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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 3.4 (2000) 195-216
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Thomas Merton's Vision of the Kingdom
Patrick F. O'Connell
"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). These first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, the proclamation inaugurating his ministry, situate the Kingdom, or Reign, of God at the very heart of the gospel message. They suggest that in order to accept Jesus' invitation to follow him, it is essential to appreciate the significance of this revelation of God's Reign for Jesus' life and work and for the ongoing witness of the Church. Yet too often in discussions of Christian life this enigmatic image is given little attention, and misleading or incomplete interpretations can sometimes blunt its impact or obscure its importance. For this as for so many other fundamental aspects of Christian faith and practice, the work of Thomas Merton can serve as a particularly valuable resource. While the image of the Kingdom is not mentioned with any frequency or examined in any depth in Merton's earlier works, 1 his writings during the final decade of his life draw repeatedly on the language of the Kingdom to explore what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ in the second half of the twentieth century. It is particularly noteworthy that [End Page 195] consideration of the Kingdom and its import recurs across a broad spectrum of Merton's writings: it is a motif that helps to weave together meditations on the meaning of redemption, reflections on the mission of the Church, essays on the need for contemplative awareness and calls to prophetic action on behalf of peace. The Kingdom of God emerges as a key factor contributing to the underlying unity of vision refracted in so many apparently disparate directions in Merton's later work, while his insights into this rich and powerful, yet mysterious, symbol illuminate its crucial significance for contemporary Christianity.
For Merton, the Kingdom of God must first of all be recognized as an intrinsic component of the life and mission of Jesus: in his birth, in his preaching of good news to the poor, above all in his death and resurrection, the transforming power of God's Reign is released into the world. With the Incarnation, the Kingdom itself takes on concrete human features: it becomes enfleshed in the person of Jesus. "The Gospel of the Nativity," Merton writes, "is a solemn proclamation of an event which is the turning point of all history: the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed King and Son of God, the Word-made-Flesh, pitching his tent among us, not merely to seek and save that which was lost, but to establish his Kingdom, the eschatological Kingdom, the manifestation of the fullness of time and the completion of history." 2 The full actualization of the potential for freedom and life that is the true and authentic destiny of every human being as created in the divine image is the gift offered by the advent of Christ: in Jesus the contradiction between the dynamism of human nature as it was meant to be, "oriented toward a perfection of life that is to be achieved only in total self-giving," and human life as it is in fact lived, in which "this unlimited natural possibility is, to our anguish, discovered in actual experience to be so limited, so restricted, so frustrated, and so ambiguous as to produce not hope but only despair" (LL 224), is resolved by the appearance of a human being who not only models authentic human existence but [End Page 196] empowers others to share in this restored and fulfilled humanity. The birth of Jesus ushers in the Reign of God because in Jesus the will of God, the divine plan for creation, is fully present in an absolutely faithful human being: "[i]n Christ we therefore see man as he is intended to be: a child of...