Today, Pope Francis addressed the United State Congress. I’ll not rehash or critique what he had to say, as those sorts of opinions are widely available. What I would like to do is just ramble a bit about part of his speech.
The Pope framed his speech by talking about the contributions of four Americans: two Catholics and two Protestants. There is little doubt that most Americans are already familiar with Dr. King and President Lincoln, our two Protestant representatives and men who bravely gave their life for the cause of liberty and justice. The two Catholics are less familiar to many. Dorothy Day was a Catholic convert who founded the Catholic Worker’s Movement. Like Pope Francis, she is often accused of socialism, though she was more precisely a proponent of distributism, and a vocal advocate for non-violence and the poor. There is plenty of information available about her, so feel free to jump on Google. I understand she is trending right now.
The Pope also mentioned Thomas Merton. He didn’t say much about Merton, other than to say, “above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” This is true. I, however, know Merton as the writer who changed my life.
After years in Christian fundamentalism, I walked away from Christianity with no intention of every returning, until one day I saw a picture in a world religions textbook of two men standing together. One was a young Dalai Lama. The other was Thomas Merton. I was intrigued.
I soon picked up my first Merton book, The Ascent to Truth. I wouldn’t recommend this as the beginning point of contact with Merton for most folks, but it spoke to me deeply in the opening pages. Merton opens his prologue, “Mysticism in Man’s Life,” with the words, “The only thing that can save the world from complete moral collapse is a spiritual revolution. Christianity, by its very nature, demands such a revolution. If Christians would all live up to what they profess to believe, the revolution would happen.” These words devastated and inspired me then, and they still do now.
Merton continues, “The big problem that confronts Christianity is not Christ’s enemies. Persecution has never done much harm to the inner life of the Church as such. The real religious problem exists in the souls of those of us who in their hearts believe in God, and who recognize their obligation to love Him and serve Him – yet do not.”
The revolutionary solution that Merton proposed was not a Christianity that saved the world through political power or through the culture wars, but a world that was reconciled to God because men and women answered a call to the conversion of their hearts. “You cannot save the world merely with a system,” he writes. Only devotion to God, which in Merton’s mind included a call to an inner life shaped by contemplative prayer, was essential. If we want to change the world, if we want a revolution, it must first take place in our hearts.
I have learned without a shadow of a doubt (from Merton, from scripture, and from experience) that this conversion of heart is a lifelong process. It is about more than embracing this or that dogma (though dogma is useful and plays a role), but is about an ongoing encounter with a living God. The Christian life is about more than simply praying a “sinner’s prayer” and going to heaven, it is participation in the mystery of God’s divine love for humanity made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. Merton again says, “For St. Paul, the problem of justification is not a matter of proving truth of this or that doctrine, but of making Christ alive in our hearts by faith.”
The Ascent to Truth goes on to explore mysticism, modernity, and especially the thought of Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross. It is a rewarding book to read, and one I have returned to over the nineteen years that have lapsed since I first saw that picture. In those years my life has seen many changes. Like most lives, there have been joyous mountain tops and dark valleys to traverse. There have been dark nights of the soul. There has been dogmatic certainty tempered with healthy skepticism. What has been consistent, however, is Merton. He has been my constant companion. I’ve been challenged, encouraged, frustrated, and angered by his writings. He has moved me to laughter and to tears. I’ve argued with him and about him. I’ve been disillusioned by his failures when I’ve tried to make him a saint and comforted by his humanity when I was reminded that he was just another guy trying his best to figure out his place in the grand scheme of things.
I will ever be grateful for the life, witness, and writings of Thomas Merton, and the role he has played in my life.
Note: This is probably going to end up being a two-parter. I am formulating another post that would be my essential Merton reading list. Hopefully that will appear sometime this weekend.