I have read much of what Thomas Merton wrote. As many know, Merton is my favorite monk. A few times, I have taught an upper level seminar on Merton’s spirituality. So I have read enough to cover myself on that level. But I have not read everything he wrote (and likely I won’t). He wrote prolifically from the time he entered in 1941 the Trappist monastery. He was still writing when he tragically died in Thailand in 1968.
Merton is fascinating because his spirituality evolves as he continues to experience life. One might think that living in a monastery would bring nothing new under the sun. But Merton read, he conversed in letters, he had visitors, and he traveled a little. And he paid attention. He paid attention to his own life’s pilgrimage. He knew above all that life is not static.
The two areas that Merton did not change were he continued in his commitment to Roman Catholicism and he stayed true to his vow to remain at Gethsemani, the monastery in Kentucky. Having said that, however, so many times Merton is railing against the Catholic Church. At times, he is frustrated with the hierarchy, with the authority, with its “silly stuff,” as he might have put it. I have to laugh because I have done the same thing with my own Quaker tradition.
How many pages I have read in Merton where he is talking about leaving Gethsemani for another option. Seldom is he dreaming of leaving the monastery and monastic life. Most of the time, he is critical of the monastery because it is no longer true to the original vision. At times, he wants more solitude. He also has wanderlust, so frequently he dreams of going off to Central or South America. Or sometimes, he ponders life in Alaska and, then, late in life he entertains ideas of India or some other Asian option.
But somehow he always knew. Deep down he knew it was not really the Catholic Church that was the problem. Although Gethsemani was not perfect, Merton knew ultimately it was not the monastery that was the main issue. In a September, 1968 circular letter to his friends, Merton articulates the real issue. Imagine a circular letter would be something like me sending a mass email to everyone on my entire list: colleagues, friends, acquaintances, business associates, and family. That was Merton’s circular letter.
Merton says that “Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.” (AJ xxix) I resonate with this. The real journey in life is interior. However, that is pretty scary for many of us. So we prefer life’s journey in an exterior way. We attempt to make meaning through others, through work, through many means. But usually, there is a gnawing feeling deep inside that we have not engaged the real issue.
Merton identifies it very effectively for me. That interior journey is a matter of growth. He is right; real life is not stagnating. Real life is not boring. The interior journey is also a deepening. If I sense my life is pretty superficial, then I have cause to worry. I probably am not engaging real life.
And then there is the most scary part. The interior journey is a surrender. That is probably why so many of us do not want to do it! Surrender? You have to be kidding!
But the surrender ultimately is the only way to go. Surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. I trust that is true because I believe God is in all and working through all. Obviously, it does not always appear to be the case. That’s why I hesitate to surrender. But knowing it is a surrender to love and grace finally makes it ok. I want to be on the real journey---the journey of interiority.