Gung hay fat choy from Thomas Merton

Yes, Thomas Merton wishes us all, Chinese or otherwise, Gung hay fat choy!–a happy Chinese New Year for the Year of the Horse, which starts today, January 31.

As some of you know, January 31 is also Merton’s birthday. Born in 1915, he is 99 today. You can read about the plans for his 100th birthday next year at  I note here with great satisfaction that the two keynote speakers announced so far for the centenary meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society in Louisville are former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and psychologist, author and spiritual teacher James Finley, at one time a novice in Merton’s care.

Interestingly, the Year of the Horse will not end until February 18, 2015, by which time we will have celebrated Merton’s centenary; so Merton will have two equine (!) birthdays. According to the Chinese zodiac, those born in the Year of the Horse are said to make unremitting efforts to improve themselves (sit finis libri; non finis quaerendi—“it’s the end of the book, not the end of the seeking,” the epigraph at the end of Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain; always want to be in the limelight (hmm: two views about that); sometimes talk too much (what, a talkative Trappist?); and are also cheerful, perceptive, talented and earthy (no argument there).

However, although Merton will have his 99th and 100th birthdays in the Year of the Horse, he was actually born (because, the Chinese calendar being a lunisolar one, its beginnings and endings vary from year to year) in the Year of the Tiger. So what does the Chinese zodiac say about the tiger-born? They are said to like challenges, and they are good at expressing themselves (I’d say so: 60 books before he died, another 40 since—with a little help from his friends). In middle age, their fate may be uneven (uh huh), but they bounce back [ J ]. They also tend to come into conflict with authority figures, we are told (a blessing on your memory, Dom James).

So did Merton have an interest in things Chinese? Yes, a strong interest. A recent book, Merton and the Tao: Dialogues with John Wu and the Ancient Sages, gathers up his writings in this area. Merton’s best-known book on a Chinese subject is his delightful The Way of Chuang Tzu. In that book’s “Note to the Reader,” he says that he enjoyed writing that book more than any other he could remember. Of Chuang Tzu, he says that he “shares the climate and peace of my own kind of solitude, and is my own kind of person.” Merton further describes him as “subtle, funny, provocative, and not easy to get at.” Perhaps his most telling word of praise for Chuang Tzu is that “he is what he is”—something that did not always come easily to Merton. Both were hermits and spiritual teachers with a strong dash of the trickster archetype, and we honour both as members of the Order of Hermits Irregular.

With the help of Chinese-American scholar John C. H. Wu (1899-1986), “my chief abettor and accomplice,” Merton began in 1962 to study Chinese. We learn this from Virginia Bear’s fascinating article which provides a survey of Merton’s knowledge of languages. Using the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) scale of language competence developed by the US Foreign Service Institute, she gives Merton a 5 (the top rating, native speaker level) for English, French and Latin; 4-5 for Spanish; 3-4 for Italian and Portuguese; 2-3 for German; and 2 for Catalan, Greek and Provençal. She also gives him a 0 for Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Esperanto, Hebrew, Japanese and Russian, all languages in which he at one time or another expressed an interest, but which he didn’t study in any depth (“A Woodshed Full of French Angels: Multilingual Merton,” The Merton Annual 15).

She gives Merton a 0 for Chinese, curiously to my mind, even though according to the record, he worked at it quite diligently, with the aid of John Wu. Here’s her take on Merton and Chinese.

He learned a few characters, which he was able to use in teaching Chinese philosophy to the novices. A sample of Merton’s Chinese has been reproduced in Turning Toward the World [The Journals of Thomas Merton, v. 4], a respectable and readable beginner’s effort. There is also a recording of Merton teaching his novices Chinese philosophy. The sound of chalk on the blackboard can be heard, and from his spoken description, it is clear he has written Chinese characters for them.

At least we can say that his heart was in the right place in regard to his Chinese studies. I am certain that were he to visit us here in Vancouver on a leave from his current realm of residence, he would be very willing to join us on a dim sum crawl, doubtless assisted in his investigations by one or more of our excellent craft beers.

