I enjoy reading Thomas Merton. In many ways Merton’s life is so different than my life. And yet so much of what he says makes sense to me. And so often what he says helps me think about my own life and how I am trying to make sense out of my life. I suspect Merton speaks to so many people because he experienced so much in his life. Merton lived through both big wars of the 20th century and, then, was active through the Vietnam War. He was an unlikely person to join a rigorist monastery in the middle of Kentucky. But again, he made that experience something that spoke to people well beyond a Catholic monastery. And he still speaks to people long after his untimely death in 1968.
In a very real sense I consider Merton a friend. I never met him, although I do know and am friends with people who did know him. I think the idea of friendship is a good way to enter the world of spirituality. Friendships are relationships that reveal so much about who we are, what we think, and to what we aspire.
I am sure my take on friendships is what made me stop abruptly when I read the following line from Merton’s book, Confessions of a Guilty Bystander. Merton wrote,
"There are people one meets in books or in life whom one does not merely observe, meet, or know. A deep resonance of one’s entire being is immediately set up with the entire being of the other (Cor ad cor loquitur---heart speaks to heart in the wholeness of the language of music; true friendship is a kind of singing)." These words rang true to my experience. I began to think about the people I have met in the books I have read. Merton counts as one such person who fits this quotation.
All of us have met a large number of people either in real life or in the books and other things we have read. I wonder how many different people I have read on my way to getting a doctoral degree so that I could teach? It must be thousands. I have observed countless people in my life. I have met many of those folks. And I even have come to know quite a healthy number of people. Add these to all the authors I have read and the number has to be quite large.
But then there is another, much smaller, number of people. These are the ones with whom Merton says there is a deep resonance. As he wrote, there is a deep resonance of our own being with the entire being of the other. I can think of a few people who fit this experience. I like the word and the idea of “resonance.” To resonate means there is a harmony---a synchronicity.
Merton puts it well when he moves to the Latin phrase, cor ad cor loquitur---“heart speaks to heart.” I recognized immediately that he was referring to the coat of arms for John Henry Cardinal Newman, a nineteenth English churchman. Newman was one of Merton’s favorite figures. That is a great way to express the deep resonance that happens between two people who meet soulfully.
However, it is how Merton elaborates this, which I find intriguing. Heart speaks to heart, says Merton, in the wholeness of the language of music. It is interesting to think about music having “language.” Certainly music does speak to us. And the kind of music that speaks “heart to heart” provides the language of this deeply resonating experience of two people meeting at the level of soul.
Then Merton finishes the amazing sentence when he says that true friendship is a kind of singing. When I read this, I had a double response. On the one hand, I felt like I knew exactly what he was talking about. I have true friendships where there was a kind of singing. And that is said by one with little musical talent! But the resonance and relationship of this spiritual friendship was musical---it was a kind of singing. On the other hand, I was not sure I had a clue what Merton meant. True friendship is a kind of singing. What does he mean?a
What I do know is singing is so much richer that merely speaking. Singing adds melody and tonality to the true friendship. Probably the common language on the street talks about people “being on the same page.” That is such a bland way of putting a relationship. Compare that to Merton’s idea of true friendship is a kind of singing and we see the difference.
I understand true friendship in two ways. In the first place true friendship characterizes the relationship Christians have with Jesus or with the Divinity Itself. It is not without reason Jesus called those disciples “friends.” In this sense true friendship is spiritual friendship with God. And surely this is characterized well by a kind of singing.
The other understanding of true friendship is the relationship that many of us are graced to have with other spiritual people. I can count a few people who have graced my life in this way. We have a deep resonance that can only be called soulful. There is a spiritual harmony that results from our soulful relationship. When we are together, we are indeed friends who sing.