This is the talk given at The Thomas Merton Society events held on December 8th 2019 at Leominster. Edited extracts will also be published as December posts over the next few weeks.
Knowing the Score – Experiencing the Ground of Being
In this presentation we are going to look at the talk that Thomas Merton gave 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’.
It’s generally agreed that the talk wasn’t a particularly good address and left a number of people unimpressed, Merton was seemingly better at personal conversations and informal talks to small groups rather than formally giving a paper but there are certainly some exciting ideas in it and ideas that were in a sense a culmination of all Merton’s experiences. In this brief talk I shall look at some of these ideas and how they might inspire us now 50 years on.
You have heard a bit about Merton’s background as we began our day and learnt a little of his character, sense of humour and beliefs from the extract we’ve just listened to; but what I want to highlight is what drove him in the core of his being and indeed what is really the central theme in his writing and that is contemplation or contemplative prayer, we might also call it meditation. So before we look at this last talk in detail it’s important to understand that Merton’s thinking is nourished and emerges from his time in contemplation.
Contemplation is something that we find or are given – indeed Merton saw it as a gift from God. He thought that it utterly transcends everything and yet at the same time is the only meaning for our existence. This paradox permeates his writings on the subject – contemplation is above our capabilities to achieve, but it is our destiny for which we were created. Merton wrote the contemplative life – ‘means to me the search for truth and for God. It means finding the true significance of my life and my right place in God’s creation.’
Contemplation involves delving beneath the surface level of existence to find our inner world – seeing God and self and creation at a different and deeper level of reality. It is more than an exercise in prayer and leads deep changes in our consciousness where we see God and self and creation at a deeper and different level of reality – beneath the surface. Merton understood from his own experiences that in contemplative prayer we come to know that we do not know ourselves and that we know God even less, ‘to pray is to enter into mystery’. In the silence as we begin to strip God of all the qualities and aspects that we have projected onto Him we are also in the process of stripping ourselves of all our own falseness so Merton writes that as we discover the real in ourselves so we discover God, who is Reality itself. Then inevitably we are free to find the rest of reality, especially our fellow human beings and fellow creatures. We begin to realise that all life is bound together in a network of interlocking relationships where God is for all the hidden Ground of Love. Merton wrote that when we become aware of our total dependence on God and the same dependence of all reality on God, we experience a sense of interdependence with all God’s people and creation and a sense of the responsibilities we then carry. True contemplation increases our sense of social justice and concern and also our ecological consciousness – this influence is seen in this the last talk that he gave.
During his last years, Merton became increasingly interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue on contemplation and meditation. During Merton’s trip to the East in 1968 he had several meetings with the Dalai Lama who praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. It was during this trip when attending a conference of international religious on East-West monastic dialogue that Merton died the victim of an accidental electrocution. The date marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of his entrance to Gethsemani.
The talk given on December 10th 1968 is entitled Marxism and Monastic Perspectives and you can actually watch a film of the talk – just google it and you’ll note that Merton, wearing glasses so he can read the notes in front of him then moves to speak extempore, before returning to the notes and so on. Merton even says that he isn’t necessarily following the notes and so he speaks from the heart rather than from his notes. The notes aim to focus on the monastery identity crisis, but in the actual talk he gives the purpose as ‘to share with you the kind of thing a monk goes through in his, shall we say, identity crisis’. This is about the personal journey not so much to do with the institution or the ideology but rather 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.
It’s not the subject of the title of the talk Marxism and Monastic Perspectives that’s particularly interesting as Merton says ‘I cannot possibly pretend to be an authority on Marxism’ and indeed after speaking about the alienated self he seems to leave that subject more or less behind, turning instead to the connections between Buddhism and Christian monasticism and then he looks deeply at identity and confrontation with crisis. This is the crisis that is in part to do with the separation within ourselves, tearing ourselves into parts: including the part that somebody else tells us we are, and the part which we know ourselves to be as a center where God is present. The presentation of the talk as it was transcribed is a bit all over the place but the underlying central themes are both exciting and important. They still work for us now 50 years on by ‘cracking open’ the usual way of looking at things.
So the first central theme from the talk that I want to emphasise is that of the identity crisis – by which Merton means having a sense of where one stands, what our position is and how we identify ourselves in the world. It is from this point on that Merton brings a sense of urgency to his question ‘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.
This leads to the second central theme or ‘essential’ in the talk which is transformation of consciousness; Merton writes of the process or journey as, ‘a transformation and a liberation of the truth imprisoned … by ignorance and error’. The monk is someone – anyone ‘who has attained, or is about to attain, or seeks to attain, full realization.’ Merton is using non inclusive language so I have changed this as I quote him:
‘[Someone] who dwells in the centre of society as one who has attained realization – they know the score. Not that they have acquired unusual or esoteric information, but they have come to know the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate this to others.’
