Part I

Thomas Merton

There is a danger of speaking too much about Thomas Merton and too little about his deep concerns.  We should be aware of that danger and make special efforts not to fall into hero worship in speaking of him.  Rather, we should dwell upon the things he stood for.  He still stands for them because he is more alive in the minds of people today than he was before he died.  One of the most important things Merton advocates is the marginal person taking a stand against labels.  If we follow this carefully, we may find that we arrive at our own center by the guidance of Thomas Merton, precisely because we choose to be marginal.

One of the most dangerous labels is the label of “contemplation,” of “contemplative.”  If there was one thing that Merton was always stressing, it was:  “Don’t label me.  Don’t call me a hermit.  If I allow you to call me a hermit I will have to live up to your expectation of what a hermit ought to look like.  Don’t call me a monk; you have your own idea of what a monk is.  I might or might not conform to that idea.  I’m just myself.”

I think the whole life of Thomas Merton could be summed up as one long case of Merton versus labels.  That is what he was all about – knocking down one label after another, and, of course, constantly identifying himself again in one way or another.  The moment he discovered this was a label, he ruled it out.

Yet the whole idea of labels isn’t as simple as that.  It is a complex thing, especially in the context of the monastic life, and very complex in the context of Benedictine monastic life.  One of the words that comes up over and over again in the Rule of Saint Benedict, according to which Merton lived half his life, is what the different things, places, and offices in the monastery are to be:  “sit quod dicitur – let it be what it is called, let it come up to its name.”  The abbot:  “Let the abbot be what he is called.”  The oratory:  “Let the oratory be what it is called.”  So there is a real thrust in the Rule of Saint Benedict to take things and words and ask, “What is it to be called?  Is it reallywhat we call it?  It ought to be what it is called.  Let it come up to its standard.”  And a name sets a standard.

This is profoundly biblical because in the biblical tradition a name is much more than a label.  The name is the very essence of the thing, and for a thing or a person to be true means to live up to the name. People ought to be what they are called; that is, a royal priesthood.  There is a very fine line between labels and being what one is called.  Maybe the clue to the solution of this problem in the context of monastic life is given when we look at the very name and “label” of the monk.  One could almost say that to be a monk means to be one without labels.  So the label of monk or name of monk is to designate one who has no label, who constantly strives to outgrow labels.  That is the one vocation of the monk.

To look at it from a different point of view, the very name monachos has been translated, understood, or explained in the course of tradition, both in the label sense and in the counter-label sense.  In the label sense, as being “one who lives alone.” Monachos means the “loner,” and unless you live alone, you are not really a monk.  Hence, an external label.  If you don’t come up to that label, you are not really a monk.  Various other aspects of being a monachos suggest that it is always an external thing; that is, it has something to do with being “one.”  The monk is the one-joy man who goes after one thing:  the single-minded man pursuing one purpose…..

There is the expression:  “the crack of dawn.”
Merton belongs to this “crack of dawn.”

I see Merton as a prophetic watchman for a new dawn in monastic and contemplative life.  That is why he is so exciting for us.  If he were simply a spokesman for something that had been going on for a long time and continues to go on, it wouldn’t be so exciting.  There is the expression:  “the crack of dawn.”  Merton belongs to this “crack of dawn.”  When we were children, we would be so excited waiting for the moment when the chick would emerge from the shell, after pecking at it from the inside of the egg.  When I saw the film of Merton’s last talk at Bangkok I was reminded of this.  It was like the “cracking-open” of the contemplative life, of monastic life, from the inside.  There was something happening there.  It was a very exciting talk and a very exciting picture, in spite of the fact that it really wasn’t a very good address.  Merton was never particularly good at giving public talks.  He was best at personal conversations and informal breezy talks to small groups, like his students at Gethsemani.  There is something very strange about this talk on Marxism and monastic life.  Its interest lies precisely in the fact that Merton was speaking as a prophet almost in spite of himself.

