THOMAS MERTON: THE CATHOLIC BUDDHIST MYSTIC
July 19, 2011 (first published September 11, 2008) (David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, firstname.lastname@example.org; for instructions about subscribing and unsubscribing or changing addresses, see the information paragraph at the end of the article) -
The following is excerpted from our book Contemplative Mysticism: A Powerful Ecumenical Bond. This book is available from Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, www.wayoflife.org (online catalog), email@example.com (e-mail).
Thomas Merton (1915-68), was a Roman Catholic Trappist monk whose writings are influential within Catholicism, the New Age movement, the peace movement, as well as the centering prayer movement that lies at the heart of the emerging church and that is permeating evangelicalism. Richard Foster quotes Merton at least 14 times in his popular book Celebration of Discipline.
Merton was a prolific author. Nearly 70 of his books were published during his lifetime or posthumously. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, sold 600,000 hardbound copies in its first year and millions of copies since. It has been continually in print since 1948. His books have been translated into at least 29 languages.
Merton was involved with the peace movement during the Vietnam War. He was closely associated with the pacifist anti-Americans Daniel and Philip Berrigan and Dorothy Day. The Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice carries on this philosophy.
Merton has been called “the most influential proponent of traditional monasticism in American history” (Ursula King, Christian Mystics, p. 229).
Ray Yungen says:
“What Martin Luther King was to the civil rights movement and what Henry Ford was to the automobile, Thomas Merton is to contemplative prayer. Although this prayer movement existed centuries before he came along, Merton took it out of its monastic setting and made it available to and popular with the masses” (A Time of Departing, p. 58).
Born in France, Merton was baptized in a Protestant denomination as an infant, though he was not a practicing Christian. After moving to America, he joined the Catholic Church. This occurred in 1938. The first step was a visit to a mass, which was prompted by “a sweet, strong, gentle, clean urge which said: ‘Go to Mass! Go to Mass!’” (Jim Forest, Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, p. 56). Merton said that afterwards he was filled with peace and contentment. The mystical power of the mass has been influential in the conversion of many people who are not spiritually regenerated and grounded in God’s Word. Soon thereafter, while reading the biography of Gerard Hopkins, a convert to Catholicism who became a Jesuit priest, Merton felt an impulsive stirring. “All of a sudden, something began to stir within me, something began to push me, to prompt me. It was a movement that spoke like a voice. What are you waiting for? Why do you still hesitate? You know what you ought to do? Why don’t you do it? It’s useless to hesitate any longer” (Forest, pp. 58, 59). Instead of testing this impulse by the Scriptures, Merton obeyed. He found a priest and said, “Father, I want to become a Catholic.”
In 1941, Merton was accepted as a monk into the Order of Reformed Cistercians, otherwise known as Trappists. He spent 27 years in the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani monastery, located near Louisville, Kentucky. It is dedicated to Mary, and all of the monks bear her name. Merton’s name was changed to Frater Maria Ludovicus or Brother Mary Louis. In Merton’s day, the monastery followed a strict ascetic discipline. Most of the time the monks observed silence, communicating by sign language. They abstained from meat, with a typical meal consisting of bread, potatoes, an apple, and barley coffee. They slept in their robes on straw-covered boards in unheated dormitories, their sleeping cubicles separated only by shoulder-high partitions. Hot water was available two days a week. Each Friday the monks lashed their own backs with small whips. They could communicate with those outside the monastery only four times a year via half-page letters that were read by a superior before being posted, and they could not leave the monastery even to attend the funeral of a parent. The daily routine, which began long before sunrise with prayers and chanting, consisted of physical labor punctuated by prescribed periods of study and worship.
For three years, Merton lived as a hermit. He said: “This solitude confirms my call to solitude. The more I’m in it, the more I love it. One day it will possess me entirely, and no man will ever see me again” (Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton, 2007, DVD).
Merton was committed to Rome’s foundational heresies such as the papacy, the mass, baptismal regeneration, prayers to the saints, and salvation through works (Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation, pp. 62, 71, 72, 74, 108).
