This is the first part of a Quiet Garden retreat to be held this week at St Mary, Charlcombe. It includes a presentation and then some time for reflection.
At this quiet afternoon I am going to talk a little bit more about Thomas Merton as this is the centenary year of his birth in 1915. As some of you may remember from when I last spoke about him he was a Trappist monk based for 27 years in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in the United States who died in 1968 aged 53 in an accident in Bangkok where he was attending a conference of monastics and religious. Before he went to the Abbey of Gethsemani he spent time in the UK at schools in London and Oakham. He had a difficult childhood as his mother died when he was six and his father when he was 15 and he lived a turbulent and unsettled time before his conversion at the age of 23 when he became a Catholic.
As a monk Merton shared what it meant to be a Christian through the personal witness of his life and writing. There are three aspects which are especially striking in his work its contemplative dimension; its commitment to social justice and compassion, and its vision of unity. In other words for Merton being a Christian involves awakening to the reality of God within, living with love and justice, and recognising and sustaining all that unites the human community.
In 1947 Merton’s early autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was published and immediately became a best seller. Merton later acknowledged that it was written when he was still quite young and he thought that the story in a way no longer belonged to him. The mature Merton found the image created in the book – the image of ‘the official voice of Trappist silence, the monk with his hood up and his back to the camera, brooding over the water’ – out of character with the monk he had become. Yet most powerfully in the book Merton traces God’s mercy and concludes the epilogue to his autobiography with a prayer in the midst of which he hears God speaking to him. He is reminded that God’s mercy was present throughout his journeying and brought him ‘from Prades to Bermuda to St Antonin to Oakham to London to Cambridge to Rome to New York to Colombia to Corpus Christi to St Bonaventure to the Cistercian Abbey of the poor man who labour in Gethsemani’– all the places he had lived and searched. God was with him in all these places: the place he was born; the places where he lived during his childhood and youth; the places where he went to school; the places where he made friends and enjoyed their company; the places where he experienced the first stirrings of faith; the places where he studied and professed that faith; the places where he first heard, then nurtured, the call to become a monk; and finally the place where he found peace within ‘the four walls’ of his new freedom. Remembering this journey, he recognised that it was God who led him to through each of these places. Each place had left its imprint upon him but, as he concludes his autobiography, it is not the individual places and what he experienced in each finally matter. Rather it is his awareness of the God whom he encountered and finally recognised in each place that mattered most. Merton realised that it was God who brought him from slavery to freedom: the God of mercy and grace – ‘God, that centre Who is everywhere, and whose circumferences is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into the immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me. And He called out to me from His own immense depths’.
For many the book became an entry into the spiritual life because in it Merton chronicles the spiritual awakening that led him to the Catholic Church and drew him to the monastery of Gethsemani. Though some would follow him into the monastery a great many more who read his autobiography would resonate with his restlessness, his searching, and his discovery of life’s deeper meaning. Merton showed his readers that there was another dimension to life, but life could be lived on a deeper level if one allows oneself to be discovered by God. This is life’s contemplative dimension. As Merton described the exterior journey that brought him to the Catholic Church and the Abbey of Gethsemani, he revealed something of the inner journey that brought him to God and awaken the contemplative within him’. ‘The geographical pilgrimage,’ he would later write, ‘is the symbolic acting out of an interior journey’.
The Seven Storey Mountain introduced readers to the contemplative dimension of Christianity and thereafter contemplation became the cornerstone of Merton’s spirituality and the major theme in his writing. It is helpful to note that Merton used the term ‘contemplation’ in two ways: to name silent wordless prayer and to name the actual experience of God in prayer. In contemplation we journey inward and discover our union with God and with one another. Merton’s message is simple: it is possible to experience God, to awaken to become aware of God’s presence stop and in doing so, it is possible to become real and whole, to become truly oneself. Contemplation is God’s own self-gift; it is freely given, a gift from God that can be received wherever one is. Contemplation leads to awakening and so prayer becomes a real source of personal freedom, true religion is a liberating force that helps one find oneself in God.
‘God, that centre Who is everywhere, and whose circumferences is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into the immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me. And He called out to me from His own immense depths.’
‘Before we were born, God knew us. He knew that some of us would rebel against His love and His mercy, and that others would love Him from the moment that they could love anything, and never change that love. He knew that there would be joy in heaven among the angels of His house for the conversion of some of us, and He knew that He would bring us all here… together, one day, for His own purpose, for the praise of His love.
The life of each one … is part of a mystery. We all add up to something far beyond ourselves. We cannot yet realise what it is. But we know, in the language of our theology, that we are all members of the Mystical Christ, and that we all grow together in Him for Whom all things were created.
In one sense we are always travelling, and travelling as if we did not know where we were going.
In another sense we have already arrived.’
The Seven Storey Mountain
As Merton did you might like to remember all the places where you too were born, went to school, have lived, places where friends have been made in good company enjoyed, the places associated with faith and a deepening of faith, places where you have studied and worked, and places where peace has been found and conflicts resolved. As you remember is it possible to recognise that it is God who has led you to and through each of these places?