In the Bible we have the story of the Prophet Balaam, who was invited by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the Israelites.  Balak wanted him to stand up on a hill overlooking the Israelite camp in order to curse them.  But on his way to the king, the ass on which Balaam was riding saw an angel blocking the way.  The prophet didn’t see the angel, but to his great embarrassment, the ass evidently did.  Balaam’s ass didn’t want to go on; he squeezed Balaam’s legs against the rock, trying to evade the angel as he passed down the road.  Only by promising to say what the angel prompted him to say does Balaam get by.  Finally, when he gets to the camp and tries to curse the Israelites, out comes a beautiful Advent prophecy about the star that is rising in Israel.  The king who has called the prophet gets very angry and says:  “Try again.  Say something else.”  He tries again, and an even more glorious prophecy escapes his lips.  Balaam says, “I can’t say anything against the Lord.  I have to say what the Lord wants me to say.”

In the last talk Merton gave, at Bangkok, he is trying to talk about Marxism and the monastic life.  We see in the film that he has notes before him.  Consulting these notes in the Merton archives, we find only a few points of contact between them and the actual talk he gave.  We also see that he was completely carried away.  He goes on, a couple of times, and then comes back to his notes, but he keeps getting side-tracked.  One almost has a feeling that there is some sort of whirlwind or a current that draws him in another direction.  He keeps hanging on to his notes, but gets dragged in another direction.  He keeps talking about the monastery identity crisis (in the notes), but in the talk, in the very first paragraph, he has this interesting remark:  “My purpose is perhaps to share with you the kind of thing a monk goes through in his, shall we say, identity crisis?”  That is the word.  So he is caught off guard, and starts talking about the identify crisis.  Every single word here is significant:  the “perhaps,” the “kind of thing,” the “vagueness” “the monk goes through,” the whole idea of the transitus, the passage, the going through.  And he is saying this just a few hours or minutes before his own going through the treat transitus, his final passage, his – shall we say? – “identity crisis.”

Again and again, he keeps coming back to this identity crisis, and that’s what makes his talk so exciting.  Merton himself says, “I am not an expert on Marxism, and what I have to tell you about this would be rather inconclusive.”  So it is not the formally announced topic that is exciting, but the dynamic prophetic undercurrent.  Even as he goes on, you can tell from the way he is speaking that he feels the tug more and more.  Then he switches from Marxism, leaving the topic completely behind, and in the second half of the talk he speaks only about Buddhism and Christian monasticism; so he has, in fact, abandoned his original tracks completely.  Yet something comes through strongly and clearly:  a confrontation with crisis, monastic identity crisis.

The very word “crisis” Is connected linguistically with the words “sief” and “sifting.”  There is a connection between “sifting out” and “crisis” in the roots of these words.  A crisis is a situation in which we sift things out.  What is sifted out in an identity crisis is the questions “What are the essentials?”  In speaking of the identity crisis, Merton struggled with the questions, “What are the essentials of monastic life?” – sifting out the essentials.  If you just go through the text of his Bangkok talk, underlining the words “essential” and “essentials,” you will see at a glance Merton’s main concern:  “What are really the essentials?”  The confrontation with Marxism simply provides the forum for confronting monastic life.

Real monks live with great alertness, criticizing, sifting out what is essential, and changing life accordingly.

Part 2

Thomas Merton, monk

Merton says that the confrontation with Marxism forces him to face what it is to be a Christian monk.  He tells a little story about meeting a Marxist student at California’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.  During a break-period conversation, the student said to him, “We are also monks.”  It really sounded like:  “We are the real monks!  Who are you?  We are the dedicated ones.”  What is essential is that the monk take a critical attitude towards the world.  The monk is a critic.  We know from Merton’s life to what extent he was a critic of our times.  The monk has this in common with the Marxist, that both Marxist thought and monastic tradition are critical of society.  But Merton says, “Marxism criticizes and tries to change the economic structure; monasticism criticizes and tries to change people’s consciousness.  While Marxism is concerned with externals, monastic criticism is concerned with the inner attitude.”

