The Thomas Merton We Knew

Part 6

Rice says: "Merton saw other religions and other denominations as travellers on the same road. He was a student for years of Judaism and non-Christian religions. He went deeply into Hinduism and Buddhism. The monastery (Gethsemani) did not appreciate that he wrote so much about non-Christian religions. Christians, then and today, see non-Christians as potential targets for conversion, souls to be captured and turned into good Christians. Merton didn't see it like that. His writings on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and later, Islam, are significant because of his belief that all of them are searching, as he was, for the ultimate truth."
     The Merton I knew never lost his sense of fun. Even as a monk he kept a sense of irreverence, especially where social behavior was concerned. He felt a little embarrassed, as an example, over the elaborate Merton Library set up for him in Kentucky. He visited the Merton Room, where he had helped put together the materials representing his life, on the day before he left on what was to be his fatal trip to Asia. "A good place to cut a fart and run," he said to a friend.
     I'll never forget the expression we usually found on Merton's face. The eyes were bright, and often on the verge of registering a smile, or a laugh. Merton loved to laugh more than anybody I've known. There was always a hint of mischief in his expression. In one of many letters to Henry Miller, he sent along a picture of himself; Miller responded: "What's amazing to me is that it seems to combine my mug and (Jean) Genet's (the French writer who had been a convicted thief and lowlife). You, too, have the look of an ex-convict, of one who had been through the fires."
     Rice remembers, too. "Oh, yes, he had a wonderfully expressive face. Ex-convict, no, but Miller was right, he had been through the fires. For me, though, he looked more like the Hindu holy man of our youth, Bramachari, who came and lived with us a while on the Columbia campus. And nearer to the time of his death, he began to look more and more like a Buddhist holy man."
Bramachari in his white Indian robes was the friend of Freedgood, Lax and Merton; they hid him in the Columbia dormitories, brought him food, talked with him of mystical Indian cults. Rice, during one of his frequent trips to India, after a long search in Calcutta finally found an older, stockier Bramachari there in the 60s; he was still the Indian holy man, and carried fond memories of his Columbia days. Rice has a picture of him that bears hardly any resemblance to the younger man.
     "I last saw Merton in the late summer of 1968, a few months before his death," Rice says. "I had been travelling around America working on a photographic book, and on my way home I stopped at Gethsemani and spent several days with him. He told me he finally was going to Asia, that he had been dreaming about it for a long time. He was not in good health, but he was still enthusiastic about the trip, looking forward to meeting holy people like the Dalai Lama. He had a long list of holy people to see in India, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia. I believe he managed to see most of them."
     Merton has written in "The Asian Journal" of several mystical experiences he had during the trip.
Rice says of them: "Merton was a mystic in the classic sense, in the sense that the Desert Fathers were, or anybody else who seeks God on a personal basis. His mystical practices were similar to those of most holy men, whether European or Asian. There is a common thread that unites them.
     "In India, he visited a Buddhist shrine and there had what seems to me to be a mystical experience. As I understand it, he was visited by a presence that took him out of the body.
"In another experience, in Sri Lanka, he was visited by the Gautama Buddha, the original Buddha upon whom contemporary beliefs are based. This is an amazing thing, for Merton or any other Westerner, to meet Buddha face to face. It's also amazing that not a word of this has ever been spoken by the so-called Merton scholars.
     "For me, it is an important fact that Merton was in contact with the central figure of Buddhism. Many people doubt that this happened. For me, there is no doubt at all."
     The depth of his openness and commitment to Eastern religions came out clearly in the last words of his life, in the lecture he delivered at the Conference of Benedictine and Cistercian Abbots, on December 10, 1968, at Samutprakan, just south of Bangkok. Merton spoke on Marxism and Monastic Perspectives. The night before, few of the participants were able to sleep because of continued yowling of cats from nearby roofs; Merton's laughter over the cat noise could be heard echoing in the night air. As he began his lecture, he noticed with some nervousness that a Dutch television crew was moving into place; because of all the controversy about his peace activities he had promised his Abbot to stay clear of the press.
     He got to his main point at the end of the lecture. "What is essential in the monastic life is not embedded in buildings, is not embedded even in a rule...It is concerned with the business of total inner transformation...all other things serve that end...
     "...the question of Asian monasticism for Christians should not be interpreted in terms of just playing an Asian part or an Asian role. It is not that we want to look like Asians; it is not sufficient simply to present an Asian image...I think we have to go much deeper than this.