Merton considered the host, the consecrated wafer of the mass, to be Christ. He venerated it as Christ and prayed to it as Christ. Consider the following quotes from his autobiography
“And I saw the raised Host--the silence and simplicity with which Christ once again triumphed, raised up, drawing all things to Himself ... Christ, hidden in the small Host, was giving Himself for me, and to me, and, with Himself, the entire Godhead and Trinity...” (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1998 edition, pp. 245, 246).
“All these people, workmen, poor women, students, clerks, singing the Latin hymn to the Blessed Sacrament written by St. Thomas Aquinas. I fixed my eyes on the monstrance, on the white Host. ... I looked straight at the Host, and I knew, now, Who it was that I was looking at, and I said: ‘Yes, I want to be a priest, with all my heart I want it. If it is Your will, make me a priest’...” (The Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 279, 280).
“I was in the Church of St. Francis at Havana. ... I had come here to hear another Mass. ... Then ... there formed in my mind an awareness, an understanding, a realization of what had just taken place on the altar, at the Consecration: a realization of God made present by the words of Consecration in a way that made Him belong to me. ... a sudden and immediate contact had been established between my intellect and the Truth Who was now physically really and substantially before me on the altar” (pp. 310, 311).
Merton was a great venerator of Mary. As we have seen, his monastery is dedicated to Mary. Its chapel is called “the chapel of Our Lady of Victories.” The first time Merton visited Gethsemani Abbey he described it as “the Court of the Queen of Heaven” (John Talbot, The Way of the Mystic, p. 221). Merton named his little hermitage “the hermitage of Saint Mary of Carmel” and said that she was “queen of mine to the end of the ages” (Living with Wisdom, p. 143). Merton’s autobiography is filled with passionate statements about Mary. He calls her Our Lady, Glorious Mother of God, Queen of Angels, Holy Queen of Heaven, Most High Queen of Heaven, Mediatrix of All Grace, Our Lady of Solitude, Immaculate Virgin, Blessed Virgin, and Holy Queen of souls and refuge of sinners. He dedicated himself to her and prayed to her continually. Consider the following samples:
“Glorious Mother of God, shall I ever again distrust you, or your God, before Whose throne you are irresistible in your intercession? ... As you have dealt with me, Lady, deal also with my millions of brothers who live in the same misery that I knew then: lead them in spite of themselves and guide them by your tremendous influence, O Holy Queen of souls and refuge of sinners, and bring them to your Christ the way you brought me” (Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 143, 144).
“One of the big defects of my spiritual life in that first year was a lack of devotion to the Mother of God. I believed in the truths which the Church teaches about Our Lady, and I said the ‘Hail Mary’ when I prayed, but that is not enough. People do not realize the tremendous power of the Blessed Virgin. They do not know who she is: that IT IS THROUGH HER HANDS ALL GRACES COME BECAUSE GOD HAS WILLED THAT SHE THUS PARTICIPATE IN HIS WORK FOR THE SALVATION OF MEN. ... She is the Mother of the supernatural life in us. Sanctity comes to us through her intercession. God has willed that there be no other way” (The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 251).
“When we crossed over the divide and were going down through the green valley towards the Caribbean Sea, I saw the yellow Basilica of Our Lady of Cobre [in Cuba] ... ‘There you are, Caridad del Cobre! [Merton was praying to La Caridad, the black Madonna, the Queen of Cuba] It is you that I have come to see; you will ask Christ to make me His priest, and I will give you my heart, Lady: and if you will obtain for me this priesthood, I will remember you at my first Mass...” (p. 308).
“I realized truly whose house that was, O glorious Mother of God! ... It is very true that the Cistercian Order is your special territory and that those monks in white cowls are your special servants ... Their houses are all yours--Notre Dame, Notre Dame, all around the world. Notre Dame de Gethsemani ... I think the century of Chartres was most of all your century, my Lady, because it spoke of you clearest not only in word but in glass and stone, showing you for who you are, most powerful, most glorious, MEDIATRIX OF ALL GRACE, and the most High Queen of Heaven, high above all the angels, and throned in glory near the throne of your Divine Son” (p. 352).
Merton also prayed to a variety of Catholic saints, including Therese of Lisieux. He says, “I was immediately and strongly attracted to her” (The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 388). He not only prayed to her but he also dedicated himself to her, vowing, “If I get into the monastery, I will be your monk” (p. 400).