Merton sees a complete parallel between the movement in Marxist ideology from capitalistic greed to communist dedication, and, in monastic spiritual psychology, fromcupiditas to caritas, from selfishness and desire to real giving love.  He calls that movement a great “yes” to reality, to love, the giving of oneself to life, to the other in service, rather than clinging and hanging onto and grasping.  Unselfishness is one of the essentials which Merton sees in confronting the monastic crisis.  We are critics, not entering some sort of frame of reference and doing what has always been done, but instead being much like those on the social forefront of what is happening in our times.  Real monks live with great alertness, criticizing, sifting out what is essential, and changing life accordingly.

This focus on change leads Merton to see a second essential of monastic life – transformation.  Marxism doesn’t simply make a comparison between capitalist greed and communist dedication; rather, it implies a call for change.  Thus, monks cannot sit back and compare selfishness with love and service; there has to be a change taking place.  It is a dynamic thing.  Merton sees this liberation – and monastic life – as aprocess rather than a state of life.  We have here one of those indications of a crack in the egg shell.  Before Merton’s time, monastic life was considered, on the whole, as a state of life.  After Merton, this is no longer possible.  Of course traditionally, monastic life as a process was always the ideal.  Merton is very traditional in the true sense that to be truly traditional means to be on the forefront.

In the recent and customary view, but not necessarily the most deeply traditional one, monastic life was seen as a state into which one enters, a state in which one perseveres, rather than a process in which one goes forward dynamically to conquer new ground.  Merton hinges this notion of progress and of transformation to what he calls the central monastic vow of conversio morum, conversatio morum.  It is very interesting to note that he uses here the term conversio morum, translated as “conversion of life,” which is one of the three Benedictine vows.

There has been a great controversy in the history of the Benedictine Monastic Order, Trappists included, about whether Saint Benedict wrote:  conversio morum orconversatio morum.  Conversio is a conversation that takes place once and for all;conversatio is a conversion that is expressed over and over again.  It does seem that even Saint Benedict’s original text vacillated between conversatio and conversio.  Our own monastic tradition emphasizes the fact that, regardless of what the original word was, we monks are to live in conversation – in constant renewal and constant conversion, which is the very essence of monastic life.  Merton, too, considers conversion, a constant turning, to be the very essence of monastic life.  This is how he came to take a very critical attitude toward the structures of monastic life.  He formulated this clearly when he said that the time for relying on structures has come to an end.

The moment we stand on our own two feet, the moment we find contemplative life at the root of monastic life,
deep down in our own hearts, we go beyond division.

This may have become particularly evident to him through his visit with the Tibetans, which was the most important experience of his Asian trip.  His visit with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks impressed Merton more than all other Asian encounters.  Of course, these Tibetans have experienced Marxism as a force that destroyed much of their monastic structure.  And Merton is confronting Marxism also as a political force that destroyed all structures.  What happens when these structures are destroyed?  In the future, he says, we will not rely on structures.  We cannot be sure whether any of the structures with which we are familiar will outlast even our lifetime.  What then are we supposed to do?  What is the essence of monastic life?

Here is the high point of his whole Bangkok talk, the background of which is the story of Trungpa Rimpoche, who moved to the U.S. and founded a number of lively, prospering meditation centers.  Merton met him on his Asian journey and was impressed.  When the communists invaded Tibet, Trungpa Rimpoche was abbot of a large monastery, but was out on a visitation and got caught by the invasion at some farmhouse.  Now the question was, what should he do?  Should he go back to his own monastery, or should be flee across the border?  He sent a message to a nearby abbot-friend to ask, “What shall we do?”  The abbot sent back a message which Merton found most significant:  “From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.”

Merton goes on to say, “To my mind, this is an extremely important monastic statement.”  (Remember, this man is now speaking in the last hours of his life!)  “If you forget everything else that has been said, I would suggests that you remember this for the future:  ‘From now on, each one will have to stand on his own feet.’”  He throws everything back on each monk personally:  “Don’t rely on structure; stand on your own feet.”  Then Merton expresses his relationship to structures:  “Yes, we do need structures; we are supported by structures.  But they may be destroyed at any moment by a political power or a political force.  We cannot rely on structures.  Use structures, but do not rely on structures.”

