Thomas Merton & The Islamic State: The One-Eyed Giant

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The Great task of magnanimous men:- to establish with truth, justice, charity and liberty, new methods of relationships in human society — the task of bringing about true peace in the order established by God. We publicly praise such men and earnestly invite them to persevere in their work with ever greater zeal. It is an imperative of duty: it is a requirement of love.  POPE JOHN XXIII



It is an article of faith in political circles to posit that the candidacy of Donald Trump is the logical conclusion to years of Republican derision about the United States government. Ronald Reagan loved to opine that , “Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” The popularity of Trump and his ilk are inheritors of this scorn directed at the vital shards of our society.

It might also be stated that The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, is the inevitable conclusion of hundreds of years of European and American intervention and exploitation of Middle Eastern and African cultures. Hence; The One-Eyed Giant. In his introduction to GANDHI ON NON-VIOLENCE Thomas Merton drew upon a quote by Laurens Van Der Post who said, “The white man came into Africa like a one-eyed giant, bringing with him the characteristic split and blindness which where at once his strength, his torment and his ruin.” Merton expounds on this theme with his comments that the one-eyed giant swaggered into the Arabesque crystal shop of Eastern culture full of bluster and military might and precious little sensitivity and no spiritual insight Our hammer-headed blindness still looks upon all problems as a nail.

Herein strides Donald Trump, a gas filled balloon that he himself has let go off so it careens across the stage disparaging anything and everyone. There is a great danger here. The Islamic State will take his rhetoric and use it with savage precision. Young people around the world look to America for leadership. If that leadership shows itself blind to their vThe Year of Fear - Urschel 001alues and heritage they will answer the jihadist call. Lest we think terrorism is a new phenomena in America, read Joe Urschel’s excellent study of America in the 1930’s, THE YEAR OF FEAR: Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt that Changed the Nation. Homegrown terrorism, rooted in violence, awash in blood, robbing banks, kidnapping businessmen, not for an ideology but for money and thrills. Nevertheless terrorism. From this era our modern concept of policing was born without which we live in chaos.

To defeat The Islamic State we must first defuse our own explosive arrogance. The legacy of the East/West fault lines run deep. We cannot heal foreign societies without first  healing our own inner wounds. America’s obsession with guns speaks to a deep disassociation with our own inner ‘Christ’. This is the front line battle against terrorism, our own desperate need to seek a violent solution to all our frustrations. The answers won’t be only legislative, we must publicly call out those ‘stalwarts of society’ that sit in the board rooms and occupy the executive suites of money making monstrosities that live only to make money destroying lives.. The number of guns in American homes speaks to a lack of Christ in America’s heart. When we turn to violence we breed more Monks of Tibhirine 001violence. Facing an Arab insurrection in the French colony of Algeria in the 1950’s and early sixties, French settlers and veterans of World War II formed the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS; Secret Army Organization). During one five month period in 1962 these French ‘patriots’ were assassinating one person every six minutes. Viewed through this lens the chaos in today’s North Africa takes on a sharper focus. In 1996, seven monks from the monastery Notre-Dame de l’Atlas of Tibhirine in Algeria, belonging to the Roman Catholic Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) were kidnapped and later beheaded. In contemplating Algeria’s troubled relationship between Islamic nationalists and Christian practitioners we can begin to grapple with the seriousness of the problems. 

Jesus speaks clearly to us, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ In confusion we answer, “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?”  Jesus’ reply contains the summation of his life’s message, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Today 47 years after his death on December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton’s voice calls us clearly forward. Forward, into the inner sanctum of our personal spirituality. As Christopher Pramuk. Associate Professor of Theology at Xavier University, said regarding Merton’s companionship on the path, “He is a faithful companion, indeed, one of the very best, who still has much to teach us, not only about the human condition but also about the mystery of God unveiled in Jesus Christ, the One who radically shapes our image of what it means to be human.”

Pramuk gave us an excellent view into Merton’s heart with Sophia: The Sophia 001Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton. No less an authority than Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s secretary, called this,  “The best book ever written about Thomas Merton.” Merton called Sophia, the Feminine Face of God, “At once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thoughts and Art within me.” Now Dr. Pramuk has a new treasure to share with us, AT PLAY IN CREATION: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine.

‘Merton is a mystical theologian because he moves beyond discursive theology to appeal directly to this “always already” experience, and to shape it, in the responsive imagination of his readers . . . we must try to keep in view Merton’s insistence that when the mystical tradition is properly understood — that is, when it is integrally lived — that tradition is far from abstract, divorced from history, or alien to the body. At its best the mystical tradition forms and affects the whole person; “intellect, memory, will, emotions, body, skills (arts) — all must be under the sway of the Holy Spirit.” To do theology under the light of Wisdom is to open oneself to the whole of reality and allow something to break through, an inner music to be heard in the breathtaking overture that is the whole world, and not just the Catholic condition’  . . . Connecting with an audience steeped in doubt and skepticism, yet still yearning for something beyond what society today Buddhist Merton - Robert Lentz 001packages (and sells) as “reality,” is one of Merton’s most enduring gifts as a spiritual writer and mystical theologian.’   C. Pramuk

“If I can unite in myself, in my own spiritual life, the thought of the East and the West of the Greek and Latin Fathers, I will create in myself a reunion of the divided church and from that unity in myself can come the exterior and visible unity of the church. For if we want to bring together East and West we cannot do it by imposing one upon the other. We must contain both in ourselves and transcend both in Christ.”  Thomas Merton

Buddhist image of Thomas Merton by Robert Lentz from Bridge Building Images. The Greek inscription reads ‘Holy Thomas’.


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