Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Thomas Merton: The Enlightened Heart

from the Inward/Outward blog...

By Joan Chittister

December 10 is the 40th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death. There is a story that may best explain the influence and the place of Thomas Merton in contemporary society and spiritual development.

Once upon a time some disciples begged their old and ailing master not to die. “But if I do not go, how will you ever see?” the Master said to them. “What is it we can possibly see when you are gone?” one of them asked. With a twinkle in his eye, the Master answered, “All I ever did in my entire life was to sit on the river bank handing out river water. After I’m gone, I trust that you will notice the river.”

The lesson rings true: What teachers teach us while they live is one thing; the quality of what they leave us to think about the rest of our lives is another. Thomas Merton was a fascinating, engaging, offbeat, charming and provocative personality, true. But what he directed the world to see was far more than the mystique, the mystery of the cloistered life. He left us things worth thinking about for a long, long time.

Merton saw the world through a heart uncluttered by formulas and undimmed by systems. He taught more than piety and asceticism for its own sake. He taught concepts that flew in the face of tradition then and fly in the face of culture still: the sin of poverty, the moral imperative of peace, the rectitude of stewardship, the holy power of nonviolence, the sanctity of globalism and essence of enlightenment. Merton sowed seeds of contemplation that led to action—an often forgotten but always bedrock spiritual concept.

In Jewish spirituality, for instance, two concepts dominate and are intertwined: The one, devekut, translates as “clinging to God” or contemplation; the other, tikkun o’lam, translates “repairing the world” the work of justice. One without the other—contemplation without justice, clinging to mystery without repairing the real world—is unfinished, the tradition teaches, is dark without light, is grand without great, is soul without body.

Contemplation, Merton teaches us, is learning to see the world as God sees the world. The contemplative sees the world through the eyes of God and the real contemplative is driven to respond according to the mind of God for it. Clinging to God, in other words, generates the passion it takes to repair the world.

Merton’s monastic contemplation joins those two concepts again, this time in the face of a culture that is inclined more to rituals than to this kind of contemplative dimension of religion. Indeed, Merton spent his life dealing out river water to a world yet disinclined to see the river itself but claiming to be following it. Merton handed out river water to soften the dry and sterile ground of religion gone hard, and life gone barren.

Source: “Thomas Merton: Seeder of Radical Action and the Enlightened Heart” in The Merton Annual, Vol. 12

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