The moment we stand on our own two feet, the moment we find contemplative life at the root of monastic life, deep down in our own hearts, in our own center, we go beyond division. That is the third essential that Merton sifts out in facing the monastic identity crisis:  that the Christian monastic calling is one that unites us with all monks.  There again is this crack where he breaks out from the enclosed shell of a Trappist, Christian, monastic structure into universal monasticism.  Monks East and West share the same quest, the contemplative quest of the human heart, in which we are all united.  We go beyond division to an inner liberty which no one can touch.

Merton sees the essence:  “What is essential in the monastic life is not embedded in buildings, not in a habit, not necessarily even in a rule.”  (That must sound like enormous heresy to some.)  “It is somewhere along the line of something deeper than a rule.  It is concerned with this business of total inner transformation.”  Once we have reached that last quest for total inner transformation, to quote Saint Paul, “there is no longer slave or free-born, there is no longer Jew or Gentile,” there is no longer Asian or European, but we have transcended these divisions.  “This kind of monasticism,” Merton said in his last talk, “this kind of monasticism cannot be extinguished.  It is imperishable; it represents an instinct of the human heart.”

Part 3  

Contemplative life in all its forms and on all different levels is really a quest for living from the heart.  It is a quest for the heart.  I would like now to go a little beyond the strict confines of Merton’s talk in Bangkok, exploring something that here and there in his writings comes through which seems important in context, namely, the idea of the heart as the organ for finding meaning.  The heart is the one center that unites us on the religious level with all human beings, everywhere in the world, at any time we engage in the ultimate quest for meaning.  It is not only the intellect, although it must engage all of our intellect.  It is not only the will, although all our devotion must enter into it.  It is not only our emotions, although all our emotions must reverberate with it.  It is the heart, that realm of our being where intellect, will, and emotions are still one and united, the very taproot of our whole being.

Meaning is what really counts in our lives.  If our life is filled to the brim with purpose, we may one day wake up and still wonder:  Where is the meaning of it all?  Purpose is not of itself meaningful.  We must give meaning to our purpose; we must allow meaning to flow into our purpose, opening our hearts and giving ourselves to the Word of God, to the situation.  There is more than purposefulness, and if we come to see it on many different levels, what really matters is not the useful but the superfluous!  All the great things in life, like poetry and music and friendship are totally superfluous – superfluous in the sense of superfluity, of an overflowing, of not fulfilling any particular practical need, but being gratis.  Then we come to see that the whole world is really superfluous.  Who needs it?

We create the impression sometimes that God worked hard to make himself a world.  Well, did he need it in the first place?  No.  It’s a superfluity of his love; it’s a superfluity of his enjoyment.  It’s not like someone making a woolen sweater against the cold, or a fan against the heat.  No, it’s much more like someone singing a song (in the shower, maybe, just for enjoyment).  It is like someone dancing, an image often used in spiritual tradition – God as the Cosmic Dancer.  Much more than work or purpose, all of creation is play, unfolding of meaning, celebration of the meaning that is at the root of it all.

This is where Merton’s vision of the monk at the margin of society comes in, the monk as being totally superfluous.  Nobody needs the monk, and yet, from another point of view, nobody needs anything as urgently as we need monks.  For we need nothing more urgently than the superfluous.  What would life be without poetry?  What would life be without music?  What would life be without friendship?  But real friendship goes far beyond comradeship, where you still need one another.  Comrades, like two sides of a step-ladder, hold one another up.  But when you get to friendship, it is pure gift.  It is more than practical help and support.  It is mutual enjoyment.  It implies this letting go, this freedom to let go.  I am not bound to you.  As the Sufis say, “Two birds tied to one another do not fly better for having four wings.”  That is something true friends understand.  They fly with one another, but they are not tied to one another.  They are completely free.  The realm of our life where the superfluous matters most is our contemplative life.  In that sense all of us have a contemplative life.  The contemplative life of every human being consists in the search for meaning over and beyond purpose.

