A Living Experience
I have been re-reading some of Thomas Merton for an upcoming speaking engagement. I always find Merton to be thought provoking and quotable, even though he died in 1968. I always find the irony to be too much that a guy who took vows to live in a contemplative, rigorous monastery in the middle of Kentucky still has a tremendous relevancy to folks in the twenty-first century. I think the reason is Merton was so human.
It is easy to assume that someone who runs off to a monastery cannot be normal. And living in a monastery should be a guarantee that you never will be normal! I know I had that assumption. But when you meet monks, as I have done countless times, you usually come away thinking that those monkish guys or gals are actually pretty normal. What they are doing living the monastic life is not the run-of-the-mill kind of job. But when I think about it, guys and gals who drive racecars for a living or who are astronauts are not living normally as most of my friends.
I love coming away from a reading of Merton and think to myself, wow, that guy is so human. Virtually all of the things he writes about have to be with being human and being human in the most meaningful way you can do it. For him being human inevitably leads to God. Of course, this is not true for everyone. It is true for me and that draws me to read further to see how Merton connects being human and relating to God. He still instructs me.
Another thing I like about Merton is how he grew and changed over the course of his life. As he followed his quest and asked questions, he was drawn into new experiences. Those new experiences gave him new ways of thinking about himself, about his world and about God. The same thing has happened to me. At one level, I am still the kid who grew up on an Indiana dairy farm. But I also am the guy who studied at one of the finest universities in the land---far away from Indiana. And I lived in Germany and England and traveled so much more.
Through the course of this, I have met so many people who are very different than I am. Many of those come from faith traditions that once were completely foreign to me. I have met Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. I have dined with Sikhs and talked with Jains. Every one of those encounters has put me into some tension with my own Christian beliefs. I did not feel threatened. But I did realize I needed an understanding of my own faith that could account for difference. I needed a way to continue to relate to God, but understand Muslims and Hindus related to God in some different ways.
As I talk about this kind of interaction, I realized I was drawn into the world of interfaith dialogue, as it is called. Merton experienced the same kind of pilgrimage into other faith traditions. At first it was accidental, mostly because when you live in New York City, you encounter significant difference in people and cultures. Later, Merton became quite intentional about interacting with other faith traditions. He began to read widely and to make friends with folks of different faiths.
In the ‘60s, Merton’s writings reflect the impact other faith traditions had on his faith and life. One of my favorite books of his has the intriguing title, Zen and the Birds of Appetite. I pulled this one off the shelf and began reading the underlining from earlier reads. When I do this, I find the re-read nearly as fresh and the first time I plunged into the text. It was revelatory.
The second chapter of that book is entitled, “A Christian Looks at Zen.” Merton offers a critique that resonates with my Quaker soul. He talks about Catholicism, but it fits Christianity as a whole. Merton says, “This obsession with doctrinal formulas, juridical order and ritual exactitude has often made people forget that the heart of Catholicism, too, is a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations.” (39) The heart of Christianity is a living experience. That is foundational to my faith.
Religion is not a bunch of doctrines, rituals and laws. Religion---or spirituality for me---is about experiencing God. I tell students that atheists can have views or ideas about God. Atheists can understand doctrine. But atheists do not have a living experience of God. For me it starts with experience and then moves toward explanation---theology or doctrine.
With this as my starting point, I can engage the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or other, as Merton did, and ask about their experience. This is precisely what Merton does. And he does this in an open way. In effect, he asks them to talk about their experience. What is your living experience, he queries them. And a good question like this one enables you to sit back, open your ears and listen.
To hear someone talk about their living experience is an invitation to join them on their holy ground. I feel like taking off my shoes. It is a humbling, gratifying gift to be invited into a discussion of one’s living experience of God. I can only say thank you.