Merton was heavily involved in Catholic contemplative mysticism. He pursued the heschastic tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, which is highly mystical and observes such things as the Jesus Prayer. This involves the repetition of a word or phrase such as “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Ancient monastic contemplative manuals suggest that this be repeated from 3,000 to 12,000 times a day (Tony Jones, The Sacred Way, p. 60). Commonly the practitioner is taught not to think on the words but to allow them to speak to him “intuitively.” This is an attempt to go beyond the words of the Bible, beyond doctrinal conceptions, to a direct experience of God.
From the writings of John of the Cross, Merton learned the “path of the negative,” which refers to pursuing God through experience rather than through defining God by Bible doctrine. Merton’s 1951 book Ascent to Truth was devoted to this idea. “It was through John that Merton had been introduced to the via negative, or apophatic tradition, a spiritual path founded on the awareness that any and all attempts to define God are inadequate. One can better say that God is not, for God is not an idea, not a concept...” (Living with Wisdom, p. 106). Merton wrote, “We must always walk in darkness. We must travel in silence. We must fly by night” (Ascent to Truth, p. 179).
This is blind mysticism and idolatry. “All attempts to define God are NOT inadequate,” because the Bible’s definition of God is divinely inspired and infallible. If one’s pursuit of God is not confined by the revelation of Scripture, the seeker is left to his own imagination and is in danger of being deluded by doctrines of devils. The believer does not stumble after God in darkness but knows God through faith in the wonderful light of divine Revelation.
Merton was also influenced by Julian of Norwich, who called Jesus “our Mother.” This mystic “helped to open the door to Merton’s exploration of God’s feminine dimension” (Living with Wisdom, p. 144).
Merton believed that contemplative mysticism is the key to Christian unity. He said, “If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians” (Living with Wisdom, p. 129).
From the mystical idolatry of the Roman Catholic variety, it is not a great leap to mystical idolatry of the pagan variety, and Merton made that leap in a big way. He was “a strong builder of bridges between East and West” (Twentieth-Century Mystics, p. 39).
It was a Hindu monk named Bramachari who originally encouraged Merton to pursue the “Christian mystical tradition.” This was before Merton even converted to Catholicism. Bramachari said to Merton: “There are many beautiful mystical books written by the Christians. You should read St. Augustine’s Confessions, and The Imitation of Christ. ... Yes, you must read those books” (The Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 216, 217). Ray Yungen observes, “Bramachari understood that Merton didn’t need to switch to Hinduism to get the same enlightenment that he himself experienced through the Hindu mystical tradition” (A Time of Departing, p. 199).
Merton was also influenced by Aldous Huxley, who found enlightenment through hallucinogenic drugs and was one of the first Westerners to promote Buddhism. Henri Nouwen said that Huxley brought Merton “to a deeper level of knowledge” and was his first contact with mysticism (Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic, 1991, pp. 19, 20).
“He had read widely and deeply and intelligently in all kinds of Christian and Oriental mystical literature, and had come out with the astonishing truth that all this, far from being a mixture of dreams and magic and charlatanism, was very real and very serious” (Nouwen, Thomas Merton, p. 20).
Alan Altany observes:
“The pre-Christian Merton had come across Aldous Huxley’s book on mysticism, Ends and Means, which sowed an attraction for not only mysticism in general, but for apophatic mysticism--meaning a knowledge of God obtained by negation--that would enable him to later relate to Buddhist teachings about the Void and Emptiness” (“The Thomas Merton Connection,” Fall 2000, http://www.thomasmertonsociety.org/altany2.htm).
Huxley was Merton’s introduction into Buddhism, a religion that he pursued extensively during his years at Gethsemani beginning in about 1952. Merton studied the teachings of Zen master D.T. Suzuki and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
After meeting Thich Nhat Hanh, Merton said, “... he and I see things in exactly the same way” (Faith and Violence, quoted in Living with Wisdom, p. 215). When Merton wrote to D.T. Suzuki in 1959, he said, “Time after time, as I read your pages, something in me says, ‘That’s it!’ ... So there it is, in all its beautiful purposelessness” (Living with Wisdom, p. 213).
