"Thomas Merton was perhaps the greatest popularizer of interspirituality. Not only did he acquaint his readers with the rich and vast tradition of Christian contemplation (represented by fifty thousand volumes from the early church to the present), but he opened the door for Christians to explore other traditions, notably Taoism [Chinese witchcraft], Hinduism, and Buddhism. Among his many writings, several volumes explored Eastern traditions: Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Mystics and Zen Masters, The Way of Chuang Tzu, and Contemplation in a World of Action."~ Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1999), 39. ~
(I highly recommend this book)
Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
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. But for me, hands down, Thomas Merton has influenced the Christian mystical movement more than any person of recent decades.
Merton penned one of the most classic descriptions of contemplative spirituality I have ever come across. He explained:It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race,... now I realize what we all are.... If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are... 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 which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth.... This little point... is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody. (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander [Garden City, NY: Doubleday Publishers, 1989], pp. 157-158)Notice how similar Merton's description is to the occultic definition of the higher self.
In order to understand Merton's connection to mystical occultism, we need first to understand a sect of the Muslim world—Sufis, who are the mystics of Islam. They chant the name of Allah as a mantra, go into meditative trances and experience God in everything. A prominent Catholic audiotape company now promotes a series of cassettes Merton did on Sufism. It explains:Merton loved and shared a deep spiritual kinship with the Sufis, the spiritual teachers and mystics of Islam. Here he shares their profound spirituality. (Credence Cassettes magazine, Winter/Lent, 1998, p. 24)In a letter to a Sufi Master, Merton disclosed, "My prayer tends very much to what you call fana" (M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton, My Brother [Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1996], p. 115, citing from The Hidden Ground of Love, pp. 63-64). So what is fana? The Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult defines it as "the act of merging with the Divine Oneness" (Nevin Drury, The Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult [SanFrancisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1985], p. 85.)
Merton saw the Sufi concept of fana as being a catalyst for Muslim unity with Christianity despite the obvious doctrinal differences. In a dialogue with a Sufi leader, Merton asked about the Muslim concept of salvation. The master wrote back stating:Islam inculcates individual responsibility for one's actions and does not subscribe to the doctrine of atonement or the theory of redemption. (Rob Baker and Gray Henry, Editors, Merton and Sufism [Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999], p. 109)To Merton, of course, this meant little because he believed that fana and contemplation were the same thing. He responded:Merton himself underlined that point when he told a group of contemplative women: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... in words there are apt to be infinite complexities and subtleties which are beyond resolution.... 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. (Ibid., p. 110.)
I'm deeply impregnated with Sufism. (Ibid., p. 69)And he elaborated elsewhere:
When you evaluate Merton's mystical worldview, it clearly resonates with what technically would be considered traditional New Age thought. This is an inescapable fact!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. I would be less a monk. (Ibid., 41)
Merton's mystical experiences ultimately made him a kindred spirit and co-mystic with those in other Eastern religions also because his insights were identical to their insights. At an interfaith conference
in Thailand he stated:
I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian [mystical] traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own Christian traditions. (William Shannon, Silent Lamp, The Thomas Merton Story [New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992], p. 276)Please understand that contemplative prayer alone was the catalyst for such theological views. One of Merton's biographers made this very clear when he explained:If one wants to understand Merton's going to the East it is important to understand that it was his rootedness in his own faith tradition [Catholicism] that gave him the spiritual equipment [contemplative prayer] he needed to grasp the way of wisdom that is proper to the East. (Ibid., p. 281)This was the ripe fruit of the Desert Fathers. When you borrow methods from Eastern religion, you get their understanding of God. There is no other way to put it. It does not take being a scholar to see the logic in this.
Merton's influence is very strong in the Catholic church and mainline Protestant denominations, and it is starting to grow in evangelical circles. While many Christians are impressed with Merton's humility, social consciousness, and piety, his intellectual dynamism is also a powerful draw. But sadly, Merton's heresies neutralize his qualities. He revealed the true state of his soul to a fellow monk prior to his trip to Thailand where his life ended by accidental electrocution. Before he left, he confided to his friend, "I am going home . . . to the home I have never been in this body" (Ibid., p. 273). I do not believe Merton was talking about a premonition of his death but rather was professing the East to be his true spiritual home.
This is not a thoughtless assertion. Virtually all Merton scholars and biographers make similar observations. One Merton devotee wrote, "The major corpus [body] of his writings are embedded in the central idea, experience and vision of the Asian wisdom" (Dea P. Patnaik, The Message of Thomas Merton, editor Brother Patrick Hart [Kalamazoo, Mi: Cistercian Publishing, 1981], p. 87).
Pages 197-198In his book, Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic, Nouwen talks about these "new eyes" that Merton helped to formulate and said that Merton and his work "had such an impact" on his life and that he was the man who had "inspired" him greatly (Henry J.M. Nouwen, Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic [San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row Publishers, 1991, Triumph Books Edition], p.3). But when we read Nouwen's very revealing account, something disturbing is unveiled. Nouwen lays out the path of Merton's spiritual pilgrimage into contemplative spirituality. Those who have studied Merton from a critical point of view, such as myself, have tried to understand what are the roots behind Merton's spiritual affinities. Nouwen explains that Merton was influenced by LSD mystic Aldous Huxley who "brought him to a deeper level of knowledge" and "was one of Merton's favorite novelists" (Ibid., p. 19-20) It was through Huxley's book, Ends and Means, that first brought Merton "into contact with mysticism" (Ibid., p. 20). Merton states:He [Huxley] 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. (Ibid.)Merton learned from him [Chuang Tzu—a Taoist] what Suzuki [a Zen master] had said about Zen: "Zen teaches nothing; it merely enables us to wake and become aware. (Ibid., p. 71)Become aware of what? The Buddha nature. Divinity within all. That is why Merton said if we knew what was in each one of us, we would bow down and worship one another. Merton's descent into contemplative led him to the belief that God is in all things and that God is all things. This is made clear by Merton when he said:
True solitude is a participation in the solitariness of God -- Who is in all things.Nouwen adds:[Chuang Tzu] awakened and led him [Merton] ... to the deeper ground of his consciousness. (Ibid., p. 46, 71)