We all have a contemplative life,
and so we all deserve monastic life.

One of the theses that evolves from all of Merton’s writings, but particularly from his Bangkok talk, is that the contemplative life is the secret in the heart of every human being.  It belongs to all of us.  It isn’t the specialty of monks or anything like that.  All of us are contemplatives.  The second thesis flows directly out of that:  If we are all contemplatives, and if the monastery is a controlled environment in which the contemplative life is professionally cultivated, a sort of laboratory – even Benedict called it a workshop – then everybody deserves a monastery, at least for a time.

That was another step where Merton cracked the egg of contemporary monastic life and went far beyond what his contemporaries could, or even now can, accept:  that the monastery belongs to all.  A monastery is not a kind of museum nor a place where you come and from a great distance look at the monks singing their chant down there, while you sit way up in the loft, removed from their life.  Merton said, speaking about Trungpa Rimpoche again:  “Incidentally” – for that’s one of those incidental remarks where the real essence of the talk comes through – “incidentally, he has a monastery where you can be a monk for a time.”  “Incidentally,” that is a possibility, and not only a possibility, it is a real need for our time.  Everybody has, we all have, a contemplative life and so we all deserve monastic life.

Then he speaks about monastic therapy, a very ancient concept, monastic therapy, a healing that goes on in the monastery.  God knows we all need that healing, and it isn’t only for monks.  The earliest monks in the West, the Essenes, were called “the Therapists.”  What this monastic therapy is all about is a liberation of the truth imprisoned in us by ignorance and error.  It’s not something outside, but it’s an inner liberation, a liberation of the truth.  Merton closes his talk with a very beautiful image.  It is interesting that this image occurs in the original notes for the talk, but it occurs as a subheading somewhere in the middle of the talk.  When a speaker takes something he has as a minor point and uses it as a final image, you can be sure that, either in the process of the talk or at some other point, this began to be very important to him.  Here, an hour before he died, Merton uses an image from Buddhist iconography.  The Buddha is seated, pointing toward the earth and holding a begging bowl.

The background of the story is that the tempter, immediately after Buddha’s enlightenment, challenged him and said:  “That little piece of ground on which you are sitting is really mine.  You are sitting on my own little piece of ground.”  But the Buddha answered:  “No, it now belongs to me because I have been enlightened.”  I belong to it, and it belongs to me.  I belong to the world and the world belongs to me because I have been enlightened.  Merton says, “This is a very excellent statement, I think, about the relation of the monk to the world.  The monk belongs to the world, but the world belongs to him insofar as he has dedicated himself totally to liberation in order to liberate it.”

We come now to a much deeper concept of contemplatio, which is liberation of the world.  Buddha, holding the open begging bowl as a sign of total openness to everything given to him as a gift, points to the ground.  Totally liberated, he can liberate the world, give himself to the world.  That is the second half of contemplatio – putting the two temples together.  Only when you are liberated can you liberate.

Merton says, “You can’t just immerse yourself in the world and get carried away with it.  That is no salvation.  If you want to pull a drowning man out of the water, you have to have some support yourself.  Suppose someone is drowning and you are standing on a rock, you can do it; or suppose you can support yourself by swimming, you can do it.  There is nothing to be gained by simply jumping into the water and drowning with him.”  You must be liberated from the world to liberate the world.  And that is the final word with which he leaves us at this talk.  Liberation is the monastic life.  It is imperishable, an instinct of the human heart.

That is the crack of dawn, that is the crack where I see Merton standing, just at the moment when he actually passes over into that life that is hidden with Christ in God.  It is a crack that is widening these days…and tremendous things are going to come from it.

Additional resource:

Final Memories of Thomas Merton, by Dom Jean Leclercq, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.