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Father Muench Says...

A Lenten journey with Thomas Merton

March 15, 2017

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

For Lent, I have decided to get back to reading the works of my favorite saint and spiritual guide, Thomas Merton.

I hope that you  remember something about him.  A spiritual writer who was a Trappist monk, he died in a tragic accident in 1968 at the age of 53.  Yet, his works continue to be published and read my many.

I first encountered Merton’s writings when I was in high school.  I remember that I wrote a paper in my senior year about the Trappist monks and found a great deal of information from Merton’s writings. 

I don’t remember the mark Miss Conklin gave me on that paper; I do know that she was a bit surprised at my subject.  And, I know that that investigation began a lifelong friendship for me in the writings of Thomas Merton.
For me, I began with Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Story Mountain,” that he wrote in his early years in the monastery.  This book described his early life and his journey to becoming a Catholic and then all that drew him to becoming a monk. 

He entered the Trappist order at the Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to make a retreat at that Monastery.

I was surprised and pleased in 2015 when Pope Francis mentioned Thomas Merton in his talk to the U.S. Congress.  The Holy Father chose four great Americans to speak about in his talk.

He said this, “My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great American.  I would like to mention four of these Americans, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

I am certain that those senators and representatives were rather surprised when Pope Francis choose Merton as one of the great Americans to talk about.

He said this about Merton, “He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many…Merton was 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 dialogues, a promoter of peace between people and religious.”

Thomas Merton, entered the Monastery in 1941 at 26 years old.  He published his autobiography, “The Seven Story Mountain,” in 1949 and it became a best seller to the surprise of many.  It certainly captured my attention. 
After that, he wrote many books and articles concerning prayer and spirituality and peace.  He also was an accomplished poet.  He became an important guide for many of us.

Merton wrote a great deal on prayer.  He led us to a deeper understanding on bringing the presence of God alive in our lives through prayer, especially contemplative prayer.  He showed us that this contemplation was not only for monks in their monasteries – it was for all of us out in the world.  He showed us that we were all called to be contemplatives.

For Merton, contemplation is an actual experience of God through prayer.  We are to open our hearts to the presence of our God in silent, wordless prayer.

Contemplative prayer is an awakening – our opportunity to be aware of who we truly are through the presence of God.  Contemplation is a rebirth.  In contemplation, we journey inward and discover a union with God and with one another.  Merton made his confident belief that ordinary active persons as well as the monks are called to be contemplative.

Also, Thomas Merton was a man of peace who wrote often calling us all to bring peace into our own lives and into our world.

The road to peace that he encouraged in his message is a journey through the spirit of nonviolence.  The only way that people can truly be peacemakers is when they reject anger and violence as a solution. The only way to live well in peace is to throw off all that leads to violence.

So, Merton wrote often calling upon nations to reject war and violence and stockpiling armaments.  Rather they must work together to bring peace.  

Too many world leaders see the only solution is to find power in more and more bombs and bullets.  Guns continue to bring violence to neighborhoods, even families.

So we must all learn the lesson – and bring that lesson to our youth – violence and weapons lead only to unhappiness and sadness.

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