara as “a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. This
person without an anam cara is like a body without a head. An anam cara is
friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your
friendship cut across all convention and category. “There is an awakening between you, a sense of ancient knowing. You come home to each other at last” (O’Donohue, 2014, P. 23).
Although we’ve certainly seen how Merton valued the wisdom that comes from a contemplative life, he also valued the advice he received from friends. Merton spent long periods of time alone in his hermitage, but he maintained strong relationships
through correspondence with writers (e.g., Evelyn Waugh, Ernesto Cardenal), activists (Joan Baez, Daniel and Philip Berrigan), theologians (Karl Rahner, Paul Tillich, Rosemary Radford Reuther), and with other spiritual leaders (e.g., Thich Nhat Hanh) (Horan, 2014). These relationships were crucial for Merton, as they sometimes helped him to refine his beliefs, and challenged him to clarify his concepts. They gave advice, solace, and encouragement. Merton said that, “Souls are like athletes, that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their power, and reward according to their capacity” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, P. 83). It was his many worthy opponents who helped Merton to distill, channel and record the wisdom that has become a gift to millions of spiritual seekers.
Merton emphasizes the importance of an anam cara when he says that, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love” (Merton, Love and Living, 1986, P. 27). It is only by giving love
that we come to know love, by sharing wisdom that we become wise ourselves. Through
relationship, we become closer to the Indwelling Divine. Merton sought out relationships, even when he chose to live a contemplative life. Rather than relying on his own thoughts and musings, he, “... discerned the Spirit calling him to another form of ministry from within the walls of the monastery by writing letters, connecting with women and men he might never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise” (Horan, 2014). We could say that Merton’s “ministry of friendship” is what fueled his spiritual growth in his last years. It was through his relationships with these anam
caras that he was able to refine much of his spiritual wisdom. So, too, must we find
worthy anam caras with whom we can exchange ideas, clarify concepts, and develop our own wisdom.
It’s wonderful if we can experience this soul friend, kindred, sister or brother of the
heart in real life, but sometimes we can experience the wisdom of an anam cara through
books, videos, or lectures. Merton continues to be an anam cara through the literary legacy he has left behind. As one of his novices at Gethsemani recently said, “Merton continues to be a mentor to me. And when I see others take an interest in his life and work, it stimulates my own interest” (Graves, 2015). Many Merton followers continue to make the pilgrimage to Gethsemani to visit his grave and hermitage. Many others continue to find his works spiritually stimulating. It would seem that death has not diminished Merton’s powerful role as an anam cara.
AN EMPHASIS ON HOSPITALITY
Thomas Merton was a contemplative at heart who revelled in the profound wisdom
of silence. However, there is no question that he also lived a life characterized by radical hospitality to and service of others. As discussed in the Anam Cara section, his connection with others, maintained by ongoing correspondence, was very important to him. He truly valued the role of “the other” in his life. Merton felt that his contemplative activities, in some way, brought him closer not only to the Divine, but to the other. He commented that "[w]e do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them: we do not leave them in order to have nothing more to do with them, but to find out the way to do them the most good" (Fournier, The
Hospitable Hermitage, 1996).
For Merton, the contemplative and the hospitable walked hand in hand. One was not possible without the other, and one enhanced the other. When we are removed from the other, we can come to know them in a deeper way: “Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers and sisters for what they are, not for what they say” (Dear, 2010, P.50).
Image Source: https://www.ccfairfield.org/programs/the-thomas- merton-house-of-hospitality/
Another way that Merton demonstrated hospitality in later life is through his openness
to other spiritual traditions. In 1937, when he read Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means, the seeds of interest in Eastern thought were planted. In the 1950s he was particularly drawn to Zen Buddhism. Around this time, he wrote to a friend, “I have my own way to walk and for some reason Zen is right in the middle of wherever I go" (Coleman,
2015). Although Merton saw significant convergence between Christianity and eastern
mysticism, he has been harshly criticized by some some for what they feel is a lack of solid commitment to traditional Roman Catholicism. Merton’s response to these critics:
Far from being suspicious of the Oriental mystical traditions, Catholic contemplatives since the Second Vatican Council
should be in a position to appreciate the wealth of experience
that has accumulated in those traditions (Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, 1999, p. viii).
In a very tangible sense, Merton’s legacy of hospitality lives on in the Thomas Merton House of Hospitality, located in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Every day, this home for the
homeless provides shelter to approximately
260 people. They provide not only meals and showers, but support, group therapy, and assistance with the necessities of life. Inspired by Merton’s care and concern for “the other,” the Eat Smart Marketplace is a food pantry located in the house
that provides groceries for 5 days of nutritious meals per month for families and individuals. Thomas Merton’s model of hospitality continues.
A RESPECT FOR NATURE AND THE NATURAL WORLD
From birth, as the son of two landscape artists, Merton was immersed physically in nature. Throughout his life, nature was a true spiritual home for Merton. As mentioned earlier, nature was a true “liminal/thin” place for him. One Merton scholar has counted over 1800 references to nature in the corpus of Merton’s journals alone – and they all reveal his rapture, wonder, and awe” (Fox, 2016, P. 59).