Merton also studied mystical Islamic Sufism. He said, “I’m deeply impregnated with Sufism” (Rob Baker and Gray Henry, Merton and Sufism, 1999, p. 109).
Sufis “chant the name of Allah as a mantra, go into meditative trances and experience God in everything” (Yungen, p. 59). They seek to achieve “fana,” which is “the act of merging with the Divine Oneness.” Some Sufis use dance and music to attain mystical union with God. I observed the “whirling dervish” ritual in Istanbul in April 2008. As they whirl in a trance-like state to the music, the Sufi mystics raise the palm of one hand to heaven and the other to the earth, to channel the mystical experience.
The Yoga Journal makes the following observation:
“Merton had encountered Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism and Vedanta many years prior to his Asian journey. MERTON WAS ABLE TO UNCOVER THE STREAM WHERE THE WISDOM OF EAST AND WEST MERGE AND FLOW TOGETHER, BEYOND DOGMA, IN THE DEPTHS OF INNER EXPERIENCE. ... Merton embraced the spiritual philosophies of the East and integrated this wisdom into (his) own life through direct practice” (Yoga Journal, Jan.-Feb. 1999, quoted from the Lighthouse Trails web site).
Eventually Merton claimed to be both a Buddhist and a Christian. The titles of his books included Zen and the Birds of the Appetite, The Way of Chuang Tzu, and Mystics and the Zen Masters.
Merton also said that he was both a Buddhist and a Hindu:
“I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. The future of Zen is in the West. I INTEND TO BECOME AS GOOD A BUDDHIST AS I CAN” (David Steindl-Rast, “Recollection of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West,” Monastic Studies, 7:10, 1969, http://www.gratefulness.org/readings/dsr_merton_recol2.htm, this report contains quotations from Merton’s talks at the Our Lady of the Redwoods Abbey in Whitethorn, California, in late 1968 on his way to Asia where he died).
“You have to see your will and God’s will dualistically for a long time. You have to experience duality for a long time until you see it’s not there. IN THIS RESPECT I AM A HINDU [here he was saying that he believed in Hindu monism rather than Christian dualism; that God is all and all is God]. Ramakrishna has the solution. ... Openness is all” (“Recollection of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West,” Monastic Studies, 7:10, 1969, http://www.gratefulness.org/readings/dsr_merton_recol2.htm).
“Asia, Zen, Islam, etc., all these things come together in my life. It would be madness for me to attempt to create a monastic life for myself by excluding all these” (quoted by Rob Baker and Gray Henry, Merton and Sufism, p. 41).
“I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own Christian traditions” (quoted by William Shannon, Silent Lamp, 1992, p. 276).
“I think I couldn’t understand Christian teaching the way I do if it were not in the light of Buddhism” (Frank Tuoti, The Dawn of the Mystical Age, 1997, p. 127).
(On a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani’s bookstore in June 2009, I saw many books on display that promote interfaith unity. These include Zen Keys by Thich Nhat Hanh, Bhagavad Gita (Hindu scriptures), Buddhists Talk about Jesus and Christians Talk about Buddha, Meeting Islam: A Guide for Christians, and Jesus in the World’s Faiths.)
Merton defined mysticism as an experience with God beyond words. In a speech to monks of eastern religions in Calcutta in October 1968, he said:
“... the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. IT IS WORDLESS. IT IS BEYOND WORDS, AND IT IS BEYOND SPEECH, and it is BEYOND CONCEPT” (“Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism,” a talk delivered at Calcutta, October 1978, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, Appendix III, 1975 edition, p. 308).
Of Chuang Tzu (also called Zhuang Tze), a Chinese sage and one of the authors of Taoist principles, Merton said, “Chuang Tzu is not CONCERNED WITH WORDS AND FORMULAS about reality, but with the direct existential grasp of reality in itself” (Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu, pp. 10-11). Merton called Chuang Tzu “my kind of person.”
The Bible warns that “evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33), and it is therefore not surprising that Merton was deeply influenced by his intimate association with pagan religions. Eventually he denied the God of the Bible, the reality of sin, the separation of man from God because of sin, the necessity of Christ’s atonement, the bodily resurrection, and hell.
