The Ecumenist

When speaking of Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama said that, “…when he died, I felt I had personally lost one of my best friends, and a man who was a contributor for harmony between different religions and for mental peace.” Thomas Merton’s approach to ecumenism was to seek out what was best and true in all religious traditions.  He felt that he must say “yes” to all that one can.  As he wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, “If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic and certainly no breath of the spirit with which to affirm it.”

Merton & Dalai Lama. Used with Permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center.

Merton’s contemplative life was the cornerstone of his ecumenical approach to other religions.  It was this dimension that allowed him to develop the openness with which he could reach out to the concerns of the wider world and explore cross-cultural and religious understanding.  Rather than seeking to understand other traditions’ doctrines and institutions, Merton was most interested to explore what each tradition said about the human experience.  Merton believed that a great unity pervaded all great religions; an original unity “beyond words. . . beyond speech. . . beyond concept” (Asian Journal 308) which can only be experienced.  As he wrote in Guilty Bystander, ‘The more I am able to affirm others, to say “yes” to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am.  I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.”

Early influences included reading Aldous Huxley’s, Ends & Means in 1937, a year before his conversion to Catholicism and also his early interaction with Hindu monk, Bramachari, whom he befriended in NYC during his early days at Columbia. Throughout his life Merton was continually open to new influences and ideas.  As the contemporary scene in the 60s unfolded increasing dialogue between East & West in religion, as well as politics, Merton was strengthened by readings, correspondence and friendships with a myriad of diverse and leading religious figures representing Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sufism. In addition, he was also influenced by the Second Vatican Council’s call for dialogue and understanding in Nostra aetate.

From Merton’s perspective, the same principles that mark his conception of non-violence are also essential to inter-religious dialogue.  As noted in the Merton Encyclopedia, these include: “a respect for the humanity & dignity of the other, a recognition that no single point of view has a monopoly on the truth, a willingness to learn from the other, a commitment to truth rather than to defend one’s own position, a person-oriented approach that does not seek so much to control as to respond, and to awaken response which promotes an ‘openness of free exchange in which reason and love have freedom of action’ (Faith and Violence, 28)”.

Merton’s ecumenical legacy is more important today than ever.  As he sought to collaborate on questions of peace, human rights and social issues, he never wavered from his sensitivity and openness to other world faith traditions.  As one of his Gethsemani brothers wrote, “he continues to speak to us today in circumstances that, in many respects, are marked by the issues he identified half a century ago as crucial for our world.”  His ecumenical voice still resonates today.

Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious.

I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely, with Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.
— Thomas Merton on his visit to Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, quote from "The Asian Journal” 233 & 235

Photograph of Gal Vihara by Thomas Merton. Used with Permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center.