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  • Thomas Merton's Deep Christian Learning across Religious Borders
  • Francis X. Clooney SJ

In his September 2015 address to the US Congress, Pope Francis evoked the memory of Thomas Merton, who, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day, captured the modern Christian and Catholic consciousness:

A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a "pointless slaughter," another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: "I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers." 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.

It was not entirely surprising that the pope should invoke Merton, for so long so well known a figure in American religious culture. In the postwar era, when America dominated the world stage, Merton offered a powerful witness to the best of Catholic values, and he did so in a way in keeping with his times—and ahead of them. William Shannon explained well the kind of prophet Merton was: "The prophet is not necessarily one who has the correct response to everything; he is one who knows, at a precise moment in history, the true problems which humanity has to face, the goals to be sought, the real questions to be put."1 Merton rose to the opportunities and challenges of his precise moment in history, and in that way marked off a fresh perspective on how world and Church might positively relate.

But then too we ought not to expect Merton to be a prophet for our times, any more than other figures of the 1960s would be expected to address directly what concerns us. We in the West know, or can know, much more about the religions of Asia than did Merton's generation, and our learning experience, amid today's pluralism, raises new questions and pushes us in different directions. But we—whichever our home tradition, and whichever other traditions we study—share with him the same [End Page 49] overall challenge: a renewal of the contemplative life grounded at home, yet also truly open to other traditions as well. For those of us who are Christian, the challenge is not all that different: to deepen our Christian contemplative practice while learning all the more deeply from the contemplative traditions around us. In the next pages, I will reflect on the core of Merton's legacy, the enrichment of the Christian contemplative life by integral learning from other religions.

merton's theological disposition

At first ahead of his times, and then in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II, Merton highlighted the value of interreligious learning. Already in his 1962 essay, "Christian Culture Needs Oriental Wisdom,"2 for instance, he was clear in his diagnosis regarding the spiritual crisis of his times and its remedy: "It is absolutely essential to introduce into our study of the humanities a dimension of wisdom oriented to contemplation as well as to wise action. For this, it is no longer sufficient merely to go back over the Christian and European cultural traditions. The horizons of the world are no longer confined to Europe and America. We have to gain new perspectives, and on this our spiritual and even our physical survival may depend."3 But he is careful enough to ask, "Does this mean that the suggestion given in our title is strictly true? Does Christian culture need Oriental wisdom? It would certainly be rash to state this without further qualification."4

He explains how this is so. On the one hand, "the 'universality' and 'catholicity' which...


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