Merton’s deep association with contemplative mysticism also resulted in his belief in panentheism, that God is in everything and that all men are united in God, and that within man is a pure spark of divinity. While standing at an intersection in Louisville in 1958, Merton says that he had an epiphany that he described as follows.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut,* in the center of the shopping district, 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. ... Then it was as if I suddenly saw the SECRET BEAUTY OF THEIR HEART, THE DEPTHS OF THEIR HEARTS WHERE NEITHER SIN nor desire nor self-knowledge CAN REACH, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. ... I SUPPOSE THE BIG PROBLEM WOULD BE THAT WE WOULD FALL DOWN AND WORSHIP EACH OTHER.
“AT THE CENTER OF OUR BEING IS A POINT OF NOTHINGNESS THAT IS UNTOUCHED BY SIN and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is THE PURE GLORY OF GOD IN US. ... It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. IT IS IN EVERYBODY, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sin that would make all darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. .... THE GATE OF HEAVEN IS EVERYWHERE” (Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp. 140-142). (* Walnut was later renamed Muhammed Ali Blvd., and in 2008 the intersection was named Thomas Merton Square.)
This mystical experience was a denial of the Bible. It denies the Bible’s teaching that all men are lost sinners separated from God, that salvation is only through faith in the blood of Christ, and that God alone is God.
Through his study of contemplative Catholic and pagan mysticism, Merton became a universalist of sorts. Nowhere did he say that Buddhists, Hindus, and Sufis worshipped false gods or that they were hell-bound because they do not believe in the Christ of the Bible. When writing about Zen Buddhists, Merton always assumed that they were communing with the same “ground of Being” that he himself had found through Catholic monasticism.
Merton said that monks of all religions are “brothers” and are “already one.” At an interfaith meeting in Calcutta, India, in 1968, sponsored by the Temple of Understanding, Merton said:
“I came with the notion of perhaps saying something for monks and to monks of all religions because I am supposed to be a monk. ... My dear brothers, WE ARE ALREADY ONE. BUT WE IMAGINE THAT WE ARE NOT. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are” (“Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism,” a talk delivered at Calcutta, October 1968, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, 1975 edition, appendix III, p. 308).
Merton used the terms God, Krishna, and Tao interchangeably.
“It is in surrendering a false and illusory liberty on the superficial level that man unites himself with the inner ground of reality and freedom in himself which is the will of God, of Krishna, of Providence, of Tao” (“The Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita,” The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, appendix ix, p. 353).
Merton claimed that there is no reason to believe that God has not revealed himself to other religions.
“Since in practice we must admit that God is in no way limited in His gifts, and since there is no reason to think that He cannot impart His light to other men without first consulting us, THERE CAN BE NO ABSOLUTELY SOLID GROUNDS FOR DENYING THE POSSIBILITY OF SUPERNATURAL (PRIVATE) REVELATION AND OF SUPERNATURAL MYSTICAL GRACES TO INDIVIDUALS, NO MATTER WHERE THEY MAY BE OR WHAT MAY BE THEIR RELIGIOUS TRADITION, provided that they sincerely seek God and His truth. Nor is there any a priori basis for denying that the great prophetic and religious figures of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., could have been mystics, in the true, that is, supernatural, sense of the word” (Mystics and Zen Masters, p. 207).
Merton could only write such a thing because he rejected the Bible as his sole authority for truth. Of course, God doesn’t have to consult us about anything, but He has chosen to reveal His mind in the Scripture and the Scripture plainly states that there is no salvation apart from faith in Jesus Christ. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:26). In John 10, Jesus said that He is only the door to God’s sheepfold, and “he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1).
Merton described mankind as “persons within whom God exists” and said that man glorifies God simply by being what he is (Twentieth-Century Mystics, p. 35).
Merton begins his book Mystics and Zen Masters with a positive review of the evolutionary, universalist, cosmic Christ theories of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and R.C. Zaehner. Nowhere does he renounce these views. Merton writes:
“This implies, according to the Teilhardian view, a recognition that Christianity itself is the fruit of evolution and that the world has from the beginning, knowingly or not, been converging upon the Lord of History as upon its ‘personal center’ of fulfillment and meaning. ... We are thus in ‘the passage from an epoch of individual despairs to one of shared hope in an ever richer material and spiritual life.’
