This Sunday is for the lost- and- found department of our lives and home. Every family and enterprise have one. The lost-and- found department contains an encyclopedia of life stories.
Thomas Merton (I915-!968) is arguably the most influential Catholic author of the 20th century. His autobiography, the Seven Story Mountain, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into 15 languages. He wrote over 60 other books and hundreds of other poems and articles.
Merton did experience the lost period. He lived a rambunctious youth and adolescence. His autobiography tells us as much. Written in I948, one author has called the Seven Story Mountain, “a twentieth century form of the Confessions of St. Augustine”. Another author has said that this autobiography is the story of a man in his early thirties who has undergone a radical transformation. It was a transformation from unbelief to faith, from lack of direction to vocational commitment, from self- seeking to self -surrender.
Merton’s autobiography is not only about the past, but also about a life in progress. He is an unfinished human being with an unfinished life. He is still searching, still struggling. The road to faith has been traversed, but the journey in faith goes on. The seeker is still seeking. Merton has found his vocation but certainly not realized its possibilities.
The Seven Story Mountain has its personal appeal. Merton address each of us in communicating his own vulnerability. He manages to cut through what separates us and unites us in the wounded humanity we share in common. Merton wrote “I speak to you not as an author, not as a story-teller, not as a philosopher nor as a friend only. I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self. Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know. But if you listen, things may be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both”.
Finally, the autobiography shows the importance of ordinary things in the process of religious conversion and commitment. He writes: “God brought me and a half dozen others together at Columbia and made us friends in such a way that our friendship would work powerfully to rescue us from the confusion and misery in which we had come to find ourselves. All our salvation begins on the level of the common, the natural and ordinary things. So it was with me”.
One author wrote a summation of Seven Story Mountain: “Everything that Thomas Merton was and would become was in Seven Story Mountain, if in embryonic form. His autobiography contained the seeds of contemplation that were to bear fruit for two more decades of Merton’s life, and that have borne fruit into our present”.
Merton not only had the experience of being lost but also of being found. In 1938 he converted to the Catholic faith. Then on December 10th, I941 Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemane, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians (Trappists). For the next 27 years in Gethsemane he lived out his on-going conversion. In 1949 Merton became a priest, Fr. Louis.
In November of I958, Merton wrote a letter to Pope John XXIII. In it he describes how he had begun to understand that being a cloistered monk did not mean withdrawing from the world in some absolute way. Merton wrote: “I have exercised an apostolate within a circle of intellectuals from other parts of the world. They include artists, publishers, writers, poets, etc. who have become my friends without having to leave the cloister. It has become quite simply an Apostolate of Friendship”.
In I966 Merton began his three years living in the hermitage. He wrote: “Go into the desert not to escape others, but to find them in God”. Then he addresses the laity: “All need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of our true selves to be heard, at least occasionally. For he cannot go on happily for long unless he is in contact with the springs of the spiritual life, which are hidden in the depths of our souls”.
During his last years, Merton became deeply interested in Asian Religions, particularly Zen Buddhism and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk’s trip to the Far East in I968, the Dalai Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. It was during this trip to a conference on East-West dialogue that Merton died near Bangkok on December I0, I968. The date marked the 27th anniversary of his arrival in Gethsemane
Pope Francis spoke of Thomas Merton before Congress: “He was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened up new horizons for souls and the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religion. Thomas Merton remains a spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people.”
Fr. Theodore Walsh, C. P.