Thomas Merton, Richard Foster, and a Sufi Master

“Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth is hailed by many as the best modern book on Christian spirituality with millions of copies sold since its original publication in 1978.”—Publisher description

LTRP Note: Keep in mind three things as you read this article: 1) a strong link exists between Thomas Merton and the evangelical church, and that link is Richard Foster (author of Celebration of Discipline); 2) Richard Foster once said Thomas Merton “stands as one of the greatest twentieth-century embodiments of spiritual life as a journey”(1); 3) the current “Spiritual Formation” movement within Christianity was spawned by Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, and both men were ignited by Thomas Merton.

As you read this account of Thomas Merton, know that this same spiritual outlook that is described below has entered the church in no small way. Maybe it’s time you ask your pastor, “What do you think about Richard Foster and Celebration of Discipline?”

By Ray Yungen

What Martin Luther King was to the civil rights movement and what Henry Ford was to the automobile, Thomas Merton is to contemplative prayer. Although this prayer movement existed centuries before he came along, Merton, a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, took it out of its monastic setting and made it available to, and popular with, the masses. I personally have been researching Thomas Merton and the contemplative prayer movement for over 20 years, and for me, hands down, Thomas Merton has influenced the Christian mystical movement more than any person of recent decades.

Merton penned one of the most classic descriptions of contemplative spirituality I have ever come across. He explained:

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race . . . now I realize what we all are. . . . If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are . . . I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. . . . At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth. . . . This little point . . . is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody. 2 (emphasis mine)

This panentheistic (i.e., God in everyone) view is similar to the occultic definition of the higher self.

In order to understand Merton’s connection to mystical occultism, we need first to understand a sect of the Muslim world—the Sufis, who are the mystics of Islam. They chant the name of Allah as a mantra, go into meditative trances, and experience God in everything. A prominent Catholic audiotape company promotes a series of cassettes Merton did on Sufism. It explains:

Merton loved and shared a deep spiritual kinship with the Sufis, the spiritual teachers and mystics of Islam. Here he shares their profound spirituality.3

To further show Merton’s “spiritual kinship” with Sufism, in a letter to a Sufi Master, Merton disclosed, “My prayer tends very much to what you call fana.”4 So what is fana? The Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult defines it as “the act of merging with the Divine Oneness”5 (meaning all is one and all is God).

Merton saw the Sufi concept of fana as being a catalyst for Muslim unity with Christianity despite the obvious doctrinal differences. In a dialogue with a Sufi leader, Merton asked about the Muslim concept of salvation. The master wrote back stating:

Islam inculcates individual responsibility for one’s actions and does not subscribe to the doctrine of atonement or the theory of redemption.6 (emphasis added)

To Merton, of course, this meant little because he believed that fana and contemplation were the same thing. He responded:

Personally, in matters where dogmatic beliefs [the atonement]differ, I think that controversy is of little value because it takes us away from the spiritual realities into the realm of words and ideas . . . in words there are apt to be infinite complexities and subtleties which are beyond resolution. . . . But much more important is the sharing of the experience of divine light . . . It is here that the area of fruitful dialogue exists between Christianity and Islam.7 (emphasis mine)

Merton himself underlined that point when he told a group of contemplative women:

I’m deeply impregnated with Sufism.8

And he elaborated elsewhere:

Asia, Zen, Islam, etc., all these things come together in my life. It would be madness for me to attempt to create a monastic life for myself by excluding all these. I would be less a monk.9 (emphasis mine)

When we evaluate Merton’s mystical worldview, it clearly resonates with what technically would be considered traditional New Age thought. This is an inescapable fact!

Merton’s mystical experiences ultimately made him a kindred spirit and co-mystic with those in Eastern religions because his insights were identical to their insights. At an interfaith conference in Thailand, he stated:

I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian [mystical] traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own Christian traditions.10

Please understand that contemplative prayer alone was the catalyst for such theological views. One of Merton’s biographers made this very clear when he explained:

If one wants to understand Merton’s going to the East it is important to understand that it was his rootedness in his own faith tradition [Catholicism] that gave him the spiritual equipment [contemplative prayer] he needed to grasp the way of wisdom that is proper to the East.11

This was the ripe fruit of the Desert Fathers, the ancient monks who borrowed mystical methods from Eastern religion, which altered their understanding of God. This is what one gets from contemplative prayer. There is no other way to put it. It does not take being a scholar to see the logic in this.

(This is an excerpt from Ray Yungen’s book, A Time of Departing.)

Endnotes:

1. Richard Foster, Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion (InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 84.
2. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Publishers, 1989), pp. 157-158.
3. Credence Cassettes magazine, Winter/Lent, 1998, p. 24.
4. M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton, My Brother (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1996), p. 115, citing from The Hidden Ground of Love), pp. 63-64.
5. Nevill Drury, The Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 85.
6. Rob Baker and Gray Henry, Editors, Merton and Sufism (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), p. 109.
7. Ibid., p. 110.
8. Ibid., p. 69.
9. Ibid., p. 41.
10. William Shannon, Silent Lamp, The Thomas Merton Story (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), p. 276.
11. Ibid., p. 281.

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