Thomas Merton. An unlikely Saint.

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image Tomorrow is the anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton. He died on December 10th 1968. I’ve only fairly recently discovered him and his writings, which is somewhat surprising to me since his books have sold millions of copies and is widely regarded as one of the great spiritual masters of the 20th century. A Trappist (Roman Catholic) monk of great depth, personal insight and a penetrating intellect. While he always seems to have had a great intellect, that wasn’t necessarily true of the personal insight and spiritual maturity that he later developed.

Considered a saint by many, he was far from being the stereotypical image of a saint as envisioned by popular culture. He in fact never pretended to be that and thats one if the things I really admire about him. “For me to be a saint means to be myself” he famously wrote. He had a bit of an insecure and somewhat wild youth. He travelled fairly extensively as a young boy. Parents both died while he was still fairly young. In his young adulthood he partied fairly heavily with lots of drinking and wild women. And although brilliant, was skipping classes more and more often in university. His life spiraled a bit out of control. Leading to the thought of suicide at one point as he began to view his life as becoming increasingly bleak.

Never really the religious type, although he had what could be described as religious experiences or feelings while growing up. They never sparked him to pursue them for long. Fairly suddenly one day that all changed. He walked into a Catholic church and got baptized, much to the shock of his friends. Even more shocking for them I’m sure, he decided to devote himself fully to religious life and became a monk living in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Where he had hoped I think to completely withdraw from the world and live in seclusion as a religious for the rest of his life. He was thrown a curve ball when his Abbott, discovering that he was a writer asked him to write his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. This was the 1940’s and it was a wildly huge hit. Selling something like 600,000 copies the first year, making Thomas Merton, that wanted nothing more than to disappear into seclusion, instantly famous.

While he remained more or less in seclusion in the monastery, his celebrity status had him in frequent contact with the outside world through correspondence and his published writings on everything from the contemplative life, pacifism to Zen. He gained over time the ear and friendship of the Pope, later the Dalai Lama, Thich Naht Hahn, DT Suzuki and others.

He underwent what was really a remarkable transformation over the years in the monastery. Its fascinating to watch his writing progress over the years from a fairly egotistical and arrogant perspective, to a humble one, one of unity with all those around him. Summed up when he wrote of an experience that he had while standing on a street corner. “I suddenly realized that I was connected to all these people. That I was them and they were me…but how do you go around telling people that they’re all walking around shining like the sun?” And from viewing Catholicism as being the one true religion, to being really one path among many. He wrote a fair bit on interfaith dialogue and Buddhism. I at first actually viewed his later writings as being very Buddhist in their slant. I’ve since come to view them as actually being very authentically Christian. Sharing views and insights common among contemplatives of all the great religions. Whether Buddhist, Christian or Sufi Islam.

Merton died fairly young, 53 years old, while out on his first extended trip from the monastery. He was in the East on a pilgrimage of sorts.,He had visited with the Dalai Lama in India, a visit that the Dalai Lama would later recall as having had a big impact on him.,He died in Bangkok planning afterwards to go on to Japan to visit some Zen monasteries. But after wrapping up a speech with the farewell of “now I shall just disappear.” He went to his hotel room to shower, on his way out of the shower he slipped, grabbed a fan and was electrocuted. His body sent home very poetically. The pacifist and anti war activist flew home in a plane with the bodies of some Vietnam war soldiers.

Merton wasn’t perfect. Even after years in the monastery he was known for being stubborn, hot headed and even broke his vows once in a serious manner by having an affair with a women despite his vow of celibacy. I like how the Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin SJ summed him up ” he was someone with many flaws, that struggled and got angry, but we can still take the long view and say this was still a very Holy man. Sometimes I like to think that this is how God views us.”

A prayer of Thomas Merton: My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Why I don’t think Aryan Jesus is as silly as it may seem.

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A friend of mine, that incidentally has a Japanese Buddha statue on his mantel at home (Buddha was actually Indian), was recently going on and on about “Aryan Jesus.” You know, Jesus depicted in a painting or a statue as being a white dude with flowing blondish hair and blue eyes. Basically looking like a typical Swede. He was pointing out that it was “stupid” to portray Jesus, a first century Palestinian-Jew that way. He clearly would have looked nothing like that. I agree with my friend in that Jesus definitely wouldn’t have resembled that image in any way. Much like the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, would have looked nothing like a Japanese monk.

I think my friend is missing the point though. In Buddhism, as he knows, images of Buddha are not generally understood to just be images of the historical Buddha. Though they can be.  They are often meant more as visual representations of a concept. Buddha, the one who is awake, can be seen as an ideal to strive for. A goal. Or it can represent Buddha nature, roughly understood as the “essential nature within all things.” Or the “essential self” or the “inherent possibility of awakening.” So having a Buddha statue that depicts an Indian sage that lived 2500 years ago is simply not really the point. There is more going on there. As Buddhism spread beyond India into other lands, it took on many of the local customs and traditions of its new hosts. Its what enables the people living in different places and even different time periods the ability to relate too and identify with the religion. One part of that being that Buddha images end up looking like its local hosts.

Likewise I think, images of Jesus are really more than simply a depiction of a historical person. It really represents a concept. That of Christ. Christ of course meaning The Anointed One, or the Messiah. At its core I think Christ represents for many people many things, like love, selfless giving, hope and inclusion. Indeed, the very source of it. The very embodiment of what of it means to be “fully human.” I think viewing “Christ” as even being similar to the definition of Buddha nature, along the lines of “essential nature within all things,” while that is starting to flirt with heresy a bit, for me, it is a concept that fits fairly well.

So having Jesus depicted as a Swede isn’t really all that “stupid.” Its a local peoples visual representation of a concept that is more familiar to them. In Africa Jesus is frequently portrayed as being black (much closer to how Jesus actually would have looked by the way). In Latin America he looks Mexican etc. All equally valid and equally appropriate, really.

I really like the image of Christ I posted above. I prefer it over many other depictions I’ve seen, actually.  I think what I really like about it, is its inclusiveness. Representing Christ as encompassing our shared humanity. Or even a goal to strive for. Not the goal to be “perfect”, whatever that Hell that is. But to simply ( or not so simply) strive to become more “fully human.”

If you’re curious about what Jesus the man actually looked like, check out this article linked below. A couple of forensic anthropologists were hired to reconstruct what Jesus probably actually looked like based on everything we know about him and the time and place in which he lived.  Given how he looks. How many do you think would want to sit next to Jesus on a plane? Or give him food if they past him on the street and he claimed to be hungry?

http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/forensics/1282186