The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.
~Thomas Merton, from No Man is an Island
Thomas Merton was born on this day, January 31st in 1915. A Trappist monk and prolific author of over 60 books, Merton is known for his deep, reflective interior life which led him to inter-religious dialogue with people such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and D. T. Suzuki.
His is the spirit evoked by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 as he first credentializes himself as an apostle, only to set it aside for his greater love for people. Paul, like Christ did not require that people fit a certain mold in order to be acceptable. As Michael Green wrote in his book To Corinth With Love
Paul would not have tolerated the middle-class captivity of the church in the Western world. He would have been as active in evangelizing skinheads as undergraduates. He would have been as much at home talking of Christ in the bar or the open air as at the supper party.
Ministries to the outcasts and marginalized of our day begin to implement the vision of “all things to all people” that Paul presents. Paul compares the evangelistic lifestyle of true believers to athletes who sacrifice normal pursuits for the sake of strict training and a competitive edge in order to achieve, as Cicero said, the Summum bonum – “the highest good.”
1 Corinthians 9:19–27
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
D I G D E E P E R
American Trappist monk. Merton was born in France to Owen Merton, New Zealander, and Ruth Jenkins Merton, American, artists who married while studying in Paris. His early childhood was complicated by his mother’s death and his father’s nomadic impulses. In 1941 Merton entered monastic life at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky, and remained a monk until his death in 1968. He briefly attended Cambridge University and later engaged in graduate studies on William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins at Columbia University. Thoroughly immersed in the lifestyle of the 1920s in New York City, Merton embraced friendships that would last the course of his life with men of letters, including Robert Giroux and Robert Lax, and the artist Ad Reinhardt. His astonishing conversion and subsequent monastic vocation to the Cistercians of the Strict Observance are recorded in his classic spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), claimed by some literary critics as the best of its genre in twentieth-century American literature. It has been translated into dozens of languages.
By the time Merton was in his early twenties, he was a published poet and had already written several unpublished novels. His significance as a writer continued throughout his life and extended far beyond Catholic readers into secular society, in nearly one hundred books and collections. His journals, essays, and volumes of poetry have influenced millions of readers who follow his journey as a deeply committed Christian monk. They sought his wisdom on war and peace and race relations in the 1960s, but also for spiritual and contemplative direction before and after that tumultuous decade. Merton was a prolific correspondent, writing more than twenty thousand letters in which he recorded his responses to the world around him.
His dual vocation as a contemplative monk and writer was a paradox that drove him to a profound search for the will of God in his life, daily and eternally, in spite of his human failings—failings he recorded as a testimony to God’s grace in his struggles with sin and forgiveness. His concerns for social justice led him to identify with poverty activist Dorothy Day and to write for the Catholic Worker. He engaged American presidents and Congressmen, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and Nobel Prize winners Boris Pasternak and Czeslaw Milosz, along with artists, musicians, and writers of cultural esteem and influence all over the world. He was invited into discussions preceding Vatican II and visited the Dalai Lama in 1968, in a meeting that initiated serious interreligious dialogue between East and West in the modern age.
Merton is sometimes controversial among evangelical Christians who are skeptical of monasticism as a spiritual vocation. Only more recently has the study of the desert fathers and the church traditions of intellectual and spiritual formation made a much wider audience of Christians more interested in Merton. Conversely, Merton was giving conferences in the sixties to students from the Southern Seminary in Louisville who were taken to Gethsemani for educational reasons. Like many others who would follow, they found common ground for people of faith and experienced the foreshadowing effects that Merton’s life would have on future generations of seekers after spiritual truth.
Sources & Resources
G. Kilcourse, Ace of Freedoms: Thomas Merton’s Christ (1994);
R. Labrie, The Art of Thomas Merton (1974);
J. Montaldo and P. Hart, eds., The Intimate Merton (2001);
M. Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (1984);
W. Shannon, Silent Lamp (1993);
W. Shannon et al., The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (2002); L. Szabo, ed., In the Dark before Dawn (2005).
Lynn R. Szabo, “Merton, Thomas (1915–1968),” ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 611–612.
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1081.