I have spent an interrupted week reading Paul R Dekar's great book on Thomas Merton. It is part of my reading on New Monasticism and what it has to say to the church as a whole and me as an individual. It seems ironic that it was an interrupted week because, according to Dekar, Merton was always concerned about the way in which even the monastic lifestyle would block out time for silence and contemplation.
Dekar, who teaches paper on Merton, gives a brief Biography of Merton. In typical Kiwi fashion any reference to New Zealand, with Merton's dad Owen being born here, pricks ones attention. Then, in a very helpful way for me, Dekar places Merton within the history of monasticism, charting the place that Trappists have in the whole development of Monastic orders and the the constant renewal of monasticism that has gone on in the past.Dekar places Merton in that line of renews and reformers.
Then there are chapters where Merton's meditations, reflections and writings are shown to give (as the books title maintains) Merton's twentieth century wisdom for twenty first century living. Merton spent over twenty seven years as a contemplative but in that time his reflections and insights seem very pertinent for the world in which we live. He did not see the monastic life as an escape from the world but rather a different way of engaging with the world through prayer silence reading and in his case writing. Dekar takes the reader through:
Merton on simplicity, of great value for the monastic and for people in a very materialist world. Where Merton see possessions and business as a distraction from contemplation, a source of false narratives that give us a false sense of self, as well as being a major contributor to violence and ecological issues in the world.
Merton on technology, including two appendices of lectures Merton gave on the subject. Merton acknowledged that technology has totally transformed the way in which we live, we are a technological society, seeing, even in the 1960's, how technology was impacting monastic life, with monasteries adopting industrial models of production. Merton saw technology as only good when it benefited humanity, lots of it he saw did not do this. Again he say technology as a means of telling us false narratives about who we are, separating us from the natural world, adding to the great split between the haves and have nots, and being once again a distraction from engagement. I only have to look at how (ironically) my own use of technology distracts me from things to see this wisdom. It was interesting to read in a later chapter the values of an experimental community start with 'turn off your TV and get to know your neighbour'. Although it was also good to see the use that Merton's made of the printing press... it would be interesting to see the use he would of made of a blogsite... perhaps.
Merton on earth care. Merton and indeed Dekar seem to have been early adaptors to addressing the ecological crises we face. Merton desired that both the wilderness be preserved, taking an alternative stance to the purveying Christian view point of his day. Merton's wisdom has reflects the call for sustainable living that echoes and resounds through the new monastic movement.
Merton on war. Writing in the cold war era, the spectre of the atomic bomb and the Vietnam war Merton calls people to live as peacemakers. that non violence, coming from studies of King and Gandhi, was not simply a strategy for the powerless, but rather a lifestyle to be lead. Merton has a lot to say about the roots of war.
Merton on communities and in particular communities of love. Dekar's two chapters on this topic explore Merton's commitment to living out the gospel with people committed to the same gospel vision that he had." Dekar explores Merton's reflection both on his own tradition and also the growing new monastic movements amongst other traditions.
I am still in the process of processing what I have and am reading however my reflection on this book is... once again the real challenge of depth that Merton and monasticism has for the person and the church. The need for both Prayer and action... the way in which contemplation and prayer is seen as the root of being able to respond and live a different life style to the world around us. One of the key issues for the church and Christians in the west is assimilation and captivity to the values of our western consumer lifestyle. Merton's wisdom and the contemplative and simple lifestyle provides a way out of that captivity. Like wise Merton challenges Christians to look at living sustainably and peacemakingly (if such a word exists) and communally.
Amazingly my reading list has just grown in length and many of the books on it now have the name Thomas Merton as author.