I’m not sure when I first heard of Thomas Merton, it was either in high school or college, and it came from older Catholic people of faith quoting Merton as a wise old American monk. The more I learned about him, the more intrigued I was. He was a monk who lived as a hermit, yet he was a celebrity entertaining scholars and politicians. He lived seperate from the world, but wrote works that inspired people to understand the basic nature of humans. His spiritual autobiography Seven Story Mountain was a best seller, quite a feat for a Trappist monk
I started reading Seven Storey Mountain in college but for whatever reason to this day I’ve still not completed reading that book. Yet part of the early pages of the still stay with me in his story of a ruined chapel near his birthplace in France. The chapel, like Merton, would find its way to New York City where it became part of the Cloisters museum. Since the Cloisters is one of my favorite spiritual places this created an early link between Merton and myself.
While I was in college I read a lot about eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism and how the spiritual practices of these religions can accentuate Catholic faith. One of my professors even mentioned a practice called Zen Catholicism. This of course led me back to Merton who studied and prayed with Buddhists and others in ecumenical travels in Asia. I picked up — and actually read — a couple of Merton’s works based on Asian philosophies: The Way of Chuang Tzu and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. One story from The Way of Chuang Tzu particularly stood for it’s inspiration during exams and other times of stress:
Flight From the Shadow
There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.
So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.
He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping, until he finally dropped dead.
He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still there would be no more footsteps. (pp. 231-32)
The story says so much: that people feel they can run away from their problems, that they think the answers are in things of this world, that they can follow their own plan instead of God. The story as does Merton’s life demonstrates the value of quiet contemplation and prayer to understanding God’s plans for our lives. Only by following God can we avoid death.
Earlier this year my journey with Merton continued when I read The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie (reviewed here in Sojourners), and excellent biography of the parrallell journeys of Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. For the first time I learned details of Merton’s life and faith journey. I also read James Martin’s My Life With the Saints which includes a chapter on Merton (and which is why I feel I too can include reflections on saints like Merton who are not officially canonized). It seems that I can’t go too long without learning something about Merton. Eventually, and hopefully soon, I will return to reading and completing Seven Storey Mountain.
Thomas Merton died on this date in 1968 by electricution after touching a poorly-grounded fan while coming out of his bath. His death occurred in Bangkok during his ecumenical tour of Asia.
Merton resources abound on the internet: including the International Thomas Merton Society, The Abbey of Gethsemani, and the Thomas Merton Center for Catholic Spirituality. I also enjoyed this article from American Catholic.