Academic journal article Cithara

Thomas Merton Centennial Book Reviews

Academic journal article Cithara

Thomas Merton Centennial Book Reviews

Article excerpt

Perhaps most enduring about Thomas Merton's legacy is his ability to transcend false binaries. He was at one and the same time a contemplative mystic and a social activist; a quiet pacifist and a vociferous social critic; committed to silence and an uninhibited communicator; a monk professed in a decidedly Western religious tradition and committed to personal conversion through Eastern spirituality. Contemplation, however, brought a synthesis to Merton's wildly diverse and variegated life. Contemplation was not simply another facet of life, but was, for Merton, the unifying thread that gave his life purpose, identity, authenticity, and cohesion.

Merton's own understanding of contemplation evolved. He recounts a profound mystical experience he had on March 18,1958 at the intersection of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky. Looking around at the mass of people whirling about their business, Merton was struck: "I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers" (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966], 156). At this moment Merton came to realize that the previous seventeen years he had lived as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani had been built on "a dream of separateness" (ibid.). The startling experience of overwhelming love for complete strangers radically transformed Merton's understanding of contemplation: it could no longer be a "spurious self-isolation in a special world" (ibid.); rather, genuine contemplation links solitude and solidarity:

My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them-and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone they are not "they'' but my own self. There are no strangers! (ibid.)

Contemplation is not separateness, but solidarity. In contemplation the human spirit is fully alive, deeply aware of its profound union with the Source of all life, and it is aware that through this union it participates in the life of all creatures. Merton writes, "[Contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within all that is real. A vivid awareness of infinite Being at the roots of our own limited being" (Thomas Merton, New Seeds ofContemplation [New York: New Directions, 1962], 2-3). …

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