Today, we mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton—a uniquely American saint, the patron saint of contradiction: ‘famous monk.’
This is among the many spiritual gifts Merton shared with us, isn’t it? How he held the mirror up to himself, and showed us all how hopelessly addicted we can be to fame and fortune? (Even now, for instance, I can’t resist attempting to grab a tiny sliver of Merton’s spotlight by telling you he shared his birthday with another one of my heroes—my dear departed father. Happy b-day, Pop!)
Ego won’t go down quietly—that was the message at the heart of Merton’s trek up the mountain. It was a theme he returned to again and again, perhaps because he recognized the utter futility of the quest.
How does one ever fully lose oneself?
How does one ever become another Christ?
I got a deeper appreciation for the attraction Merton must have felt to this struggle when Gerri and I visited Gethsemani (the Kentucky monastery he called home) a summer ago. There’s an inscription in the capstone over the gateway to the garden next to the abbey church. Two words: A profoundly simple exhortation that Merton must have seen just about every day:
I guess it’s an exhortation.
Or an aspiration, perhaps?
Rummaging through my modest Merton library yesterday, I came across a passage that seemingly breaks open the simple words of the capstone just a bit. One hundred and ninety-three words, to explore the meaning in two.
It’s taken from the Preface to the Japanese edition of Thoughts in Solitude, quoted in Echoing Silence. A worthy way, I thought, to remember Merton on the centennial of his birth:
No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is “heard” when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say when there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.
These pages do not attempt to convey any special information, or to answer deep philosophical questions about life. True, they do concern themselves with questions about life. But they certainly do not pretend to do the reader’s thinking for him. On the contrary, they invite him to listen for himself. They do not merely speak to him, they remind him that he is a Hearer.
But who is this Hearer?
Beyond the Hearer, is there perhaps No-Hearer?
Who is this No-Hearer?
For such outrageous questions there are no intelligible answers. The only answer is Hearing itself. The proper climate for such Hearing is solitude.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.