The Fiftieth Anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton – the Bangkok talk

In the next few posts I am summarising some aspects of Merton’s talk given on December 10th 1968 the day he died. (A complete version of the Thomas Merton Society presentation, minus powerpoint,  I gave in Leominster last Saturday December 8th 2018 on this Bangkok talk can be accessed under publications on this website) 

Thomas Merton gave a talk to a small conference in Bangkok, Thailand on December 10th 1968, on the morning of the day he died. Br David Steindl-Rast a Benedictine monk involved in Christian-Buddhist dialogue was in brief correspondence with Thomas Merton that year and he sees Thomas Merton’s last talk in Bangkok as a ‘cracking-open’ of the contemplative life, of monastic life from the inside. Merton, he says, is a prophetic watchman for a new dawn – he belongs to the ‘crack of dawn’. In the talk Merton says that the purpose is ‘to share with you the kind of thing a monk goes through in his, shall we say, identity crisis.’ It is about the personal journey and the going through involved in the spiritual life. It is about this that Br David Steindl-Rast uses the term ‘the transitus’ taken from the ecclesiastical Latin referring to the time of passage through death to life which is the ultimate crisis of identity – noting Merton is talking about this a few hours before his own final passage, his transition to God.

By identity crisis Merton means having a sense of where one stands, what our position is and how we identify ourselves in the world, and Merton brings a sense of urgency to his questions ‘What are the essentials of monastic life?’  ‘What are really the essentials of any life?’ ‘What is life for?’ The crisis is to sift out the essence of our identity, and Merton starts to use the word ‘essential’ and ‘essentially’ over and over again.

What does identity as a monk mean? After all who and what is a monk? It is here that Merton refers to a meeting in California before he set off for Asia where in conversation with some students Merton introduced himself as a monk: a French revolutionary student replies to him; ‘We are monks also!’ To Merton it sounded like the student saying ‘We are the true monks’ because as Merton analyses: ‘The monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures.’ He goes on to say: ‘In other words, the monk is somebody who says, in one way or another, that the claims of the world are fraudulent’. The difference with the revolutionary, he points out is that they are criticizing the externals and wanting to change the economic structures, and the monk is criticizing the inner world and seeking to change people’s consciousness. The Buddhist monk might refer to avidya or ignorance whilst the Christian uses the ‘myth of original sin’ (here Merton refers to Jung’s use of the term myth as a psychological factor in the way we adapt to reality). At this point Merton says you are a monk if you live with great alertness, criticizing, sifting out what is essential, and changing life accordingly; where you live or whether or not you are under vows is not the essence of it.