Merton contemplation and action

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January is a month when justice receives national recognition. The nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. days before thousands assemble in Washington, D.C. to march for life. We are reminded by these two events that standing by and saying nothing in the face of injustice is not who we are as a nation or a Church. 

How fitting it is that the month closes with the 105th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton on January 31. Merton was a man whose faith compelled him to speak for peace when the national discourse was on fire with disagreement over a war with a nebulous mission. 

Though his prolific body of writings dwells mostly on his experience of the contemplative life, his prayer propelled him into action during the turbulence and violence of the 1960s. His outspoken resistance to the Vietnam conflict turned Catholics and non-Catholics against him, and gained him the praise of such controversial figures as Daniel Berrigan, who called Merton “the conscience of the peace movement.” His courage to speak did not come from a political affiliation but from the depth of his prayer. Richard Rohr explains how Merton came to this place where prayer and action become one. “In contemplation, one experiences all things as somehow created in the image of God and therefore of equal dignity and deserving of respect.” When this happens it is hard not to see injustice when it stares you in the face.

 Merton is a role model for those who see the world through the lens of our Christian faith, no matter how unpopular this might be. He called the Civil Rights movement “the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.” Viewing Merton’s life from a perch a half-century removed from that heated debate we can learn the basic principal of his contemplative life. 

 “The highest form of Spiritual maturity is not action or contemplation but the ability to integrate the two into one life stance — to be service-oriented contemplatives or contemplative activists.” Those are the words of another Thomas — Aquinas, not Merton. 

As the Church searches for strategies to capture the attention of the young, it is reassuring to look back on the life of Thomas Merton for hope. He told his own story in “The Seven Storey Mountain”, a book that has sold more than a million copies throughout the world, and should be required reading for any young person on a path that seems destined for nowhere. Motherless at age six and an orphan by his 16th year, Merton travelled aimlessly through life, despite being gifted intellectually and artistically. He fathered a child, a fact that editors removed from his autobiography because it would be offensive to readers in the 1950s. 

Young people today will not be that shocked about this detail of Merton’s life, and might take solace that the choices he made, however mistaken, became the substrate on which God built the road Merton would travel. They can learn much about the path that leads to living a moral life from Merton’s journey. After years of contemplation and life in a Trappist monastery Merton concluded, “One of the most important functions of the life of prayer is to deepen and strengthen and develop our moral conscience.” In the words of fellow Trappist, James Finley, “Merton leads us along a journey to God in which the self that begins the journey is not the self that arrives.” Merton reminds us that discipleship begins with an invitation from Jesus from which we will never recover. We have a generation of young people poised to hear the same invitation that brought Thomas Merton to a life of discipleship. The details of his journey to God are less important than the fact that he was met somewhere along the path, far away from the end. 

The justice bearers on display this month, from the past and walking the streets, came to be people of action by accepting the mantle of discipleship. No matter the path down which our faith leads us, we need to remember the aim of discipleship. Father Simeon, a Trappist serving in nearby St. Joseph Abbey, explains, “The deepest meaning of Christian discipleship is not to work for Jesus but to be with Jesus.” Even though Merton gained a reputation as an outspoken activist, in the end he only sought to be one with Jesus. His words reach across the years to all of us who seek fulfillment through acts of charity and justice, that in the end it is love that we seek. “Love in fact is the Spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.” We pray that all our acts of charity and justice be rooted in love.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 


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