What the New Film on Thomas Merton Will Not Tell You

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This month, admirers of the late Catholic monk Thomas Merton are remembering him – it was 40 years ago December 10th in Bangkok that he was accidentally electrocuted, dying at the age of 53. According to an article on the Religion News Service, a new documentary film titled Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton (with a book by the same name) will be aired on PBS. The film will extol Merton’s humble monastic life, but there are some things you should know that the film will not reveal.

To fully understand the contemplative prayer movement, it is vital to understand the spirituality of Thomas Merton. Ray Yungen explains:

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

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 took it out of its monastic setting and made it available to, and popular with, the masses. But 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. (emphasis mine)1

Notice how similar Merton’s description is 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–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 now 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.2

In a letter to a Sufi Master, Merton disclosed, “My prayer tends very much to what you call fana.”3 So what is fana? The Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult defines it as “the act of merging with the Divine Oneness.”4

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.5

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 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.6

Merton himself underlined that point when he told a group of contemplative women: “I’m deeply impregnated with Sufism.”7

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.8

When you 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 other Eastern religions also 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.9

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.10

This was the ripe fruit of the Desert Fathers. When you borrow methods from Eastern religion, you get their understanding of God. There is no other way to put it. It does not take being a scholar to see the logic in this.

Merton’s influence is very strong in the Catholic church and mainline Protestant denominations, and it is starting to grow in evangelical circles. While many Christians are impressed with Merton’s humility, social consciousness, and piety, his intellectual dynamism is also a powerful draw. But sadly, Merton’s heresies neutralize his qualities. He revealed the true state of his soul to a fellow monk prior to his trip to Thailand where his life ended by accidental electrocution. Before he left, he confided to his friend, “I am going home … to the home I have never been in this body.”11 I do not believe Merton was talking about a premonition of his death but rather was professing the East to be his true spiritual home.

This is not a thoughtless assertion. Virtually all Merton scholars and biographers make similar observations. One Merton devotee wrote, “The major corpus [body] of his writings are embedded in the central idea, experience and vision of the Asian wisdom.”12 …

It is essential to see that although Merton and his proponents have an apparent devotion to God and a strong commitment to moral integrity, they have attempted to marry biblical principles to a mysticism that is, through the Desert Fathers, derived from Eastern religions. (For more on Merton and contemplative spirituality, read A Time of Departing. This excerpt is from chapter 3.)

1. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Publishers, 1989), pp. 157-158.
2. Credence Cassettes magazine, Winter/Lent, 1998, p. 24.
3. 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.
4. Nevill Drury, The Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 85.
5. Rob Baker and Gray Henry, Editors, Merton and Sufism (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), p. 109.
6. Ibid., p. 110.
7. Ibid., p. 69.
8. Ibid., p. 41.
9. William Shannon, Silent Lamp, The Thomas Merton Story (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), p. 276.
10. Ibid., p. 281.
11. Ibid., p. 273.
12. Deba P. Patnaik, The Message of Thomas Merton, editor Brother Patrick Hart (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publishing, 1981), p. 87.

Related Information:

Contemplative Prayer and the Evangelical Church

Reiki, Thomas Merton, and Richard Foster

Why Christian Leaders Should Not Promote Henri Nouwen (and his commitment to Thomas Merton)

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