Transformation

Thomas Merton in New York

What would a spiritual activist learn from students if he returned to his roots today?

Susan Rakoczy
26 February 2019
SusanRakoczy.jpg

Thomas Merton. Credit: Flickr/OnBeing. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

December 10 2018 was the 50th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, the renowned Trappist spiritual writer who passed away in Thailand at the age of 53. Merton, who had seldom left his monastery - Our Lady of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky - was in Thailand for a an international conference of women and men monastics, but he had many ties to New York City, where coincidentally I was spending a sabbatical at Union Theological Seminary.

Merton had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at Columbia University, which is just a few block from Union. Corpus Christi Church, where he was baptized as a Catholic in November 1938, is a two-minute walk across Broadway. So I can imagine that he might have visited the library at Union and he certainly walked by the campus.

Founded in 1836 under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church and now independent, Union has a long and distinguished history of involvement in progressive causes. In the 2018 fall semester its Burke Library had an exhibit on Union student involvement in the protests of 1968 and their links with the university. Its faculty has included notable scholars such as James Cone (best known for his contributions to black liberation theology), Jungian analyst Ann Belford Ulanov, Cornel West and Delores Williams, a pioneer in womanist theology.

When Merton entered Gethsemani in December 1941 he embraced its strict discipline whole-heartedly, including silence. He was happy to live such a rigorous ascetic life, and this shone through clearly in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. A natural writer, his early books were focused on personal spirituality, but gradually in the mid-1950s this began to change. In March 1958, while waiting to cross an intersection in Louisville, Kentucky, he had a powerful experience of his own unity with the rest of humanity, and started to engage more directly in the social justice questions of his time.

The mid 1950s saw the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, and Merton began to write about racism. In his essay “Letters to a White Liberal” he located the source of the crisis within the white community and criticized the Catholic Church for its timidity and lack of courage, making only token gestures and taking safe positions.

Another major focus for Merton was war and non-violence. The 1950s and 1960s were the Cold War years between the US and the Soviet Union, and in response he wrote that Christians had to condemn war and work to abolish nuclear weapons. His religious superiors were very alarmed by these writings and forbade him to speak and write about such issues. His “Cold War Letters” were only finally published in 2006.

Merton was also a pioneer of inter-religious dialogue at a time when the Catholic Church was only just beginning to value other world religions. Before he entered the Trappists he had become interested in Hinduism and Buddhism, and as a monk, he deepened his study of their sacred texts. Through letters he engaged in discussions with the Dalai Lama, the Japanese Zen writer D.T. Suzuki and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh

He died just as the modern ecological movement was beginning, having read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (published in 1962). Merton wrote to Carson, telling her of his regret at using DDT on the monastery grounds, and asked for her help on how to deal with bag worms in the cedar trees there. He told her that her book had helped him to realize that the ecological conscience is also a peacemaking conscience.

Those were Merton’s issues when he died in 1968, but what would he be saying to us today? In that respect the evolution of Union Theological Seminary over the last 50 years acts as a metaphor for the wider movement to connect the spiritual and the political which Merton embodied. If he was to walk through Union’s doors in early 2019, who would he meet as students and faculty, and what might he learn about their passions and concerns?

When he was a student in New York in the 1930s, Columbia University was an all-male institution, but Union has had female students for a very long time, so Merton would notice many of them from various churches, together with Muslim and Buddhist women. Many of these women are preparing for ordination in their respective churches, and some of the Catholic women students wish they could do so too. The faculty mirrors the student body: Union is diverse racially and ethnically, and welcomes the LGBTQIA and transgender communities.

Wandering through the seminary buildings, Merton sees a myriad of posters and announcements of lectures, seminars, protests and other events on campus and in greater New York on decolonization, sexual violence, theology and aesthetics, contemplation and social justice, and a workshop on “writing op-eds as public witness.” The theological community is concerned about racism, Black Lives Matter, poverty, ecological issues and much, much more.

He notices announcements about ‘Centering Prayer’ and a range of retreat opportunities. A student invites him to James Chapel for the 12 noon prayer service and he is intrigued to find a creative meditation service organised by Buddhist students. At the end of the service someone announces that tomorrow there will be an ecumenical Eucharist to which everyone is invited.

What do they study here, Merton wonders? The registrar gives him a copy of that semester’s offerings, and he is intrigued at the number of practical pastoral courses in counselling and psychology and religion, the possibilities to earn degrees in Buddhist and Islamic studies, and the links between theology and the arts. Not everything is new, he notes, for there are also courses in Hebrew and Greek, Scripture, systematic theology and ethics. 

After the Chapel service he is invited to the “Pit,” the student gathering area, for lunch. A few other students gather around his table, intrigued to see a monk among them. Merton tells them that he has been hearing about some of 2019’s issues and he wonders how they are responding. At the top of the list are immigration and what some of them see as “toxic government.” 

He tells them about his ecological awakening when he read Silent Spring, and inquires about their views on environmental issues. The students begin to talk about climate change, the Paris Climate Agreement from which the US has withdrawn, and their worries about the future of the earth. One student from North Carolina talks about how her family was impacted by the huge hurricane of 2018.

Merton also notices a poster about the #MeToo movement and asks what this means. The conversation becomes even more animated, and the women students talk about the courage it takes to name and shame those who harass and abuse them, including in their churches. Merton is amazed, and remembers how he knew that women were being abused during his time at Columbia, but that it was accepted as ‘normal male behaviour.’

What about poverty, he asks? This leads to another lively discussion about growing inequality in the USA. He tells them about the “War on Poverty” which was just beginning in the 1960s. A student tells him, “It’s not over.”

It is almost time for afternoon classes and Merton wanders over to Burke Library and introduces himself to the student assistant. She is astonished that Thomas Merton, the Merton, is at Union today. He peruses the new book area and is struck by the diversity of titles and perspectives on offer, including volumes on ecological issues, cross-cultural preaching and feminist biblical hermeneutics.

The seminary that Merton may have visited in the 1930s and the Union of today are different because the world has radically changed, but his awakening to social justice issues that day in Louisville is a metaphor for all to be woke to the signs of the times today. The environmental crisis and its devastating long-term effects, pervasive gender based violence (which now includes the recognition by Pope Francis of the abuse of Catholic sisters), and the ongoing knee-jerk resort to war to settle disputes present a huge, long-term agenda for action. In response, Merton would say “Pray - and act,” and “act and pray.”

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