More substantially, his interest in Chinese culture is an important example of his cultural and spiritual method, what he calls uniting in oneself. In a late work, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton makes two very personal statements, the first narrower, the second wider.

“If I can unite in myself [italics Merton’s] the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin   fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians.”

“If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”

Then in his Peace in the Post-Christian Era, which in his lifetime he was prevented by the censors of his order from publishing, Merton speaks of the early Christian theologian Origen (185-254 CE) in terms cognate with his first statement above.

“A man who united in himself  [italics mine] profound learning, philosophical culture and Christian holiness, Origen took an urbane, optimistic view of classical thought.”

Another such figure, a contemporary one, Sri Lankan-American philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), Merton described in a letter of January 13, 1961 to his widow, Dona Luisa Coomaraswamy, as someone who “thoroughly and completely united in himself  [italics mine] the spiritual tradition and attitudes of the Orient and of the Christian West, not excluding something of Islam.”

These references exemplify what I think of as Merton’s contemplative methodology– experience, reflection, integration, return to experience. His methodology, I believe, offers a way forward both simple and profound (the watchword of the 2004 Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona) for those seeking to move beyond our contemporary divisions to a deeper experience of human community and possibility. Later in his letter to Dona Luisa, in fact, he affirms that a vital contribution to world peace would be made by those who “are able to unite in themselves and experience in their own lives all that is best and most true in the various great spiritual traditions. Such men [sic: Merton wrote pre-inclusively] can become as it were “sacraments” or signs of peace ….”  This is not to deny the importance of social and political steps towards peace; but it is to affirm that they must be undergirded by the personal transformation of consciousness that is essential to the process, as Rabbi Michael Lerner continually emphasizes.

Merton himself is such a “sacrament.” He did unite in himself all the Christian traditions he mentions, and opened himself widely to other religious traditions. As did Origen, he united in himself profound learning, philosophical culture and Christian holiness; and what he saw as true of Coomaraswamy was also true of him. Similarly, in his work with John Wu, his sense of kinship with Chuang Tzu, and his exposure of the novices to the treasures of Chinese philosophy, we see him putting into practice the method he commends to the rest of us.


After writing this piece, I ran it by my friend Dave Chang. Here are his comments.

Do you know about the story of the race among animals to determine the 12 signs of the zodiac?  It was the rat, through cunning and manipulation, who won first place.  Perhaps the very first example of the “rat race?” [Good one, Dave!]

Among the 12 animals,  a few occupy a special place in the Chinese imagination.  The dragon, of course, is particularly venerated.  The tiger is also a common cultural symbol. Merton’s passion for languages, and his ability to absorb them is another testament to his “tiger” quality of taking on challenges.

The horse is also one of these beloved animals, and though not as prestigious as the dragon and the tiger, it is considered a beautiful and auspicious animal and makes many appearances in Chinese proverbs.  There is a long artistic tradition of Chinese paintings depicting eight galloping horses. My family had one of these paintings when I was younger.  It is especially auspicious to have one of these paintings during the Year of the Horse.

Dave then asks whether there may not be certain divisions or conflicts that Merton would not be able or willing to unite in himself—for example,  socialism and capitalism; theism and atheism; or even (he was an American,  after all) Republicans and Democrats. My hunch about that is that when Merton speaks of uniting something in himself,  he means integrating it into his own overall comprehension,  rather than synthesizing or amalgamating two apparent opposites. I think he would favour holding those opposites in tension, or searching for what Jung calls the tertium quid,  the third something that goes beyond the original opposites. I think here, for example, of Richard Kearney’s concept of anatheism as the tertium quid beyond the apparent polaritiesof theism and atheism.

My thanks to Dave for his thoughts, and especially for his question about the limits of Merton’s methodology.


Happy 99th birthday, then, to Thomas Merton, and happy Chinese New Year to our friends and fellow-citizens of Chinese origin and to us all.

Gung hay fat choy!














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