“[Zaehner] sees an evolution in mysticism from the contemplation that seeks to discover and rest in the spiritual essence of the individual nature, to a higher personalist mysticism which transcends nature and the individual self in God together with other men in the Mystical Christ” (Mystics and Zen Masters, 1967, p. 5).
In his last speech, Merton called “original sin” a myth (“Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” a talk delivered at Bangkok on December 10, 1968, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, appendix VII, p. 332).
Merton rejected the view that non-Christians are lost sinners who are “all corrupted in their inner heart” and deceived by the devil (Mystics and Zen Masters, p. 206).
This, of course, is exactly what the Bible says about the individual who does not believe on Christ and submit to God’s Word in the Bible. Such an individual has no light (Isaiah 8:20) and has a deceived and desperately wicked heart (Jeremiah 17:9). He is dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), controlled by the devil (Eph. 2:2), “having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Merton was also influenced by Jungian psychology. In 1956, he participated in a two-week seminar at St. John’s University in Minnesota on psychiatry and its application to religious life. In 1959, Merton began undergoing psychoanalysis with Dr. James Wygal in Louisville. Merton believed Carl Jung’s theory that the “I” that is self-conscious is not the real “I,” but that the real “I” is already “united to God in Christ” and the self-conscious “I” will eventually disappear. He did not write that this as true only for believers in Christ but for mankind in general (Twentieth-Century Mystics, p. 35).
Merton has been at the forefront of the modern interfaith movement that is powered by contemplative practices:
“Thomas Merton was perhaps the greatest popularizer of interspirituality. He opened the door for Christians to explore other traditions, notably Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism” (Wayne Teasdale, Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions).
“Merton was consciously trying to relate the mystical insights of other traditions with his own Christian faith” (Teasdale, A Monk in the World, p. 181).
In 1958, Merton wrote to Pope John XXIII for permission to conduct interfaith dialogues, and in February 1960 he received permission from the Vatican to pursue this project in a “discreet” manner” (Living with Wisdom, p. 141). This was a foreview of the door that opened up for interfaith dialogue following the Second Vatican Council. The pope was so impressed with Merton that he presented him with the stole that he wore during his papal coronation. Today this resides in the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville.
Merton believed that the key to interfaith dialogue is to ignore doctrine and to focus on mystic contemplative experience.
“Personally, in matters where dogmatic beliefs differ, I think that controversy is of little value because it takes us away from the spiritual realities into the realm of words and ideas ... But much more important is the sharing of the experience of divine light ... It is here that the area of fruitful dialogue exists between Christianity and Islam” (Rob Baker and Gray Henry, Merton and Sufism, p. 109).
Actually, what Merton found in meditation was the same as what Mother Teresa found: darkness. He said:
“God, my God, God who I meet in darkness, with you it is always the same thing, always the same question that nobody knows how to answer. I’ve prayed to you in the daytime with thoughts and reasons, and in the nighttime. I’ve explained to you a hundred times my motives for entering the monastery, and you have listened and said nothing. And I have turned away and wept with shame. Perhaps the most urgent and practical renunciation is the renunciation of all questions, because I have begun to realize that you never answer when I expect” (Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton, 2007, DVD).
“The hermit, all day and all night, beats his head against a wall of doubt. That is his contemplation” (quoted from Tony Jones, The Sacred Way, p. 41).
Merton was powerfully influenced by dreams, because he did not test them by Scripture. Beginning in 1958, he had dreams of a Jewish girl who embraced him in non-judgmental love. He identified her with the mythical “Hagia Sophia” (holy wisdom) of Eastern Orthodoxy, which is supposed to represent the femine aspect of God and the unity of God with creation. Merton called the girl “Proverb” and even wrote letters to her. Merton believed that she symbolized the tenderness of God that permeates all of creation. “There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and of joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being” (Living with Wisdom, p. 147).
This is more universalistic, panentheistic nonsense, but it was encouraged by Merton’s dreams.
In 1964, Proverb appeared to Merton as “a Chinese princess who had come to spend the day with him.” He interpreted this as permission to pursue “the wisdom of the Far East” (Living with Wisdom, p. 181).
