“Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” – Pope Francis
Christ is always calling ― do we listen? He said faith even as small as a mustard seed could move mountains. To initiate this faith, we need to first till the field. We can do that by recognizing the suffering of others and honoring the other in ourselves.
Thomas Merton, born in the French Pyrenees in 1915 to an American mother and New Zealander father, both painters, began life as an outsider, the other. The sounds and smells of the First World War lingered close to his home. The Benedictine Abbey of Saint Michel-de-Cuxa, one of the first to spark young Tom’s imagination, was close by. Decades later, portions of the Abbey found itself reborn on the banks of the Hudson in upper Manhattan as the Cloisters. A tortured circuitous route also brought Merton to upper Manhattan and Columbia University in the years before the Second World War. (Drawing of Christ by Thomas Merton. Used by permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University)
Like Thomas Merton, I lived as an outsider in a foreign land. My father, an ESSO oil executive, had moved my family out of the US just before I was born. After growing up in Venezuela, where I was exposed to scenes of inequality and suffering, and in Libya, which provided me a first-hand view of Islamic culture and beliefs, coming to terms with social injustice and religious intolerance became my primary focus.
That focus continued through my adolescent years. In 1965, after my mother became ill, my family moved to Miami where I went to high school. In my senior year, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Several months later, two weeks before Christmas vacation, I was attending college in Switzerland when I learned my mother had lost her battle with multiple sclerosis and had passed away. That year of devastation prompted me on a lifetime search for spiritual answers and remedies.
That’s when Thomas Merton entered my world. Gandhi on Non-Violence ― a slim volume of Gandhi quotations edited by Thomas Merton — fell into my hands. I read Merton’s introduction, Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant, and was hooked. Here was a voice who clearly understood the complex interweave of international culture and common human community which defines the world today. His fearless openness to different cultures and beliefs was learned early and appeared to be a driving force in his inter-faith outreach. Many have mistakenly believed that Merton was seeking answers from other traditions because he was willing to explore them. The answer, I believe, is quite different. Merton personified the heart and intellect of Christ, the Hidden Ground of Love as he called it. He summoned the world spiritual community together, to heal and pray as one.
I resonated deeply with Merton’s writings, and he began to have a profound effect on my life. I read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain which depicted his human frailties as a troubled youth in search of truth — a narrative I could definitely relate to. His introspection, spiritual searching and mystical insights as well as his willingness to speak about his conversion to the Catholic faith and his own inner trials made him accessible. He was also outspoken about war, in particular the war in Vietnam, and since I was registered for the draft, his message of peace was all the more poignant.
Merton’s writings, I discovered, actually covered a wide range of interests. In addition to being outspoken on issues of peace and non-violence, his observations made him a contemporary spokesman on key matters that are still driving communities apart today: race, income inequality, and a decline in moral and religious values. In addition, Merton strongly supported interfaith understanding and pioneered dialogue with prominent spiritual leaders of various faiths. Although he followed a Christian path, Merton’s writings on Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and later Islam, are profound since he believed that all religious traditions are a search for ultimate truth. After meeting Merton in 1968 the Dalai Lama said, “This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity . . . It was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word Christian.” (Photo used by permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University)
Merton’s ability to reach above and beyond what is normally viewed as Christian is what makes him such an outstanding teacher. Merton said, “The Spirit of God speaks to the faithful in between the lines of divine revelation, telling us things that are not evident to the inspection of scholarship or reason.” But he knew how to communicate those subtle “in between the lines” truths in a timeless manner. The seeds of contemplation Merton planted in the spiritual heart of the world continuously yields new fruit. One book on Thomas Merton’s writings which gives great insight into his thoughts on Christ is Christopher Pramuk’s, SOPHIA: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton. Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s last secretary, called it “the best book ever written about Thomas Merton.” SOPHIA provides an in-depth view of Merton’s understanding of the intuitive wisdom tradition.
As my study of Merton progressed, I found that ultimately, Thomas Merton’s greatest gift was his capacity to wrap whatever conversation he was engaged in around the message and meaning of Christ. He helped me, along with many other readers, to realize the moral necessitude of a spiritual life.
That realization culminated in the fall of 2013 when I went to work for an electrical contractor inside a New York State medium security prison. At that point, forty years of Merton study took on new meaning. My wife Angelina broached the thought first. There must be a reason I’d been sent there. Why not offer them spiritual books, she suggested. Why not indeed? Merton indicated that the prayers of one monk in his cell would be enough to prevent the destruction of the world. Why couldn’t that one monk be an inmate in a prison cell?
From her simple suggestion the Pure Vision Foundation’s Thomas Merton Prison Project was born. Through the project, I’ve come in contact with Catholics and Christians of different sects as well as Jewish and Buddhist leaders who wish to help those incarcerated heal and change. It’s an arena that I believe Merton would approve of ― providing books that assist chaplains of different faiths as they encourage spiritual growth, allowing inmates the opportunity to broaden their own perspectives and learn to resolve conflict within themselves and with others. Benefiting the correctional community can only have the wider effect of benefiting society at large, enabling inmates through the power of their spiritual beliefs, to redeem themselves and assimilate into a wider, more diverse world once they return to civilian life.
In fact, we must believe that redemption is possible. Pope Francis has indicated as much, blessing the world with his boundless love, a love that is inclusive and nonjudgmental. Visiting Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, the pontiff spoke directly to the prisoners:
“I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own.”
The heart of his message has reached other prisons as well. While at Cereso No. 3 Penitentiary in Juarez, Mexico, Pope Francis stated:
“Mercy means learning not to be prisoners of the past. It means believing that things can change. We know that we cannot turn back but I wanted to celebrate with you the Jubilee of Mercy, because it does not exclude the possibility of writing a new story and moving forward. The one who has suffered the greatest pain, and we could say has experienced hell, can become a prophet in society.”
The bottom line is that none of us is in a position to judge. According to the pontiff, “there is no place beyond the reach of mercy, no space or person it cannot touch.” Following that vein, the inter-faith spiritual books we have donated to prison chaplains and inmates through The Thomas Merton Prison Project represent light and hope. They represent the prayers and aspirations of the donors who make our work possible. It has allowed us to bring Thomas Merton’s message of love and compassion directly into prisons where it’s needed most. Through this work, we aim to dissolve the veil that perceives the other as outside ourselves and in so doing, to unlock the Christ in our own hearts. Merton understood that armies and politicians cannot put an end to hatred and war, to violence and bitterness. Only our hearts and prayers can do that. For that we need all hands on deck ― people helping each other — praying and serving.
Amen, I say to you, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, that you do unto me. —Matthew 25:40