THOMAS MERTON: A PROPHETIC VOICE FOR TODAY by Cassidy Hall

Editorial Note: A full half-century after the tragic death of Thomas Merton, OCSO, shortly before his 54th birthday (January 31, 1915-December 10, 1968), the person and writings of this renowned Trappist monk continue to inspire Christians of every ecclesial and denominational affiliation. The rise of demagoguery and reactionary politics around the planet—which feeds on our inability to love the feared “other”—makes his prophetic voice more urgent for us to hear now than perhaps at any other time since his too short life.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s commitment to ecumenical dialogue does not presume any kind of doctrinal or ecclesial relativism. Rather it reflects the conviction that persons of good will from every Christian tradition have much to contribute of truth and beauty to our shared pursuit of love transfigured by uncreated grace in the likeness of divine love.
Trappist Father Thomas Merton pictured in undated photo

Thomas Merton in front of his hermitage. Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Trappist KY.

The most obvious characteristic of our age is its destructiveness. This can hardly be doubted. We have developed an enormous capacity to build and to change our world, but far more enormous are our capacities for destruction. 
Thomas Merton, “Theology of Creativity,” 1960

Many of us sense an aura of doom when we wake up to the day. Destruction consumes our news feed as we scroll past the dead, the hate, and the eerie joy of our friends’ and families’ photos as though nothing were going awry. While we know our looking away doesn’t make things go away, we try and try, and try again.

We live in an age where men manufacture their own truth. 
Thomas Merton, Sermon on The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 12/8/62, audio recording

There is an unfading relevance to the words written nearly 60 year ago by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Many of us are rereading his books and essays with bewilderment, assuming they must have been written in and for this very time. Alas, we know that this beloved monk, said to be one of the most influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century, rests in that place of mystery beyond death while his body lies underground at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

Why does it matter?

What difference does it make if the words of this monk remain true for centuries?

Are we waiting for anything? Do we stand for anything? Do we know what we want?
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, 1966

It matters precisely because it testifies to the need for love and truth in an age of unending destruction, perpetual ignorance (largely a deeply ingrained desire to not know the other), and endless falsities that lead us into a place where love is forgotten and our fellow human is dismissed. Merton, on the other hand, seemed to point to a way out—a better way of moving in these times.

…Let us then recognize ourselves for who we are: dervishes mad with secret therapeutic love which cannot be bought or sold, and which the politician fears more than violent revolution, for violence changes nothing.  But love changes everything. We are stronger than the bomb…. 
Thomas Merton, “Message to Poets,” 1964

Just the other day, CNN’s Chris Cuomo mentioned a passage from Thomas Merton’s 1960 essay, “Christianity and Totalitarianism” (found in his book, Disputed Questions, pp. 133-134). During his prime-time show, he shared some of these words from 60 years ago:

…for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy. It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies the enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand… Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice, and hate which flows from the crippled nature of man who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person. It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever he can, and first of all in himself, the capacity of love and understanding which makes man the living image of God.

Many of us assume we’re incapable of such an extent of love because we fear. We fear walking forward with open arms because we’ve been taught to trust no one. We fear the other because they’re different.

Yet the day after Cuomo quoted Merton, something else caught my eye. The nurse on duty at the Pittsburgh hospital when the gunman of the Synagogue shooting was brought in for treatment spoke out about being the murderer’s nurse:

Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings….
Ari Mahler, RN

In a world of destruction, ignorance, and falsities—there is not only a place for love, but love is the only answer. Love is the way out—a better way of moving in these times. Love is the only way we can begin to clean up the messes before us. This love cannot hesitate. It cannot stutter-step its way to the other when such a pause can cause death. It is only by bringing our love back to a place of innocence—a place where it is free to grow and give of itself, a place where it no longer fears—that we can emerge with the ability and the desire to love.

Currently, I’m working on a documentary film about Thomas Merton’s final years in the hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Entitled Day of a Stranger, the film pieces together some never-before heard audio that he recorded of himself alongside meditative images of the hermitage property. Taking the walk that Merton took to and from the Abbey, listening to his late-night jazz meditations as the fireflies roll by the oil lamp, looking into the letters and essays that he wrote and the work that he edited—there is no doubt that this cinder block building was the home of some of Thomas Merton’s most important work.

My hope for the film is not for it to be a place of romanticizing the monastic life, Thomas Merton, or his words. Instead, my hope is that it becomes a place of interior recognition for the viewer: a place that points to the infinite possibilities of love we’re all capable of, a place that reminds us that—no matter how simple—our lives, our work, and our love matter.

You will answer: “Waiting is not inertia. To be quiet and bide one’s time is to resist. Passive resistance is a form of action.”
That is true when one is waiting for something, and knows for what he is waiting. That is true when one is resisting, and knows why, and to what end, he is resisting, and whose he must resist. Unless our waiting implies knowledge and action, we will find ourselves waiting for our own destruction and nothing more. A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice.
Are we waiting for anything? Do we stand for anything? Do we know what we want?
Here we stand, in a state of diffuse irruption and doubt, while ‘they’ fight one another for power over the whole world. It is our confusion that enables ‘them’ to use us, and to pit us against one another, for their own purposes….
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, pp. 55-56

Click here to support the completion of this project.

Cassidy Hall is an MDiv student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, counselor, author, and filmmaker. She co-hosts the Encountering Silence podcast and serves as secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society. She has written for ConviviumThe Merton Seasonal Archive, Huffington PostPatheos, and National Catholic Reporter. Her Notes on Silence, co-authored with Patrick Shen, appeared in March and is available from the publisher and on Kindle from Amazon. Visit her website for more information.

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