- Thomas Merton’s Bangkok Lecture of December 1968
Preparations for the Meeting and its Purpose
After being elected abbot primate of the Benedictine Confederation in September 1967, I was encouraged by discovering that the Benedictines and the two branches of the Cistercians (those of the Common Observance and those of the Strict Observance, or Trappists) worked together on missionary issues through an office in Paris called Aide à l’Implantation Monastique (AIM).1 After World War II many new monastic foundations were made in the developing countries of Africa, Asia, and South America, commonly referred to as the Third World. These fledgling monasteries needed special care that frequently could not be provided by their founding monasteries in Europe or the United States. AIM sought to fill that gap. There existed an unwritten agreement among the three superiors of the two branches of the Cistercians and the abbot primate that the historical differences in the West among those following the Rule of Saint Benedict would not be emphasized in the new areas of expansion.
One of the purposes for establishing AIM was to plan and organize meetings of monks and nuns in those vast areas of the world.2 Thus, AIM and its staff acted as the prime instrument for pulling together all the threads that went into the meeting in Bangkok in December 1968. They ultimately were responsible for selecting inculturation as the main theme to be treated.
At that time, I noticed that this theme was frequently being discussed among us Superiors General in Rome, especially among those religious congregations with newer foundations in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and South America.3 Many came to realize that this theme was important, not only for newer houses, but also for older ones in the Third World, as they too were rethinking how they engaged the cultures in which they had been implanted. We superiors devoted many meetings to this theme, bringing in experts in theology and anthropology to reflect with us on current thinking and to animate our discussions. Because of the positive treatment at Vatican Council II of the other great religions of the world, this theme was “in the air” at that time. In the Far East the question of inculturation for Catholic missionaries was not a new one in itself, as Christians had been posing it since the time of the first missionary efforts in China and Japan centuries before. For monks, however, it was being asked for the first time and with some urgency. Monasticism [End Page 91] posed questions of adaptation and accommodation in cultures already possessing deeply rooted manifestations of a similar way of life that went under the same label. Thus, since there was already a concept of monasticism and the existence of monks in Asian cultures, the Bangkok meeting was an occasion for reexamining the question of inculturation.
At that same time there was a heightened sensitivity to any sign of a residual colonialism in many parts of the Third World. When Western groups made no attempt at inculturation, it was interpreted as old European cultural colonialism, or, as some were beginning to say, new American economic imperialism.
When some Benedictine and Cistercian superiors in Asia suggested inculturation as the theme for this meeting, they added the suggestion that superiors of the founding monasteries in Europe and the United States should attend the meeting and interact with the superiors of the local houses. These superiors felt it was important for the founding superiors to gain a better understanding of the issues involved in cultural adaptation and that they be willing to give to the local superiors a broader berth for future developments. For this to occur, the presence of experts at the meeting was also imperative. It was then that Merton’s name was suggested. It was rightly felt that he was well informed about both Eastern and Western forms of monasticism and would be a font of insights and a ready guide for the discussions. In addition, his views—everyone agreed—would be well accepted by the Western superiors. Since the two languages of the meeting were to be French and English, Merton could also...