Today is Thomas Merton’s birthday. To say that he was influential for me would be a vast understatement. It is because of Thomas Merton that I am a Christian today. In my early 20’s, for a whole host of reasons, I was angry at God, angry at the church, angry at the presentation of the Gospel that I had been given in religious school and had walked away from the church several years before.
Then one day I was browsing in a used bookstore and noticed a book by an author I didn’t know named Thomas Merton. But a year before, I had noticed a book on the bedside table of a friend whom I really admired, so on impulse I bought the book. It was his autobiography entitled The Seven Storey Mountain. It was a revelation; here was a person who I felt saw the world like I did, felt like I did, thought like I did. Here was a person who expanded my understanding of God and gave me a richer vocabulary and experience of the mercy of God. For the first time in years, I felt the desire to follow Jesus even if I didn’t really know what that meant.
I have learned since of course that this is the same experience that happened to thousands and thousands of people over the years who encountered Merton. For me Merton was someone who was able to transcend the division of piety and social justice. This was an author who fell in love with the mystery of God, and then felt compelled to explore a vision of the kingdom of God in the midst of racism, the Vietnam war, the nuclear arms race and more. He was a mystic and an activist. I still don’t fully understand him. But he has given me words time and time again that excite my soul as I ponder life in the mystery of God in Christ.
Here is one of my favourite passages that I meditate on almost daily: The Voice of God is heard in Paradise: “What was vile has become precious. What is now precious was never vile. I have always known the vile as precious: for what is vile I know not at all. “What was cruel has become merciful. What is now merciful was never cruel. I have always overshadowed Jonas with My mercy, and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of Me, Jonas My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy. I have forgiven the universe without end, because I have never known sin. “What was poor has become infinite. What is infinite was never poor. I have always known poverty as infinite: riches I love not at all. Prisons within prisons within prisons. Do not lay up for yourselves ecstasies upon earth, where time and space corrupt, where the minutes break in and steal. No more lay hold on time, Jonas, My son, lest the rivers bear you away. “What was fragile has become powerful. I loved what was most frail. I looked upon what was nothing. I touched what was without substance, and within what was not, I am.” The Sign Of Jonas, Thomas Merton
My artist wife painted this for me as a gift a year or so ago, and it sits above my desk in my office. It reminds me daily of the goodness of God. Thank you, Thomas Merton. Happy birthday!