Discovering Thomas Merton

July 1, 2016
By Jim McCarville

Thomas Merton was an amazing figure in the exploration of contemplation and action. Today, he is an icon in the fields of peace, justice, ecology and interfaith dialogue. He is the inspiration of an entire Center located on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh. It, the Center, does some pretty amazing things as well. Both he and it are relevant to what we do today.

That is what 20 classmates and I learned in a six-week course offered at the Carnegie Mellon’s Osher program, taught by Joyce Rothermel and Carol Gonzalez. Here’s a synopsis:

Merton was born in the Basque country of southwestern France in 1915, into the secular life of the times. Both parents died while young and he was sent to school in England. But his grandfather ordered him to New York when his education appeared to be too much fun and more than a little trouble.

His “conversion” was slow. Inspired by the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins and by common people just praying, he began to go to church. In 1941, at the time of the US entry into World War II, he entered the monastery as a contemplative monk.

In the 1950s he saw tumultuous changes coming and decided he needed to live a different way. In his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, the contemplative monk described how one day, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs; that we could not be alien to one another. Even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief…. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. …. If only everyone could realize this.”

He rejected militarism and was appalled by the idea of a “just war in a nuclear age.” In his later life, he became famous for his interfaith dialogue with Buddhism and Hinduism.

He called us “to an irreverent reverence, an irreconcilable integration, to enter the dance of life and to see peacemaking, not a tactic, but a way of life.” He named “the root of war as fear” and said “non-violence needs to be practiced and explained.” He said, “If history is in God’s hands, what are we doing sitting on our rump waiting for him to act?”

Merton is more than a person or a philosophy; he is an icon that continues to provide inspiration to many people the world over, including the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh.

In our last class, Molly Rush, one of the founders of the TMC; Charlie McCollester, a long-time member; and Antonio Lodico, the current Executive Director of the Center, were invited in. They talked about how the issues over the years may have changed, but the inspiration of Merton still motivated the success of the Center.

Molly gave the early history of how a collection of groups, including the Association of Pittsburgh Priests, the Catholic Interracial Council, the Religious Integration Forum, Pax Christi and others came together to take on peace, labor and racial issues. How TMC helped incubate and spin-off Jubilee Kitchen and the Food Bank, the local Amnesty International and other programs.

Charlie McCollester talked about TMC supporting labor. Specifically, how, unlike many areas, TMC held the groups together. “The TMC people demonstrated that the role of the compassionate person in social justice is not to show where we are going, but to show solidarity and dialogue. The TMC provides no party line, except for non-violence. A good part of the reason the police in Pittsburgh do not have the reputation of some cities is the Merton Center dialogues with both them and the community.”

Antonio Lodico talked about how TMC issues of the past – de-industrialization, death squads and globalization– both continue and change the Center. “The difference with TMC is that we don’t look for the single silver bullet. We may not always agree, but we come together.”

The TMC’s principal areas of focus are Peace, Economic Justice, Environmental Justice and Human Relations. Current projects include: Divest Pittsburgh – to channel public investments away from fossil fuels; Affordable Housing; Public Transit; Anti-War, Anti-Drones; Anti-Fracking; and Book-em, a project that provides books to prisoners. Tony said the Center is “both an incubator and an accelerator” and “both old and young. Many new people are under 25.”

Carol and Joyce summed it up, “Merton helps us understand that as lay people we can live a contemplative life connected to the world. The Merton Center supports people choosing to bring this contemplative lifestyle into a life of action. Some may dedicate their lives to social action only, but without the contemplative input, it is so easy to burn out, become cynical or lose sight of life’s true goals.”

Jim McCarville is a member of the Editorial Collective and Board of the Thomas Merton Center.

 

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