Yesterday was the anniversary of Thomas Merton's untimely death in 1968, so I offer this little reflection as part of my ongoing love for this incomparable mystic, poet, activist and writer.
Thomas Merton was a solitary for the last few years of his life, but his call to solitude was longer and deeper than its physical expression in his hermitage in the woods near his abbey in Kentucky. His interior solitude was one that would allow him to embrace all living things as one. He spoke often of 'a virginal point of pure nothingness' that lay at the heart of the true self and I can't help feeling that this insight was, in part, shaped by his deep appreciation of Zen Buddhism. Here is an excerpt from his lovely (and feisty) meditation, Day of a Stranger:
'The spiritual life is something that people worry about when they are so busy with something else they think they ought to be spiritual. Spiritual life is guilt. Up here in the woods is seen the New Testament: that is to say, the wind comes through the trees and you breathe it.' (Day of a Stranger p.41)
Here there is no 'inner' and 'outer', no dualism, only breath, unity, simplicity. Elsewhere, Merton expressed this deep unity with other human beings in very explicitly political terms. We cannot know this 'New Testament' and continue to treat others as 'other' - dispensible, not like us, not deserving of a seat next to us on the bus, to be kept in check with threat of napalm or nuclear annihilation. How could one pray in such a way as to realise such unity and then be content to destroy a life? There is no separation between the spiritual and the political, between people of different faiths, between me and my enemy.
'What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.'