Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Thomas Merton at 100: An appreciation of a fellow pilgrim

On January 31, 2015, the 100th anniversary of Fr. Thomas Merton, OSCO, is observed.  A Trappist (Cistercian) monk, Merton became one of the 20th century's best read Roman Catholic writers, with his influence stretching well beyond his tradition to be appreciated by many Protestants and persons from other religious traditions.  Merton had a great influence on me in my college and seminary years, and I recall how Merton appeared in one of my sermons earlier in ministry when preaching the Psalms:
It was in college that I visited my first monastery. Growing up Baptist in Kansas, the fact that I had an interest in learning, let alone visiting, a monastery was a bit of a surprise. We were raised with a latent (and sometimes vocal) anti-Catholicism, which I suppose was the legacy of my upbringing in the Protestant Midwest.

While studying at American Baptist-related Ottawa University, I found myself enthralled in the writings of Thomas Merton, a 20th-century monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky. I decided to write my senior thesis on Merton, and as part of my exploration into Merton, I stayed a week at the monastery where he lived until his death in 1968. (And given that monasteries typically observe vows of silence, I suppose I was a handful…)

At the entrance to the monastery, an inscription is carved over the gateway to the monastic enclosure. It reads “God Alone”. Thomas Merton came to the Abbey as a young adult who was mixed up with a lot of the life questions that we tend to have: who am I and what I am supposed to do with my life?

Merton had some additional baggage, orphaned by his parents’ deaths during his adolescence and wounded from a life given to youthful indiscretions while at college. Merton entered into the monastery after a long soul-searching, feeling called to a life withdrawn from the world. The monastic life helped Merton reorient his life, later becoming regarded as one of the 20th-century’s spiritual masters. 

Not to say that it was an easy stretch of time for Merton as his posthumously published multivolume collection of journals will attest. He searched for God and wrestled with the world inside and outside the monastic enclosure. The inscription “God Alone” makes good sense to be at the entrance of his monastery, as Merton found his grounding and his identity as he developed a deep trust in God.

His story draws me to the 16th Psalm often called a psalm of trust, framed in the language of deep appreciation and unshakable knowledge that in God alone, we find our hope and assurance, as well as our guidance in the journey ahead. It is a psalm for all those who seek God, the one whom the Psalmist praises, “You show me the path of life.” This psalm revels in the goodness of life with God and the wisdom of following the path that God sets before us. Without God, the psalmist declares, we still live our lives, but without a sense of the deep goodness and stability that life with God gives us. We can seek many things in this life, but are they ultimately “good” in the abundant and life-giving way that God alone provides?

For all of us, it asks us to be intentional about knowing ourselves fully, examining ourselves in a way that leads not to an uneasy and constant sense of guilt or imperfection. Life with God is a sign of life, where we can breathe freely and attune our hearts and minds. We strip down our vanities and our pride so that we are allowed to live with God: to live faith not as an additional or optional part of life, but to ground ourselves firmly and intentionally in the life of faith. We are called to be pilgrims, persons journeying toward God along the spiritual pathway.

No comments:

Post a Comment