Today, January 31, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, monk, writer, poet and peace activist who lead readers to discover faith, to discover Catholicism, simply through his words. James Martin, S.J., editor at large for America Magazine, has described his encounter with Merton through the monk’s autobiography. Martin, in fact, visited LMU in 2011, and I had a chance to interview him. We didn’t discuss Merton, though I’m certain the monk would’ve loved the fact that humor was a focus of the interview.
Martin’s life, and that of many others, was changed by Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Story Mountain.” I have to confess that I started reading the book — I was in my 20s at the time — but I didn’t finish it. I often have wondered if I should feel ashamed of that, as if it demonstrates a lack of intelligence, or a lack of faith. On the other hand, a biography of Merton that I also began, and finished, at about the same age, is a book I’ve always treasured: “The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton,” by Michael Mott. That volume is where I first read of Merton’s epiphany moment at the corner of 4th and Walnut, during a visit to Louisville:
“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. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (“Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” by Thomas Merton)
I don’t believe Merton’s insight is only for the mystics, or saints, among us. On a few occasions, usually in cities, I’ve stopped on a corner of an intersection and thought to myself, “Everyone I see is loved. Everyone is redeemable. Wow, I get it. I think I know what Merton meant.” That moment strikes me as the closest we, or I, can come to seeing with God’s eyes. The world’s troubles, in our time as well as Merton’s, are ever-present, unavoidable. For a reason I cannot explain, we seem to need to stop and look for the ever-present good, for what it is that joins us all.
Here is one of my favorite poems by Thomas Merton, written in memory of his younger brother, John Paul Merton, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and died from injuries suffered in a plane crash over the English Channel in April 1943. You can find the poem in “Selected Poems of Thomas Merton,” published by New Directions.
For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943
Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.
Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?
Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed—
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.
When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.
For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land:
The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home.