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  • Merton and the Axes of Dialogue
  • Thomas Forsthoefel

As we pass Merton's birth centennial and approach nearly a half century since his death, his disposition, assumptions, and method regarding interreligious dialogue remain seminal and worth revisiting in a contemporary world marked by an odd and sometimes disquieting mix of easy exchange and tight territoriality in the interface of the world's religions. Here I will extrapolate Merton's example of thinker/practioner as a potent model for interreligious dialogue, one that we can see certainly in his life but is especially evident in the Asian Journal. As a particularly tight expression of this model, I will conclude by focusing on two key principles that Merton addresses, communication and communion, in his paper "Monastic Experience and Inter-religious Dialogue." This paper, and particularly these two axes of dialogue, remains a formative template for interreligious dialogue nearly fifty years after his death.

First, I want to thank the organizers of this panel, especially Frank Clooney, since it was his initial inspiration to convene such a program in memory of Merton's life and contribution. I would imagine that many of us in our respective disciplines certainly value Merton's work and example but also in some sense have been inspired or influenced by him as well, at least early in our paths. It has been a long time since I've read Merton, and to return to his robust life and thought was moving; catalytic in this regard was reencountering in Merton a precise way of being in the world—one grounded in faith and anthropologically characterized by a fundamental openness to the sacred—with which I strongly resonate. This way of being in the world recalls Mircea Eliade's discussion of the two modes of being in the world and Merton's life, if anything, keenly demonstrates the sacred mode.1 If the sacred is, following Eliade, "saturated" with being, meaning, and truth,2 Merton's life lucidly demonstrates one that was resolutely oriented to that reality, however refined his conceptualization of it developed. In any case, reading Merton as a Georgetown graduate resonated with me thirty-five years ago; I had returned from India, where I served as a volunteer in a Dutch mission outside of Cennai, and I had picked up Merton's Asian Journal and was struck by his intinerary, which included sites in south India that I had visited as well. I felt a kind of simpatico sensibility with Merton, somehow sharing elements of a journey that was both physical and metaphysical. [End Page 65]

I took note—then and now—not only of the physical sites he visited, especially in South India, but the intellectual sites he visited as well. These are particularly illuminated by the handwritten excerpts from Indian and Asian thinkers that he recorded in his journal and were published later. Some of these include classic nondualist texts, authors, or traditions—Shankara, the Vivekacudamani, versions of Madhyamaka or Yogacara—as well as the qualified nondualism of Ramanuja. But the feeling one gets in reading the excerpts is that the metaphysics he scrutinized did not amount to meeting mere curiosity or solely feeding a robust intellectual appetite, but instead were part of a broader more comprehensive and personal project; indeed, his selected excerpts appear to be both evidence of his profound intellectual interests but also of a profound spiritual drive as well, one to which the intellectual was joined to and throughly in sync with his life trajectory. Directly engaging the words or symbols or idioms of non-Christian traditions appears to be part of an overall arc of his life, namely, to gain ever deeper, asymptotic, understanding—if ultimately nonconceptual understanding—of the divine. For Merton, the intellectual sites of his texts appear to be nourishment on his pilgrimage, certainly the physical one that took him to Asia but also the broader pilgrimage that really constituted his life journey, the quest for an ever growing intimacy with the sacred.

In the Asian Journal we see his dialogue with texts, texts obviously to which he was drawn: versions of Hindu and Buddhist nondualisms, personal form theologies, mysticism and religious experience, the appeal of nonconceptual...


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