(For more about the role of dreams in demonic delusion, see the entry on “Sue Monk Kidd” in the Directory of Contemplative Mystics at the end of this book.)
When Merton was 51 and was in the hospital for a back operation, he developed a romantic relationship with his 24-year-old nurse (who “bore a striking resemblance to the Proverb of his dreams”). He pursued this relationship over a period of months during his trips out of the monastery for follow up and rehabilitation. According to Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton, he broke “all his vows” but he did not marry the girl.
In 1968, Merton took the trip of his dreams, to visit India, Ceylon, Singapore, and Thailand, to experience the places where his beloved eastern religions were born. He said, “I’m going home, to a home I’ve never been in this body.”
When he arrived in Calcutta, Merton said that he had come to Asia as a pilgrim seeking wisdom from “ancient sources”:
“I come as a pilgrim who is anxious to obtain not just information, not just ‘facts’ about other monastic traditions, but to drink from ancient sources of monastic vision and experience” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, pp. 312, 313).
One of his goals was to search out a location for a Christian-Buddhist monastery. He described this in his diary of the trip in connection with a conversation with a Buddhist leader in Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
“We talked long about my idea of Buddhist dialogue and of a meditation monastery that would be open to Buddhism” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 218).
In India, Merton met with the Dalai Lama three times and said that “there is a real spiritual bond between us” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, 1975 edition, p. 125). The Dalai Lama agreed. When he visited Merton’s grave at Gethsemani Abbey, he said, “Now our spirits are one” (http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Jan1997/feature1.asp 10/8/2002).
In Sri Lanka, Merton visited a Buddhist shrine by the ocean at Polonnaruwa, the ancient capitol.
“The path dips down to Gal Vihara: a wide, quiet, hollow, surrounded with trees. A low outcrop of rock, with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, and Ananda, I guess, standing by the head of the reclining Buddha. In the cave, another seated Buddha. The vicar general, shying away from ‘paganism,’ hangs back and sits under a tree reading the guidebook. I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing ... without trying to discredit anyone or anything--without refutation--without establishing some other argument” (The Asian Journal, p. 233).
This alleged wisdom is a complete denial of the Bible, which teaches us that there is truth and there is error, light and darkness, God and Satan, and they are not one. The apostle John said, “And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19). True wisdom lies in testing all things by God’s infallible Revelation and rejecting that which is false. Proverbs says, “The simple believeth every word: but the prudent man looketh well to his going” (Prov. 14:15).
Merton described his visit to the stone Buddhas as an experience of great illumination, a vision of “inner clearness.” His complete capitulation to paganism was evident in the words that he wrote about his experience with the idols:
“The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no ‘mystery.’ All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya ... Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination” (The Asian Journal, p. 235).
Dharmakaya refers to the eternal aspect of Buddha. Merton was expressing the panentheistic belief that God permeates everything.
This was a demonic delusion on par with Merton’s mystical experiences with the Mass and Mary.
Six days later, Merton was in Bangkok, Thailand, participating in an interfaith dialogue of contemplatives. The conference began with a welcoming address from the Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism (Living with Wisdom, p. 235). In the final talk of his life, Merton said:
“I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own [Christian] traditions, because they have gone, from the natural point of view, so much deeper into this than we have. ... Now I will disappear from view, and we can all go have a Coke or something” (Merton: A Film Biography, 1984).
He then went to his cottage and was electrocuted by a faulty fan switch. He was fifty-three years old.
As we have seen, Merton’s influence has been great. His books, which have sold by the millions, have been translated into many languages. There is an International Thomas Merton Society (with national branches in 15 countries), a Thomas Merton Studies Center, a Thomas Merton Foundation, and a Merton Institute for Contemplative Living.
Merton has hundreds of disciples in the Roman Catholic Church, including David Steindle-Rast, M. Basil Pennington, William Johnston, Henri Nouwen, Philip St. Romain, William Shannon, and James Finley.
This report is excerpted from our book Contemplative Mysticism: A Powerful Ecumenical Bond. This book is available from Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, www.wayoflife.org (online catalog), firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail).
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