“…I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech and beyond concept.”
— The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton
I met Thomas Merton a year after he died. I met him through his writing and through the communion that lies “beyond words,” met him in the seamless way good friends meet again after a long time apart. Without Merton’s friendship and the hope it has given me over the past forty-five years, I’m not sure I could have kept faith with my vocation, even as imperfectly as I have.
My vocational journey to what Merton calls “the margin of society” — at least, the margin of my known world — began in 1969 when I was completing my doctoral work at Berkeley. As the 1960s unfolded, the academic calling that brought me to graduate school had become less and less audible. Vietnam, a spate of assassinations, race riots and “the fire next time” in several major American cities — all of this had me hearing an insistent inner voice saying, “Your vocation is in the community, not the classroom.”
I turned down several opportunities to become a professor, and in July of 1969 moved with my wife and two children to Washington, D.C., to begin work as a community organizer. No one could understand what I was doing, beyond committing professional suicide. In truth, I could not explain it to myself, except to say that it was something I “couldn’t not do,” despite the clear odds against success.
I had no training or experience as a community organizer; much of the work had to be funded by grants I had no track record at raising; and I was an idealistic and thin-skinned young man temperamentally unsuited for the hard-nosed world of community organizing. Compared to accepting a salaried and secure faculty post, as such posts were back in the day, I was stepping off the edge into “a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk.” Companions would have been comforting, but few are to be found when you go over the cliff.
After five months in D.C. — when the thrill of my free-fall had been replaced by the predictable bruises, cuts, and broken bones — I walked into a used book store near Dupont Circle. A friend had recommended that I read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It was not on the shelf, but in the place where it would have been was another book I knew nothing about: The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. I remember thinking, “It’s about a mountain and the author’s surname begins with M. Close enough…” So I bought it.
That was early in December, 1969. Merton, I soon learned, had died almost exactly one year earlier. But he came alive as I read his autobiography, as he had for millions before me. I never felt that I had merely discovered a new author worth reading. Instead, I knew I had met a kindred spirit who understood me better than anyone alive, better than I understood myself, a fellow traveler who could accompany me on the strange path I had chosen — or had it chosen me?
Wanting to learn more about my new friend, I set out to read everything he wrote. As Merton devotees know, this turned into a lifetime project. The man published at least sixty books, and that counts only those published while he was alive: I’ve lost count of how many more have been published since his death. Merton’s posthumous literary output is, I believe, the first documented case of “perish and publish.”
A few years after I began reading Merton, I learned about his correspondence with Louis Massignon, a French scholar who introduced Western readers to the life and work of al-Hallaj, a ninth century Muslim mystic. Massignon felt that his relation to al-Hallaj was not so much that of a scholar to his subject as it was “a friendship, a love, a rescue.” He did not mean that he had rescued al-Hallaj from historical obscurity, but that the Muslim mystic had reached out across time to rescue him.
That’s what Merton did for me as I read and re-read The Seven Storey Mountain. Forty years later, I’m still reading him, still finding friendship, love, and rescue — essential elements in serving as a messenger of hope. Imparting hope to others has nothing to do with exhorting or cheering them on. It has everything to do with relationships that honor the soul, encourage the heart, inspire the mind, quicken the step, and heal the wounds we suffer along the way.
Merton has companioned me on my journey and illumined my path, offering life-giving ways to look at where I’ve been, where I am right now, and where I’m headed. I want to say a few words about four of those ways.
The Quest for True Self
First comes the pivotal distinction Merton makes between “true self” and “false self,” which helped me understand why I walked away from the groves of academe toward terra incognita. No reasonable person would call my early vocational decision “a good career move.” But looking at it through Merton’s eyes, I came to see that it was a first step on a life-long effort to be responsive to the imperatives of true self, the source of that inner voice that kept saying, “You can’t not do this.”
