ColumnsDisciple’s Corner

Thomas Merton and avoidance of becoming a ‘guilty bystander’

If you were a young Catholic adult growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s, struggling to understand the faith you had been taught as a child, there is a good chance you would have heard of Thomas Merton. In fact, there is a good chance you would have read one of his books – more likely than not his spiritual autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain.”

Thomas Merton is “one of the protean figures of 20th century Catholicism,” James Martin writes in “My Life with the Saints” — a writer, poet, mystic, monk, artist, peace activist, priest, spiritual master, ecumenist and (unofficial) saint whose spiritual wisdom guided generations of Catholics to a deeper faith.

Merton was born in France in 1915. He attended schools in France and England, then emigrated to the United States where he enrolled in Columbia University; there, ac­cording to one companion, “he was always ready to go out drinking or go to a party.”

Merton converted to Catholicism and began a long discernment process which eventually led him to join the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (the “Trappists”) at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky.

Merton is “a man in love with the world around him who chooses to become a cloistered monk,” Martin writes; it’s just one of many contradictions which Martin says are Merton’s most endearing features.

Although a monk, and in his later years a hermit, Merton became a keen ­observer and gifted spiritual interpreter of life in the postwar world, where so many assurances of traditional faith had been shattered by the tragic events of the 20th century.

In many ways, Merton anticipated or articulated the Second Vatican Council’s historic “turn to the world.” He understood that the mystery of the Incarnation knows no boundaries; it permeates to the ends of the earth.

Merton’s personal realization of this mystery came at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in downtown Louisville; there, he wrote in “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”:

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers …

“I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate …

“If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed … But this cannot be seen, only believed …”

I think the challenge for all of us is to avoid becoming “guilty bystanders,” to teach one another how to believe in the Incarnation while living in a world which, like us, is beriddled with contradictions – a world partly redeemed and, for the time being, partly not.

What do you think?

 Pray and Reflect

Use one or more of the following questions for personal reflection, group discussion or private journaling:

  • On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) rate how well you are aware of the mystery of the Incarnation—God’s presence among us—in the world around you? How would you have rated yourself five years ago?
  • Where do you experience God’s presence in your own life? In what ways or places do you experience God’s absence in the world? Are you tempted to become a “guilty bystander,” removing yourself from the problems and challenges of the world? In what ways can we help our children, grandchildren and students prepare to live holy lives in circumstances where they and the world around them are filled with contradictions?
  • The mystery of the Incarnation is …

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Dave Cushing is director of adult faith formation for the Catholic parishes in Waterloo. The Disciple’s Corner is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Office of Faith Formation and Education and is funded through the Archdiocesan Educational Development Board. It is designed to help catechists, teachers, parents, grandparents, guardians and other adults grow in their appreciation of their role as disciples of Jesus Christ.