by Pastor Doug Kings
I heard many expressions of dismay at my intention to reduce by Reflections posts. So I have discarded that plan but will still try to make some accommodations for my schedule, especially at busy times of year like this. So here is an edited version of an Advent post shared two years ago. Since a group of us are reflecting on Thomas Merton’s spirituality, it seemed appropriate to revisit this reflection on his life.
Thomas Merton, one of the greatest Christian spiritual authorities and guides of modern times, died on December 10, 1968. He was 53. Merton gained public awareness in 1948 with the publication of his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it he tells of his life up to his joining the church and decision to become a Trappist monk. Despite his secluded life in Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, he continued to be a prolific and popular author. Most of his books remain in print today.
Merton’s greatest accomplishment was creating new interest in contemplation and meditative prayer. After being ignored for centuries, he revived contemplation as a holistic understanding of the Christian life, and not the esoteric practice of cloistered monks and nuns. Contemplation, Merton taught, was the intentional practice of experiencing God everywhere and in everything. In New Seeds of Contemplation, he writes:
Contemplation is the highest expression of [human] 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.
Merton was no spiritual “naval gazer” but embodied his words: “fully awake, fully active, fully aware.” Though in monastic seclusion, he had a deep knowledge of world developments and was in regular contact with many of the significant voices of his time. In addition to spiritual topics, Merton wrote extensively on racism, civil rights, war and peace, materialism, and the environment. He also pursued inter-religious dialog and had relationships with Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist leaders, including the Dalai Lama. As Baptist scholar Bill Leonard writes,
What draws us back to Merton 50 years after his death is his haunting ability to unite the transcendent and the worldly, the inner and outer life with wondrous prose, occasional poetry and enduring spiritual insight. This call to prayer and action occurs throughout his writing, often as relevant now as when he wrote it over a half century ago.
This combination of the spiritual and the practical was not universally welcomed, however. Merton ran afoul of both religious and political authorities. It is not surprising, then, that he had an FBI file, due to contacts with prominent civil rights and anti-war figures. Recently, this reality has taken on a more sinister context.
Merton died while participating in an inter-religious conference of monks near Bangkok, Thailand. Most reports called his death an accident but rumors that it was not so innocent have persisted. A recent book effectively demolishes the accidental death hypothesis. It is now almost certain that Merton was, in fact, murdered, most likely by US intelligence agents.
1968 was truly an annus horribilis of upheaval, protests, riots, and assassinations. Merton’s death adds yet one more page to its tragic saga. More importantly, knowing that he died a martyr makes the significance of Merton’s life even more profound. For it shows that, just as he taught, the spiritual life is real life. Believing and living as if all things and all people are holy expressions of God’s love and God’s hope, is profoundly fulfilling but also potentially dangerous. One cannot live in a way so different from “the world’s way” and not expect consequences. It is the story of the cross.
Over the centuries, the church has understood this in its liturgical celebration of the birth of Jesus. Today there is much about Christmas that is “cute”—decorations, songs, TV specials, advertising. There is nothing cute about Christmas in the church, however.
Advent’s themes are muted: anxiety, expectation, anticipation, hope. The setting of the birth story is similarly reserved, with a family in transit, sheltered in a barn, and soon in flight as refugees to avoid the coming Slaughter of the Innocents. And in the Presentation story, anticipating the Passion to come, Mary is told that “a sword will pierce your heart also.”
Christmas in the church is not a “happy” occasion, as the commercial world wants it to be. Rather, it is “joyous,” the word that encapsulates our wonder at God’s presence in the world and the fullness of a life in God, a life of grace, love, and compassion.
As Merton understood, in Christ God reaches out to all, from the least to the greatest, but he is certainly not welcomed by all. To welcome him puts us in company many will not want to keep, but it is where true life is found, as Merton says in this 1965 essay, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,”
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.
May Christ, and all those gathered in the stable with him, find room in our hearts this Christmas.
Blessings in your life and ministry, Pastor Doug