Below you will find an account of how I became interested in Thomas Merton, one of the greatest religious-spiritual thinkers and writers of the past hundred years, and certainly the greatest Christian spiritual writer of the 20th century.
As you will also read below, there is a Thomas Merton Society of Canada. In co-operation with St Andrew’s United Church in North Vancouver, where the TMSC office is now located (604-988-8835), the TMSC offers regular opportunities to acquaint yourself with this amazing writer, monk, poet, trickster, social critic and interfaith visionary. Ask to have your name added to the e-list of the TMSC.
Merton in his own words.
“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” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1966).
I first encountered Thomas Merton when I was about 15, and browsing in the then very new Dunbar Library in Vancouver. I ran across a book with an interesting binding—of burlap–called Seeds of Contemplation. I read a page or two, and thought to myself, “I don’t understand this—it’s deep; but some day I will.” About 25 years later I did my PhD dissertation on that book and four other related texts.
My next meeting with Merton occurred about three in the morning on the graveyard shift at the pulp mill in Port Alberni in the summer of 1958. I was working in the pulp lab, and the conventional wisdom among the summer students was that since the supervisors never came by the graveyard shift, we might as well read. The supervisor came in, saw me reading, frowned at me, then scribbled a few lines in the log (supervisors and the supervised did not communicate by speech in the mill, only in writing!), to the effect that one more such offence and I would be on the next ferry to Vancouver. I was reading The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s first major work of autobiography; and the incident fixed the moment very clearly in my memory.
Then came a visit to a Catholic bookstore in Spokane in the spring of 1972, when I was just about to start my graduate work in Toronto. I ran across Ed Rice’s fairly crazy little book, The Man in the Sycamore Tree. Ah yes, Thomas Merton, I thought: whatever happened to him? The book told me, sort of, but what it really did for me was give me a glimpse of Merton as the architect of a renewed Christian spirituality for the 20th century and beyond; hence my decision to do my dissertation on him, a decision I have never regretted.
What then is Merton’s contribution to such a renewal? One part of the answer has to do with content, another with process or method. His subjects of concern were and are great ones: war/peace/nonviolence, the encounter in transforming depth of the great religious traditions, and the renewal of the hyper-rational and technologized life of the West through what he calls contemplation, a word to which he gives a larger meaning than earlier writers in the Christian tradition.
In terms of process or method, he gives a personal or autobiographical dimension to virtually everything he writes—not simply his journals and letters, but his works of discursive spirituality as well. He shares his soul with the reader, his hesitations, his affirmations, his contradictions, his frustrations. The careful reader sees how he grows and matures, how the later Merton is light-years advanced beyond the earlier, rigid Merton. This is a theme which I tried to develop in my book, Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon: The Camaldoli Correspondence (2015). Merton stands now, I believe, on the boundary between Christianity and other traditions, and the boundary between Christianity’s past and its future.
Eventually, enough people began to read Merton that a society was formed to promote the study of his works and his concerns: the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS), with its headquarters at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky (www.merton.org), of which I was president for the years 2007-09. In 2017, I was pleased to receive the International Award of the ITMS, awarded every two years (at the general meeting) to an individual who has made a significant contribution on an international level to the promotion of Merton’s writings (in English or in translation) and to the presentation of his ideas. The award is called “the Louie,” a nod at Merton’s nickname in the monastery, “Uncle Louie.”
Later, what began as the BC chapter of the ITMS became an affiliate, the Thomas Merton Society of Canada, of which I was president 2003-05. You can find out what we are doing, and how to join, at our website (merton.ca).
In 2012, the TMSC published an excellent anthology of articles by Canadian Merton scholars, of whom I was one, Thomas Merton: Monk on the Edge. It gave me particular pleasure to see how the study of Merton has grown in Canada since I began my own studies in 1972, and to present in written form in 2012 what I had presented orally in 1989, a reflection on Merton’s 1968 epiphany at Polonnaruwa, in Sri Lanka, which I visited in 2001.
The moving spirit in the TMSC from the time of its foundation has been Judith Hardcastle, now minister at St Andrew’s United Church in North Vancouver, who serves as program director. Judith’s energy and imagination are sources of wonder to all who know her; and a quick look at the Program Guide on the TMSC website will provide very convincing evidence of this.
Merton was born in 1915, and so 2015 marked his centenary. The regular ITMS general meeting/conference took place in June 2015 in Louisville, with Rowan Williams, archbishop emeritus of Canterbury, and James Finley, psychologist, author, spiritual teacher and sometime novice of Merton as keynote speakers. In 2014, the TMSC offered a pilgrimage to his birthplace in France, the little town of Prades, in the Languedoc, and hopes to offer it again in 2016. You can check out the centenary celebrations on the centenary page on the ITMS website (merton.org) and find pilgrimage information at merton.ca
For further reading …
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THOMAS MERTON-ASIA – an article about my 2000-2001 trip to Asia, retracing Merton’s last journey, and written to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of his death there on December 10, 1968
For my presidential address to the ITMS in 2009, on Merton and Leonard Cohen, go to leonardcohenfiles.com/grayston.pdf
The Human Experience of Transcendence – the paper I gave at the June 2013 general meeting/conference of the International Thomas Merton Society, on Merton’s epiphany at Polonnaruwa, in Sri Lanka, a week before his death
Non finis quaerendi: my journey with Thomas Merton – written for We Are Already One, a volume published in 2015 to mark his hundredth birthday, and containing reflections from a hundred Merton scholars.
THE LOUISVILLE EPIPHANY
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun” (Conjectures).
Thomas Merton Square was officially so named by the City of Louisville, Kentucky, on March 18, 2008, the fiftieth anniversary of the epiphany which Merton experienced on this spot in 1958. Those present and joining in the dedication included representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Baha’i traditions, as well as the Muhammad Ali Center and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. The cross street, in Merton’s time, Walnut Street, is now Muhammad Ali Boulevard.