45 years ago today, Thomas Merton died in an accident in the room where he was staying in Bangkok. He had just delivered a paper to an interfaith conference of monks entitled 'Marxism and Monastic Perspectives'. He was on a journey to Far East in fulfillment of a long-standing dream to encounter first hand the Eastern religions with which he had a lifelong dialogue. He had met with monks from Buddhist traditions, including the Dalai Lama, and many other religious figures from India, Thailand and Sri Lanka. As was his custom, he kept a journal during the visit and he chronicled the many significant encounters and insights of his travels. Here are some of the words he wrote in the earlier part of that journal, in the entry for November 7 1968, the day after his second meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala:
The contemplative life must provide an area, a space of liberty, of silence, in which possibilities are allowed to surface and new choices - beyond routine choice - become manifest. It should create a new experience of time, not as stopgap, stillness, but as "temps vierge" - not a blank to be filled or an untouched space to be conquered and violated, but a space which can enjoy its own potentialities and hopes - and its own presence to itself. One's own time. But not dominated by one's own ego and its demands. Hence open to others - compassionate time, rooted in the sense of common illusion and in criticism of it.
This brief paragraph and its context give three of the reasons why I think Thomas Merton still matters as a religious thinker in our contemporary world. First, this is a reflection that is offered in the context of an interfaith encounter and founded on the mature reflection by a Christian monk on his own tradition. Merton knew the Christian way of contemplative prayer from a theoretical and historical perspective, but above all from an experiential one. His dialogue with other faiths was focussed on inner experience and conducted with a deep understanding and respect that are only possible when one is secure in one's own tradition.
Second, it encapsulates Merton's experience of contemplation. This experience was forged in inner struggle and constant exploration of the depths of solitude. It speaks of the dangers of an illusory sense of identity and of the place where our true identity is found through grace. Merton brought the possibility of a contemplative way to 'ordinary' people of faith and not just to those called to a monastic life.
Third, it links contemplation with compassion. True meditation is not a flight from reality or a narcissistic self-absorption, but a discovery of one's true place in the universe, a place among all creatures as one of them. Merton's writing was directed both to the inner life and to the world of violence. His was a prophetic voice, longing for peace and humanity in the face of inhuman violence.
Merton was a poet, an artist, a constant letter-writer, a thinker, teacher and contemplative. Anyone who reads his journals will see his flawed humanity in its full colour and it is this candid, and often humourous humility that makes his writing so engaging. His message is as urgent today as it was then. Diaolgue; Contemplation; Peace - these are the marks of his life and teaching and they must be the marks of the church today.