This is a transformation of learning to live by love: from self-centred love into an outgoing, other-centred love. So to include the first theme again it is about being critics in the sense of not entering some sort of already established worldly frame of reference and doing what has always been done, but instead being awake and alert to what is happening around and within us. This allows the process of transformation to take place and Merton speaks about living in a constant state of conversion – constant renewal and constant conversion. This then is the very essence, to progress dynamically. For during this process of change, this transformational journey from death to life, the illusory ego is replaced by the Christian person – Christ dwelling in each one – open to all others because ultimately all others are Christ.
This for Merton is a process rather than a state of life which leads to the third theme – a critique of structures that surround and apparently uphold us. He expresses this clearly when he says that the time for relying on structures that may alienate us and frustrate our potential has come to an end.
He illustrates this with a story about his meeting with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche a then young Tibetan lama who had to escape from Tibet to save his life from the Chinese invasion, as did most of the other abbots. Merton describes it in this way:
When he was faced with the decision of leaving his country, he did not quite know what to do. He was absent from his monastery on a visitation to some other monastery, and he was caught out in the mountains somewhere and was living in a peasant’s house, wondering what to do next. He sent a message to a nearby abbot friend of his, saying: ‘What do we do?’ the abbot sent back a strange message which I think is very significant: ‘From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.’
Merton tells his audience that this is of extreme importance … saying: ‘If you forget everything else that has been said, I would suggest you remember this for the future: “From now on, everybody stands on their own feet.”’ In other words don’t rely on structures – use them but don’t rely on them.
This is the high point of his whole Bangkok talk and interestingly Merton uses here the analogy of a Zen saying; ‘where do you go from the top of a thirty-foot pole.’ In other words, if you just sit with, and on something nothing will happen and you can go nowhere. Similarly if you set off as Trungpa Rinpoche initially did with a train of yaks and a cellarer and a lot of provisions to cover the next twenty years it won’t work out – he ended up escaping from the Chinese communists who had spotted the train of yaks and swimming alone across a river to safety leaving behind all his possessions.
From these accounts 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 breaking 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.
As we know from many of Merton’s writings the contemplative life is the secret in the heart of every human being. It belongs to all of us as it isn’t the specialty of monks for all of us are contemplatives. The contemplative life of every human being consists in the search for meaning over and beyond purpose. We all have a contemplative life, and so we all deserve monastic life even if only for a few days on retreat, or in the quiet place in our own home, a monastic life in the sense of staying alert and awake, critical of what is happening within and around us and sifting the essentials involved in the transformation of consciousness. There is, Merton says, a healing that goes on in such an environment and we all need that healing.
In the last part of the talk Merton uses an image from Buddhist iconography to show us the deepest meaning of our identity as contemplatives. The Buddha is seated in the lotus position and with one hand he is pointing toward the earth and in the other hand is holding a begging bowl.
The background of the image is that the tempter, the demon Mara, the one Merton says who represents all illusion comes to the enlightened Buddha, challenging him by saying: ‘You have no business sitting on that little square of earth … because it belongs to me.’ But the response of the Buddha is to point to the earth and call it to witness that it does not belong to Mara the tempter, because he, Buddha, has just obtained enlightenment on it. Merton commenting on this says, ‘This is a very excellent statement, I think, about the relation of the monk to the world. The monk belongs to the world, but the world belongs to him insofar as he has dedicated himself totally to liberation in order to liberate it.’
In other words only when you are liberated can you liberate. The begging bowl represents the ultimate theological root of the belief of openness to the gifts of all beings as an expression of the interdependence of all beings.
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’.
So let me say a bit about what happened after the talk:
Merton left the conference room with the enigmatic statement about which much has been made: ‘So I will disappear.’
Sr. Mary Luke Tobin a correspondent with Merton and one of the founders of the International Thomas Merton Society has detailed a further conversation when after lunch he walked to his room accompanied by a French monk who talked to him as they walked along and who said to Merton, ‘Well, thank you for the talk you gave this morning. Everybody didn’t exactly appreciate it, though. We had some questions.’ What was said by a missionary nun was then repeated to Merton. She had said: ‘I thought he would talk more about converting people to Christianity. I thought that’s what he was going to be talking about.’ She had enlarged on that by saying that it was a pagan area where she was working, and ‘here he’s talking about something else and alienation, whatever. But I thought he’d talk about bringing people to Christ.’
According to Sr Mary Luke, when Merton heard that, instead of getting upset he simply said, ‘today I don’t think it is what we are asked to do. I think today it is more important for us to let God live in us so that others may feel God and come to believe in God because they feel how God lives in us.’ These were apparently Merton’s last words that we know anything about and were said right before he went into his room where he tragically died, tragically for us anyway says Sr Mary Luke.
Br David whom I quoted at the start of this talk sees the crack of dawn where Merton stood just at the moment when he actually passes over into that life that is hidden with Christ in God, as a crack that is widening these days … and he believes that tremendous things are going to come from it.