I grew up in the Methodist Church, and I value the gifts that tradition gave me. But at no point on my religious journey — which included religious studies at college, a year at Union Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion, and active memberships in several mainline Protestant denominations — was I introduced to the contemplative stream of spirituality that Merton lived and wrote about. His notion of the quest for true self eventually led me to Quakerism, with its conviction that “there is that of God in every person.” The quest for true self and the quest for God: it’s a distinction without a difference, one that not only salvaged my spiritual life but took me deeper into it.
“Most of us,” as Merton brilliantly observed, “live lives of self-impersonation.” I cannot imagine a sadder way to die than with the sense that I never showed up here on earth as my God-given self. If Merton had offered me nothing else, the encouragement to live from true self would be more than enough to call his relation to me “a friendship, a love, a rescue.”
The Promise of Paradox
The notion of paradox was central to Merton’s spiritual and intellectual life, not merely as a philosophical concept but as a lived reality. Given the many apparent contradictions of my life, nothing Merton wrote brought him closer to me in spirit than the epigraph to The Sign of Jonas: “…I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” It is no accident that my first book featured a lead essay on Merton and was titled The Promise of Paradox.
Merton taught me the importance of looking at life not merely in terms of either-or but also in terms of both-and. Paradoxical thinking of this sort is key to creativity, which comes from the capacity to entertain apparently contradictory ideas in a way that stretches the mind and opens the heart to something new. Paradox is also a way of being that’s key to wholeness, which does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.
For me, the ability to hold life paradoxically became a life-saver. Among other things, it helped me integrate three devastating experiences of clinical depression, which were as dark for me as it must have been for Jonas inside the belly of that whale. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was the question that came time and again as my quest for light plunged me into darkness. In response, Merton’s lived understanding of paradox came to my rescue. Eventually I was able to see that the closer I move to the source of light, the deeper my shadow becomes. To be whole I have to be able to say I am both shadow and light.
Paradoxical thinking can also save us from the crimped and cramped versions of faith that bedevil Christianity and are, at bottom, idolatries that elevate our theological formulae above the living God. Merton — who had a deep appreciation of Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Sufism — once put this in words so fierce that, if taken seriously, could generate enough energy to transform the Christian world:
The Cross is the sign of contradiction — destroying the seriousness of the Law, of the Empire, of the armies…. But the magicians keep turning the cross to their own purposes. Yes, it is for them too a sign of contradiction: the awful blasphemy of the religious magician who makes the cross contradict mercy! This is of course the ultimate temptation of Christianity! To say that Christ has locked all the doors, has given one answer, settled everything and departed, leaving all life enclosed in the frightful consistency of a system outside of which there is seriousness and damnation, inside of which there is the intolerable flippancy of the saved — while nowhere is there any place left for the mystery of the freedom of divine mercy which alone is truly serious, and worthy of being taken seriously.”
— from “To Each His Darkness” in Raids on the Unspeakable
The Call to Community
For several years after the 1948 publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, the Abbey of Gethsemani was flooded with young men who wanted to join Merton in the monastic life. Though I came to the party twenty years late, I too wanted in. But I had a few liabilities when it came to becoming a Trappist monk, including a wife, three children, and Protestant tendencies. I needed to find another way into “life together” in a spiritual community.
So in 1974, I left my community organizing in Washington, D.C. and moved with my family to a Quaker living-learning community called Pendle Hill, located near Philadelphia. For the next eleven years, I shared a daily round of worship, study, work, social outreach, and communal meals with some seventy people in a spiritually-grounded community that was as close as I could get to my image of the life Merton lived. That image was of a “community of solitudes,” of “being alone together,” of a way of life in which a group of people could live more fully into Rilke’s definition of love: “that two (or more) solitudes border, protect and salute one another.”
This is not the place to write about the many ways a decade-plus at Pendle Hill deepened and strengthened my sense of vocation, a topic I have explored elsewhere. Suffice it to say that in the Quaker tradition I found a way to join the inner journey with social concerns, and eventually founded a national non-profit, the Center for Courage & Renewal, whose mission is to help people “rejoin soul and role.” My experience at Pendle Hill also gave me the impetus to take one more step toward “the margin of society.” For the past quarter century, I have worked independently as a writer, teacher, and activist, unsheltered by any institution.
