July 2008

Thomas Merton: a spiritually based political activist
**by Christine Smith
*
 
  /"Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude,
where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my
prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for
God is in all."/--Thomas Merton, /Thoughts in Solitude/
 
Due to my appreciation of Thomas Merton's work, I recently obtained the
film "Merton: A Film Biography."  It was an hour and half (approx.) well
spent!  The dvd bonus materials (interviews/discussion with those who
knew him) added much to this most interesting and informative film
biography.
 
Merton's prolific writings have touched millions worldwide, and his life
as a modern day philosopher (I would call him a mystic) and social
critic serves as an inspiration to me because I identify with the
struggle of being drawn between one's personal life of solitude and
contemplation and one's desire and will to bring about change - to use
one's freedom to work for justice, peace and liberty.  Choosing this, we
experience, learn more of who we are (including our errors and
mistakes), seek truth, and realize each of us - the individuals we are-
are all part of one another. Merton was a man who embraced Truth, sought
spiritual guidance as he provided it, and whose life is a shining light
for those who identify with his spiritual basis for being involved in
the politics of the world.  His is a life which perfectly exemplifies
being in the world without being of the world as he confronted and
exposed the evils of American imperialism, the Vietnam War, racism, and
any form of man's inhumanity to man.
 
The awareness of not needing other people, yet being able to lovingly
and sincerely appreciate others, is an experience I've had since a
child.  Though I relate well in social situations, I do not need to be
around other people.  It is in solitude I am often most happy.  The very
rare exception of meeting someone whom I actually am happy or look
forward to being in their presence has been few and far between.
 
This is, I think, because my thoughts and feelings about life are always
with me.  I do not care to distract myself with meaningless activities.
I want to be as Merton described "fully awake."  I do, however,
appreciate being around others with similar values whether to learn from
one another or just to have a relaxing social time together.  The
"similar values" is important to me, a prerequisite to even wanting to
spend social time with another.
 
Thus, Merton's work has always spoken to me.  It is of the Spirit.  And
as I've struggled in my life, his words oft describe precisely a truth I
know but need to be reminded of.  He was also one with a passion for
life: an appreciation of art, a vibrant (and outgoing) personality, and
a devotion to learning!  Even before becoming a monk, his life was that
of a man who no matter what he would choose to do one knew he would do
it enthusiastically, with zeal, and well.  I relate to this, finding
that I retreat into personal reflection at times, returning to others
(to the world) restored and renewed.
 
We must keep in mind, and part of the reason I so highly recommend this
film biography, is that Merton's monastic life came only after years
spent as any other young man (drinking, socializing, and even getting a
girlfriend pregnant) during his college days.  I mention this because it
makes his story so powerful!  Too often we place those we emulate on a
pedestal (which should never be done anyway - we are all equal- we are
all members of the human family with not one of us more special than
another), but it's a human weakness to classify those we may admire as
something more than us - particularly when it comes to those we look to
for religious or spiritual guidance, knowledge and wisdom.  The beauty
of Merton's personal story is that it illustrates the good and blessings
which come to others when one follows their heart.  Merton, even while a
young man, was captivated by the churches...the true seeking of human
beings to know spiritual truth...to know God...and he knew his writing
of his thoughts was part of him to do.  By following his deepest desire,
his life has blessed millions with understanding and enlightenment.
Making others happy made him happy.  Giving is receiving.
 
I appreciate the way Merton emphasized living in the present moment.
One of his friends, during the film, shared that one of the last things
Merton told him before leaving on his trip to Asia (where he died) was
to remember: Now Here This.  (Note: the word is here not hear).  Meaning
all that matters is right now - this moment.  Here - not thinking about
our past, where we've been nor thinking about future plans or where we
may go.  This - the activity we are involved in this moment.
Remembering "Now Here This" will bring you happiness Merton said.  Such
truth, so simply spoken, and so powerfully.  To truly live in the "Now
Here This" moment brings mindfulness and appreciation fully of the
experiences of our life.
 
I've also always related to his focus on one's life, if they so choose,
being a prayer.  That in each moment, should we choose, we worship, we
pray.  This has been my way for years (although I have now also
discovered the beautiful value of prayer using words as well).  Prayer
then is to hear God's answer to us.
 
In regards to one's needs in life, Merton's spiritual definition of
"poverty" is one of receiving gratitude and giving it.  It is of keeping
that which one needs and giving to others.  In this one finds a
gratification beyond measure.  Likewise, it is with one's choices in
life, "/A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops
thinking about how to live and begins to live...When we find our
vocation - thought and life are one. Suppose one has found completeness
in his true vocation. Now everything is in unity, in order, at peace.
Now work no longer interferes with prayer or prayer with work. Now
contemplation no longer needs to be a special "state" that removes one
from the ordinary things going on around him for God penetrates all. One
does not have to think of giving an account of oneself to anyone but
Him/..." (/Thoughts in Solitude/).  That is living.  That is giving
oneself and finding oneself.
 
When I think of Merton, I think of a man whose life was one of unity.  A
man who had to communicate with all of us and who was courageous in
speaking the truth even when it meant challenging power:  his own Church
or the U.S. government's imperialism.  His devotion to justice, to
peace, to reverence for life, is an inspiration.
 
Those who find themselves differing from the majority in their spiritual
quest, seeking, and desire to be used as a vessel to bring more love
into this world, suffer anguish...pain deeper than most I believe...but
it is they who, in their contemplative life, experience the greatest
joy.  Every experience as Merton would say "plants something" in your soul.
 
/"Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and
spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully
aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at
the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for
awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that
life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and
infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, an awareness of
the reality of that Source."/-Thomas  Merton, //New Seeds of
Contemplation.//
 
I highly recommend Thomas Merton's work to you (he wrote over 60 books
of prose & poetry), as I highly recommend the film "Merton: A Film
Biography."
 
/Christine Smith is a writer, humanitarian and political activist.  You
may visit her website: http://www.ChristineSmith.us/