     "...And I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions, because they (the Asians) have gone, from the natural point of view, so much deeper into this than we have. The combination of the natural techniques and the graces and the other things that have been manifested in Asia, and the Christian liberty of the gospel should bring us all at last to that full and transcendent liberty which is beyond mere cultural difference and mere externals -- and mere this and that."
     I will conclude on that note, Merton said. That note seems to have been a clear proposal for a blending of the religions, and for the mutual advantages such a blending should bring. The world's best- known monk was speaking out and the television cameras were there.
     After his talk, Merton said he would take questions later, "so I will disappear," he said, obviously not realizing the true meaning of his words. He had a bath -- and later was found dead on the floor with a tall electric fan lying across his body. The official theory was that he had stumbled getting out of the bath and grabbed the fan for support. A faulty electric cord was found inside the fan; the current was strong enough to produce a heart attack.
     "There has been a lot of gossip about this," Rice says, "whether he was killed accidentally, or by an enemy. He had many enemies; the CIA feared he had connections in religious circles in Asia that might have an adverse effect on the U.S. war effort in Vietnam; the FBI felt the same kind of fear over his role in the peace movement in America; neither side in Vietnam liked him; the Communists, both Russian and Chinese, were suspicious of him.
     "He had enemies who simply objected to his beliefs. He still has this type of enemy in the United States. I frequently get letters from people who are trying to prove he only became a monk to avoid the draft -- an idea that is ridiculous on the face of it, especially when you know the depth of the man's faith and of his commitment to God. (I've had a few of these letters myself.) And of course, there were enemies, some of them powerful, within his own Church, even with his own Order. And the latter probably felt even more justified in their opposition during Merton's Asian trip.
     "It could have been assassination by some unrevealed force, or it could have been what it was said to have been, just an accident. Having lived on and off in Asia for some sixteen years, I am always a little sceptical of anything I hear. And I do know, there are lots of defective electrical appliances lying around.
"I suppose it's something we will never know. There was no autopsy. The man who hated the war in Vietnam was shipped quickly back to the United States, via Vietnam, along with casualties of the war, in a U. S. Air Force plane. Merton was buried in the Trappist cemetery at Gethsemani in a very simple grave. Until I got Parkinson's, I went regularly to visit his grave."
     Well, I don't know either, but we all know there were a number of violent deaths of important national figures during the decade of the 60s. President Kennedy, in November 1963; his brother, Robert, in June 1968; Martin Luther King, April 1968 -- and then Merton, December 1968. Tom was in very good company; there is indeed a resemblance among the four men, in terms of humanity and dedication, demeanor and outlook. In view of the nature of the three violent deaths preceding his, it seems a wonder that there were not more doubts over the way Thomas Merton left us.
     Merton wrote a remarkable letter to Ping Ferry in January 1962, a year and a half before John Kennedy's assassination. Discussing his writings against the Bomb, he said: "I have little confidence in Kennedy, I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task, and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensitivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians don't have; depth, humanity and a certain totality of self-forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole; a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that some day by miracle."
     "But," he went on, "such people are before long marked out for assassination..."
     It would be difficult to say that Kennedy within a year and a half would have acquired those characteristics; I believe he was certainly on the way, and perhaps that is why he died. Merton, I know, had them.
     Merton's death at the age of 53 was recorded on the front page of "The New York Times" alongside that of the Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, who had died in his sleep at the age of 82 at his home in Switzerland. Coincidentally, Merton had written about Karl Barth in his book, "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander." "Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart," Merton said. In the dream, Barth had been appointed to examine Mozart on his theology, and he was trying to make things easy for him. But Mozart did not answer. Merton felt that Barth's dream was about Barth's salvation, and that Barth felt he would be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by theology. "Each day, for years," Merton wrote, "Barth played Mozart every morning before going to work on his dogma, unconsciously seeking to awaken, perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love...
     "Fear not, Karl Barth," Merton continued. "Trust in the divine mercy...Your books and mine matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation."
For Tom, always a poet as well as a mystic, Mozart's music flows from faith, and faith leads to inner transformation and peace of the spirit. He left us in the way that Mozart fancied that he, himself, would go. The Commander grasped not Don Juan, but the poet, and thrust him into the hereafter. Is it possible that there is something out there that destroys poets? I certainly hope not, for that would be bad for all of us.




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