So to conclude
The theme of spiritual liberty can be found throughout Merton’s writings, for example in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander he wrote that religion is most authentic when its primary function is to mentor a person’s spiritual liberty by which he meant, ‘the freedom from domination, freedom to live one’s own spiritual life, freedom to seek the highest truth.’
Jonathan Montaldo, the Merton scholar, points out that Merton’s final advice: from now on, everybody stands on their own feet, links to an observation from an earlier article where Merton writes: ‘The dignity of [the person] is to stand before God on their own feet, alive, conscious [and] alert to the light that has been placed in them and [become] perfectly obedient to that light.’ The light from Merton’s legacy is ultimately personal and Montaldo goes on to say ‘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.’
The June 2018 talk given at St Anselm’s Rome Conference of The Italian Thomas Merton Society, Thomas Merton: Accessible Exemplar of the New Mysticism is to be published in Conference Proceedings.
The paper Kanchenjunga: Yin-yang Palace of Opposites in Unity, Reflections on Thomas Merton’s Experiences on the Mim Tea Estate Retreat will be published in the forthcoming Merton Annual of the ITMS.
The talk given at Oakham Conference in April 2018 is published in the Advent 2018 Merton Journal: Crisis and Mystery: Thomas Merton and the Vietnam War
The talk given at The Analytic Network on Saturday 25th February 2017 in Bath, at the Cornerstones Public lecture in March 2017, and at the C.J. Jung seminars on 10th November 2018: ‘The Rescued Fragment’: what underlies shame? has now been removed from the website.
An edited version of the talk that I gave at the Thomas Merton Society Conference at Oakham School 1-3 April 2016 Raise Strange Suns for Your New Mornings is published in the The Merton Seasonal published in the US by the International Thomas Merton Society.
I have published a number of books (six) to date and my new book The Only Mind Worth having, Thomas Merton and the Child Mind is published by Cascade an imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2015 and The Lutterworth press 2016.
A book for the Thomas Merton society co-edited by Fiona Gardner, Keith Griffin and Peter Ellis was published in December 2014. It is called Universal Vision, a centenary celebration of Thomas Merton, European perspectives from the Merton Journal and you can obtain it through the Thomas Merton Society website. It’s got some fascinating papers and cutting-edge theology, well worth reading.
Precious Thoughts, Darton, Longman and Todd was published in 2011. These are daily readings based on the correspondence of Thomas Merton
In 2010 I published a text book with a colleague at Bath Spa University Researching, Reflecting and Writing about Work, Co-edited with Steven J. Coombs, Routledge.
The Four Steps of Love, published in 2007 by Darton, Longman and Todd looks at the four steps on the spiritual journey that St Bernard of Clairvaux identified back in the twelfth century .
Journeying Home published in 2004 by Darton, Longman and Todd takes the first step on that journey and looks in detail about what prevents us from loving ourselves and loving God
In 2001 Self-Harm: a psychotherapeutic approach. was published by Brunner-Routledge. This book evolved from my work with adolescent girls in a psychiatric clinic where I was trying to understand why so many were hurting themselves by cutting.
All can be seen on Amazon as well as through the publishers.
I have also written a number of articles and below are the abstracts from two published psychotherapy papers:
British Journal of Psychotherapy 2012 28 (1) : 98-109.
DEFENSIVE PROCESSES AND DECEPTION: AN ANALYSIS OF THE RESPONSE OF THE INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH TO DISCLOSURES OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
Disclosures about the extent of sexual abuse within the church context and the gradual revealing of the way that the institution has responded in the past indicates underlying anxiety and associated defensive processes. It is suggested in this paper that these processes have led to secrecy and deception. Similarities between the behaviour of perpetrators and the response by the church are explored alongside current preoccupations within the church. Psychoanalytic ideas and theories of organizational dynamics are used to explore and reflect on the fantasies and explicit and implicit assumptions within the institution. It is suggested that the church has displayed institutional narcissism in its response to disclosures. Ideas are illustrated by generic situations.
British Journal of Psychotherapy 21 (1), 2004 49-62
‘To enliven her was my living’:
thoughts on compliance and sacrifice as consequences of malignant identification with a narcissistic parent
ABSTRACT This paper explores the dynamics involved for children growing up with a narcissistic parent. It suggests that as a consequence of a malignant identification children resort to compliance and sacrifice in varying degrees. Compliance, as part of the sacrificial dynamic, also serves as a means for identification, which in the absence of other emotional nurturance the infant and later the child is reluctant to relinquish. Drawing on the personal and professional experiences of both D. W. Winnicott and H.J.S. Guntrip the paper discusses the underlying conflict between absorption into and abandonment from the narcissistic parent. The psychotherapeutic relationship offers a space to acknowledge the systematic interconnectedness that is at the heart of the malignant identification and the terrible dependency involved. Through a good personal relationship a benign identification with the therapist can begin to replace what was previously so strongly held onto. Brief extracts from two incomplete psychotherapies with young men are used to illustrate certain aspects of the therapeutic work involved.