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Thinking Out Loud

Thomas Merton as "Exact Contemporary"

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 18, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Exact Contemporary

Only a few monks living today at Gethsemani Abbey personally knew Thomas Merton, or “Father Louis Merton” as he was known there. The others know Merton as most of us know Merton, through his books.

The complex, contradictory, deeply faithful, profoundly thoughtful, sometimes restless, but always very human person who was Merton is remembered with gratitude by those who learned from him when he was novice master, or when they prayed the liturgy with him, or when they talked with him face-to-face. But what of the rest of us who only know Merton as text? And, knowing Merton through his books, what do we know?

On one hand, we might say that knowing Merton as text means we only know what he wanted us to know. When a writer sits down before a blank page of paper, he or she has complete control. The writer can write whatever he or she wishes. The writer can hide some things and disclose others at will. I recall an art teacher with whom I was working a couple of years ago who said to me as I stood before a blank canvas: "Remember, right now, you are the creator. This canvas can say whatever you want." So, one might assume that readers will only know what writers want them to know.

On the other hand, careful readers are aware that writers often disclose far more than they intend. The page has a way of capturing aspects of the consciousness and personality that the writer didn't mean to put down. We are seldom aware of all we are saying. Thus, a psychoanalyst will hear in our words clues to what is going on with us that we haven't yet realized ourselves. And a literary critic will observe in a text what a careless reader won't notice. The indelible imprint of an author is upon whatever he or she writes, and that imprint includes the unintended.

Writers appear in the pages they write. Their living breath can be felt in the vowels, their heartbeat through the consonants. Their false selves and true, their mixed motives, their restlessness and trustfulness are revealed, whether they intended this or not. In other words, there's more of Merton’s flesh and blood on the printed page than we might first have assumed.

That raises another question, and it is a question with theological significance: Is there a disadvantage to not knowing Merton in the flesh?

Obviously, there is. How often I have found myself wanting to enjoy the fullness of that sense of humor that comes through here and there, especially in Merton's letters. Listening to stories about Merton told by people like the late Will D. Campbell, I have wished I could have enjoyed a conversation with Merton. And there are questions, so many questions, I would like to have asked him, the answers to which are only hinted at in his books. How often I have wished I could say, "When you wrote this, what did you mean?"

There's a strange combination of disclosure and hiddenness that I sometimes think could be erased if only I could have talked with him. However, I also have to admit that knowing people in the flesh, even knowing them very well, does not remove the mystery of the dynamic between disclosure and hiddenness. I've known my wife for something approaching forty-five years, forty-one of which we've been married, and she remains a mystery to me. Just because sometimes we can finish each other’s sentences doesn't mean that there aren't aspects of one another that make up volumes we will never comprehend. But we do have the advantage of enjoying and experiencing one another in our full, delightful and maddening immediacy. And that is a real advantage.

There's something that is not gained, then, in knowing Merton only as text, especially at a personal level. But when it comes to knowing Merton as our teacher, there's something else we shouldn't forget. And this is where the theological significance is strongest.

Søren Kierkegaard responded to the idea that the disciples of Jesus had an advantage over the rest of us because they knew Jesus in the flesh. History accords the apostles, and other disciples like Mary Magdalene, a special status because they knew Jesus personally. Paul claims a different kind of authority because of his revelation from the risen Christ. But there's no doubt that we often look, almost romantically, at those who walked and talked with Jesus as having the advantage of an access to him which we are denied because of our lack of physical and historical proximity to him.

Not so, claims Kierkegaard. Jesus Christ remains our exact contemporary still meeting us directly. From a theological perspective, we know that the Spirit of God makes the words of the text come alive in our hearing, so that through the power of the Spirit the Word of God, Christ himself, speaks directly to us, claiming us, calling us to follow. In some ways, the original disciples actually experienced a disadvantage of historical proximity from which we do not suffer.

That brings us back to Merton and his texts. God uses saints to make saints of us. The Holy Spirit speaks the Word of God through a variety of texts. This is distinctively true of the biblical texts, but there are others. Some of these other texts are apparently especially useful.

Thomas à Kempis, an obscure monk in a Dutch monastery whom relatively few people in the world knew personally, and Lady Julian of Norwich, an anchoress living in a coastal city of medieval England, have been published for centuries, translated into scores of languages, and continue to be read today by thousands. C.S. Lewis, one of his friends once quipped, has written more books after his death than were published before; he has become a spiritual companion perhaps to more Christians than any writer in history.

Thomas Merton's writings are ubiquitous, springing up on the nightstands of Catholic priests and Protestant pastors, devoted Christians, curious seekers, and intrigued agnostics. And the Spirit of God uses his words, again and again, to speak to hearts and minds that would never have sat down with a Cistercian monk. Through his books, and through the gentle power of the Spirit of God, Merton becomes our "exact contemporary" again and again. "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24). And just look at the fruit produced by our brother, Thomas.

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