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Why My Generation Loves Thomas Merton

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As will generations to come

 
Merton longed to see an authentic culture arise that was capable of producing beauty and social harmony, not merely the mass production of goods and their conspicuous consumption.
 
His point-of-view resonated powerfully with my generation — the boomers.
 
We have been bashed as narcissists responsible for everything that’s wrong today, and we deserve this. After all, the ideals of the 1960s quickly gave way to mere hedonism followed by a consumerist holocaust.
 
Still, the impulse toward a more connected way of life, a greater realization of community, remains universal. We were not wrong to long for this, as people do as well today, but we failed utterly to connect that longing with anything like the monastic tradition that grounded Merton.
 
Merton’s engagement with Eastern religions also struck a chord. There are those who see this engagement as, in effect, a retraction of the Catholicism on view in The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton never deserted his devotion to Christ, however. What Merton committed himself to — from beginning to end — was the knowledge of God. He did not want to know “about God”: he wanted to encounter God. He felt that God had rewarded the spiritual striving of Eastern monks through the centuries with an immense understanding of the interior life and an experience of the divine. He realized that Buddhism, in some of its formulations, could be described as a “sublime atheism.” But when he saw Tibetan monks working their prayer wheels he recognized a sincere piety that he believed God honored. In this he was very much in accord with the inter-religious dialogue called for by Vatican II. Or, as my evangelical friends would say, he recognized that all truth is God’s truth.
 
Merton’s work connected my generation with the wellsprings of Catholic spirituality, especially the liturgy of the hours. He taught us much about the particular charisms (spiritual gifts) of various religious orders, and how we might, as lay people, live a contemplative life in the midst of the world. His work also provided a syllabus of the splendid intellectual tradition that buttresses Catholic teaching.
 
He was hardly perfect and is unlikely ever to be canonized. Late in his life, he fell in love with the student nurse, Margie Smith, who took care of him in a Louisville hospital after his back surgery. He ended this affair of the heart — which was probably never physically consummated — and recommitted himself to his monastic vows. For all his years of spiritual discipline, evidently, more than a little of the wild, young Tom Merton remained. 
 
Merton still stands as a spiritual champion — a man who lived the ultimate adventure of loving God. His death came too soon, even if it delivered him into the fullness of what he had long sought, as it does all those who wait in expectation of Christ’s bright appearing.      

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