Merton sees that what is essential is nothing to do with structures and institutions, what one is told to believe in or do – the essence of it all is as Merton says: ‘not embedded in buildings, is not embedded in clothing, it is not necessarily embedded even in a rule. It is concerned with this business of total inner transformation.’ Once we have reached that last quest for total inner transformation, and Merton quotes Saint Paul, “there is no longer slave or free-born, there is no longer Jew or Gentile,” and there is no longer Asian or European, but we have transcended these divisions. ‘This kind of monasticism,’ Merton said in his last talk, ‘this kind of monasticism cannot be extinguished. It is imperishable; it represents an instinct of the human heart.’
All those seeking realization whether from the East or the West share the same critical quest, the contemplative quest of the human heart, in which we are all united. Standing on our own feet, using, but not relying on, structures we go beyond division to an inner liberty which no one can touch. This from Merton is exciting stuff urging us to break out from the structures that separate us; for him it was breaking out from the enclosed shell of a Trappist, Christian, monastic structure into universal monasticism. Merton says: ‘Christianity and Buddhism, too, in their original purity point beyond all divisions between this and that.’ So one can respect the plurality of things but you don’t make them ends in themselves. I quote Merton again: ‘We accept the division, we work with the division, and we go beyond the division.’ For the moment any of us stand on our own two feet, the moment we find contemplative life at the root of our life, deep down in our own hearts, we go beyond division.
Merton’s final message to us is this: ‘if you once penetrate by detachment and purity of heart to the inner secret of the ground of your ordinary experience, you attain to a liberty that nobody can touch, that nobody can affect, that no change of political circumstances can do anything to … this kind of freedom and transcendence is somehow attainable … It is imperishable. It represents an instinct of the human heart … full and transcendent liberty which is beyond mere cultural differences and mere externals – and mere this or that.’
This is ‘knowing the score’ – this is ‘standing on our own feet’ and this is ‘the experience of the ground of our being’. The light from Merton’s legacy is ultimately personal and Merton scholar Jonathan Montaldo writes, ‘Continuing our own inner journeys toward spiritual liberty is more important than any bows we make to the dead spiritual master. Honouring Thomas Merton’s compassionate transparency demands that we, who claim to hear his voice, should stand on our own feet, find the pitch of our true voices, open our lips, and sing.’
Here’s hoping for times of spiritual liberty in 2019