When my courage to work at the margins wavers, I take heart in what Merton said in his final talk, given to a conference of monks in Bangkok a few hours before he died. Quoting a Tibetan lama who was forced to flee his monastery and his homeland, Merton advised the monks, “From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.” In words that ring true for me at a time in history when our major social institutions — religious, economic, and political institutions — are profoundly dysfunctional, Merton goes on to say:
“…we can no longer rely on being supported by structures that may be destroyed at any moment by a political power or a political force. You cannot rely on structures. They are good and they should help us, and we should do the best we can with them. But they may be taken away, and if everything is taken away, what do you do next?”
Hidden Wholeness in a Broken World
As the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously reminded us, “things fall apart.” But in “Hagia Sophia,” one of Merton’s most lyrical pieces, he writes about the “hidden wholeness” the spiritual eye can discern beneath the broken surface of things — whether it’s a broken political system, a broken relationship, or a broken heart:
“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans
These words, too, have served as a source of hope for me. Once one has eyes to see it, wholeness can always be discovered, hidden beneath the broken surface of things. This is more than a soothing notion. It’s an insight that can shape what the Buddhists call “right action,” if we have eyes to see. Here’s an instance of what I mean.
In the early 1970s — as I was reading Merton and learning about organizing for racial justice in a rapidly changing neighborhood — I began to understand that my job was not to try to compel people to do things they did not want to do, such as protesting against unscrupulous real estate practices like blockbusting and redlining. Instead, I needed to give them excuses and permissions to do things they really wanted to do — things related to the justice agenda — but were too shy or fearful to do under their own steam.
For example, the people in the neighborhood where I lived and worked had already run from “the other” once, driven by the fear that animates white flight. But in their heart of hearts, they had come to understand that there is no place left to run, no place to escape the diversity of the human community, and that embracing it might bring them peace and enrich their lives.
I knew that step one in stopping real estate practices that manipulate fear for profit was simple: give the old-timers and the newcomers frequent chances to meet face-to-face so they could learn that “the other” came bearing blessings, not threats. But instead of asking folks to do the impossible — e.g., “Just knock on a stranger’s door and get to know whoever answers” — my colleagues and I began creating “excuses and permissions” for natural interactions: door-to-door surveys, block parties, ethnic food fairs, and living room conversations about shared interests, to name a few.
Amid the racial tensions of our era, we helped people act on their deep-down desire to live in the “hidden wholeness” that lies beneath the broken surface of our lives. And it worked. Over time, because of our efforts and those of many others, a community that might have ended up shattered became diverse and whole.
Things do not always work out so well, of course. History is full of tragically failed visions of possibility, and the more profound the vision, the more likely we are to fall short of achieving it. But even here, Merton has a word of hope for us, a paradoxical word, of course:
“…do not depend on the hope of results. …you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
As long as we are wedded to “effectiveness” we will take on smaller and smaller tasks, for they are the only ones with which we can get results. If we want to witness to important but impossible values like love, truth and justice, there must be a standard that trumps effectiveness. The name of that standard is “faithfulness.” At the end of the road, I will not be asking about outcomes. I’ll be asking if I was faithful to my gifts, to the needs I saw around me, to the ways in which my gifts might meet those needs, to “the truth of the work itself.”
For helping me understand this — and for imbuing me with the faith that, despite my many flaws, I might be able to live this way — I owe a debt of deep gratitude to Thomas Merton, friend, fellow traveler, and messenger of hope.
(I have saved my favorite Merton line for the end of this piece, relegating it to the status of a footnote to keep myself from prattling on about it: “I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.”)
This essay appears in We Are Already One: Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope — Reflections in Honor of His Centenary (1915-2015) from Fons Vitae Press.