79 years ago today, Thomas Merton entered Gethsemani Abbey, three days after Pearl Harbor.
52 years ago today, he died in Bangkok, Thailand after giving a lecture on “Marxism & Monastic Perspectives.”
At the end of his talk, he said, “We are going to have the questions tonight. Now I will disappear.” Some call this prophetic, but I think it was only a silly little line at the end of a heavy (and controversial) talk.
Many of you know I’ve begun to sway away from Merton in some of my scholarship, recognizing we don’t need to admire more white-cis-male leaders. I’ve always been open about critiquing Merton, and will continue to be. To be frank, I think Merton himself would be on board with this (despite him being an enneagram 4 and needing to feel special). I think he would also be seeking out more work and scholarship by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and other People of Color.
Why does this matter? For me, it matters because perpetuating voices who already have great attention in our world makes other brilliant voices more difficult to find. For me, it matters because lifting up white-cis-male voices elongates said power and feeds an already patriarchal and white-supremacist world. For me, it matters because white-cis-men have very little grasp on the fullness of the human experience when it comes to marginalization and oppression. I cannot learn from Merton, for instance, what it’s like to be Black in America. Merton cannot convey the pain of being Queer and rejected. He can provide historical perspective or researched ideas, but a white-cis-male cannot speak well into the fullness of an oppressive situation separate from his identity.
For me, it matters because the generalized cis-white-male experience is far from inclusive of all people, is far from understanding all oppressions, is far from understanding all experiences. For me, when I yield to thoughts and theologies that oversimplify oppression, I participate in the dominative systems at hand.
The fullness of liberation lies with the fullness of voices. And so long as I participate in perpetuating the domination of cis-white-male voices in spiritual leadership, I perpetuate slower movement toward the fullness of liberation for all people (shoutout to Womanist methodology).
Merton was controversial in his time, indeed. His words are relevant and helpful, indeed. His correspondence and work focused on and elevated other religious perspectives and experiences, indeed. He himself was an immigrant from France, indeed. He speaks prophetically to the situations we find ourselves in, indeed.But, what am I reading whose experience is tethered to the present moment in the fullness of their lives NOW?What voices am I listening to who may be prophetically controversial TODAY?
This is my journey, not yours, not someone else’s. Merton himself spoke to the significance of integrity saying, “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. …They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain effort to be some other poet, some other saint.” And, it is my hope that we all find and navigate our own journeys, whether privately or openly. The fullness of myself relies on the fullness of you, that we might all be true to our uniqueness and dive deeper into communal care.
The spiritual life is simultaneously simple and complex, infinitely static and dynamic. May we all find our own sacred center so that we can continue evolving and participating in each other’s liberation, each other’s freedom, and each other’s fullness of self.
“We are going to have the questions tonight. Now I will disappear.”
(Note: I am well aware of Merton’s works on other faiths and correspondences with: Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rachel Carson, works in the Sufi tradition, James Baldwin, Rev. Dr. MLK Jr., studies in Taoism, exploration in indigenous wisdom, Hesychasm, Judaism, Protestant Tradition, … … …)