January 31 is the centenary of Thomas Merton’s birth … so why is he important? Well he is important to me because he became my spiritual guide at a time when I felt rather lost and reading his journals led in a roundabout way to getting confirmed and becoming a member of the church of England. In other words he was the catalyst for a complete change in my life, my work and my soul. That was about 14 years ago and he has remained a spiritual guide ever since. Rereading some of his books I am often struck by a new insight and of course he wrote so much that there often seems to be plenty of new material anyway. For example I have barely begun to read his poetry in any depth and there are all those essays …250 of them and counting, the over 10,000 letters and so on. However when reading his words it’s often felt as if Merton were speaking to me and answering some concern or opening a door.
In terms of his importance as a spiritual writer and a social activist there are many reasons why Merton still matters. One of these is his encouragement to contemplation, to silence and to solitude. The other is his prophetic writings on war and violence and his concern with the environment; his understanding that we are all interconnected … these insights all emerged from the silence and solitude and the world is greatly the richer for his life and work
Happy birthday my dear friend and thank you for so much.
I’ve just come from discussing what on earth spiritual direction really is and remain none the wiser. Despite completing a two year training in the subject and working with people and having seen a spiritual director for many years the boundary between spiritual direction and counselling remains blurred. It’s certainly not psychotherapy as the dynamics such as the transference and counter transference are not consciously worked with. However, if you just adopt a rather woolly definition of spiritual direction then the practice can itself become rather woolly. If spiritual direction is religious education in the sense of discussing reading material, liturgy, and prayer life then that’s a clear definition but in my experience it’s not certainly not that especially away from the monastic setting. Even between the novice and the spiritual director based in the monastery there would have been a certain amount of counselling. If spiritual direction is about accompanying someone on their spiritual journey then the psychological very much comes to the fore and that was emphasised on the training I did. It therefore becomes extremely difficult not to move into the more therapeutic approach.
In my own experience of being spiritually directed there was a definite emphasis on what was happening in my life not just my spiritual life though of course in many ways it should be separate anyway and often on my state of psychological well-being – or not. However the last spiritual director whom I saw for many years remained unaware of the unconscious and the power of the shadow side which made any exploration rather difficult. In my own practice as a spiritual director I do see that focusing on the more religious education aspect is unbalanced so there needs to be awareness of psychological but a clear sense when the person needs to go for counselling or psychotherapy separate from their commitment to spiritual direction. It remains a mystery!
One of Merton’s most famous epiphanies took place away from the monastery, away from solitude and away from prayer. It took place in the middle of a busy town in Kentucky although surely it was born from the practice of deep contemplation.
Merton’s famous revelation in downtown Louisville is described this way in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“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. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
What Merton goes on to explore is that if we could only see each other in this way, if only we could be open to one another and aware of the interconnectedness between each of us then hostility, prejudice, violence and war would be a thing of the past. It’s a lovely passage but as with all glimpses of a different level of consciousness is it realistic? Carl Jung would have said where is the shadow? And it is true that the shadow cannot disappear but is always present even if we would rather not acknowledge it. However perhaps at this moment Merton moved beyond the shadow and the disguise into a different level of awareness. The shadow appeared to have gone as he saw that everyone was shining like the sun…. In the light of Christ perhaps there is no shadow?
On January 31 it will be the centenary of the birth of Thomas Merton – writer, monk and in many ways a prophet. It’s hard to sum up the influence he has had on contemporary spirituality but I think his greatest contribution was to make contemplation or as we might know it meditation something that anyone could undertake. Merton thought that contemplation was the reason for our existence and that through it we both learn to know ourselves (our false self and gain glimpses of our true self) and also learnt to know God. Through such an experience love for others and our deep connection with all of creation can occur. Merton never really offered techniques though he did suggest using the Jesus prayer in times of quiet until it sank into the background and left the contemplative free, but he did give us some wonderful accounts of his own spiritual development and through his correspondence ideas of how he genuinely reached out to others. One of the most refreshing things about Merton is that he held to no dogma and quite deliberately was against evangelisation. He trusted above all in the spirit and merely asked to be open and available and vulnerable to God’s mercy.
He also turned to Eastern religions – especially Zen to enrich Christian contemplation and understood that in a developing connection with all living life there was no place for warfare, racism, cruelty or environmental destruction.
He remains a spiritual guide for many. On the 31st there will be events in London and in Scotland look at the website for further details.