In his book When the Trees Say Nothing:
Writings on Nature, Merton talks extensively about a spirituality rooted in the natural world. For Merton, nature was a profound source of the Divinity. His search for connectedness with the Divine took him out of the monastery and into a hermitage deep within the woods at Gethsemani in the Appalachian regions of Kentucky. We see the powerful love of nature in his quote:
I live in the woods out of necessity. I get out of bed in the middle of the night because it is imperative that I hear the silence of the night, alone, and, with my face on the floor, say psalms, alone, in the silence of the night. It is necessary for me to live here alone without a woman, for the silence of the forest is my bride and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love and out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world (The Forest is my Bride, 2011).
JOY IS AN ULTIMATE GOAL
Thomas Merton wrote a book entitled The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends. Is he suggesting that he has the one right path to a joy-filled life? On the contrary, he refers in many of the letters contained in this book to his humanness, his brokenness. He admits to searching, stumbling, and trying again.
Is there such a thing as a spirituality based on joy? Is this some new-age, hedonistic practice focused on self indulgence? On the
contrary, Merton’s spirituality was very much focussed on joy, but perhaps his understanding of the word might differ from the common interpretation. “Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for spiritual joy. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and spiritual joy you have not yet begun to live” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 2007, P. 259). We begin to see in this quote the growing influence eastern mysticism had on Merton’s spirituality.
To fully understand Merton’s concept of spiritual joy, I like to think of joy as an acronym for Just Open Yourself. When we can learn to open our hearts and minds to the possibilities that exist beyond the present, we can reach a certain level of equanimity.
As Merton clarifies, joy is not pleasure, nor is it happiness (Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 2007, P. 59). True joy is the knowledge that the mind and soul can transcend our experience of the world. A quote attributed to Buddha says: “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves” (Harderwijk, 2016). When we can live both in and beyond our current state, we achieve true spiritual joy.
Father Richard Rohr in referring to Merton and the concept of joy said, “The Divine Indwelling must be your centre; otherwise you lose yourself to everyone you meet” (Rohr, 2015). This was Merton’s “road to joy.” When we can keep the Divine as our focus, we are able to accept all that life has to offer, living with, through and beyond the difficult times by keeping the mind and soul open to any and all possibilities. Another way of looking at this is proposed by Merton:
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness
which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of
pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to
God, which is never at our disposal, from which God
disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the
fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our
own world (Coleman, 2015).
To the five-year-old daughter of a good friend, Merton wrote: “I hope you and I together will secretly travel our own road to joy, which is mysteriously revealed to us” (Road to Joy, 1993, P. xii). Joy, for Merton, is the mysterious product of faith; without an ability to have faith (or a focus on the Divine Indwelling, as Rohr suggested), there is no true spiritual joy.
Thomas Merton has left us a powerful spiritual legacy. His writings continue to inspire, to teach, to challenge, and to motivate. Some might even say that he is one of the most influential and inspirational spiritual writers of our time. His works remain just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago at the time of his death. Although he was a Trappist by profession, Thomas Merton certainly lived many of the characteristics of Celtic Spirituality.
In the last years of his life, Merton focussed on contemplative practices. As previously mentioned, he retired to a hermitage deep within the Kentucky woods where he revelled in the spirituality of the natural world. “Merton also identified with the Celtic monks’ restless quest to recover paradise as a lived experience of the native harmony and unity of all beings” (The Forest is my Bride, 2011). With his focus on prayer enhanced through nature, his openness to other spiritual practices, his acknowledgement of the significant role of women, his self identification as a pilgrim, and his mystical tendencies, it’s clear that Merton embraced many of the Celtic spiritual characteristics. He continues to have much to teach us in the 21st century about spiritual practices that help us through our present time. “(H)e still speaks powerfully to people and ... we’re still catching up with his thinking. He speaks about topics that are still relevant today, like war and racism, with prophetic insight” (Graves, 2015).
Thomas Merton is most certainly a Celtic prophet and an anam cara whose message of
mindfulness, love, openness and acceptance still resonates with spiritual seekers in the
21st century. He leaves us with comforting advice for dealing with our present challenges:
In a time of drastic change one can be too preoccupied with what is ending or too obsessed with what seems to be beginning. In either case one loses touch with the present and with its obscure but dynamic possibilities. What really matters is openness,
readiness, attention, courage to face risk. You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope (Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 2014, P. 206).
Belief in the Triune God
A respect for the existence of “thin” or liminal times or places
A link between the past, present and future
The importance of a connection with our ancestors.
Powerful female role models
The importance of prayer
A focus on mysticism – a personal relationship with God
Joy is an ultimate goal
Embodied spiritual practices
Key The role of peregrinatio Principles of Celtic Spirituality
Respect for and celebration of nature and the natural world
The importance of an anam cara.
An emphasis on hospitality
"Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself."
Thomas Merton, Journal, 02/10/58
"If we learn nothing else from Merton, this paragraph, written 10 years before his death, would be enough. It sums up his prophetic vision in a truly Celtic way. I found a home in Celtic Spirituality because it honours the whole being. It rejects any dualism, encourages us to seek joy, to use prayer and contemplative activities to go inward, to show hospitality when and where we can, and to recognize the power of our own innate wisdom. Merton’s quote echoes this Celtic vision. Our life’s journey should never be toward something ... to re-create ourselves in another’s image. Instead, our journey must be inward, toward, as Father Richard Rohr suggests, the Divine Indwelling Presence. Once we recognize and accept the Divinity within, we then begin to see the Divinity in others. We will have found the purpose of our journey; we will have attained the love, peace and wisdom we have spent a lifetime searching for. "
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