Editor’s note: In 2015, preeminent theologian and bestselling author Matthew Fox was invited by the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, KY, to give a lecture to honor the centennial year of the legendary Catholic monk and writer’s birth. In preparing for the talk, Fox re-immersed himself in Merton’s work and revisited the correspondence he had with him while he was alive. As Fox read through Merton’s journals, poetry, and religious writings, he realized that his exploration was inspiring far more than just one talk. The result is A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality, a powerful book about Merton’s pioneering work in deep ecumenism and interfaith; about his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action; and about how the vision of 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced both Merton and Creation Spirituality, which Fox has long espoused and written about.
In 2015, I was invited to speak at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth. In a very auspicious decision just one year before his untimely death at 53 years of age, Merton chose to leave his papers and documents at Bellarmine. Merton’s death on December 10, 1968, occurred in an annus horribilis: it was the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were gunned down. December 10 was also the date of Merton’s entrance, in the winter of 1941, into the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, located just a few miles from Louisville.
The title assigned to me for my talk was “Vocation, Merton and Myself.” I added Meister Eckhart to the title, since he was so pivotal to Merton and still is to myself. I thank the organizer, Mark Steiner, along with the Thomas Merton Center, for their invitation, since it encouraged me to think more deeply about my journey with Thomas Merton — and because of Merton.
Out of my Bellarmine talk, and the workshop the following day, I have developed this modest book about the connections between Merton’s journey and my own (as well as both of us with Meister Eckhart). The closer I looked at Merton’s journey, the more interesting “connections” (one of his favorite words) emerged, and I have been quite surprised (and pleasantly so) at the number of intersections where our paths have crossed. I have come to learn how deeply Merton and I shared a common break away from dualistic spiritualities to a creation-centered way of living our shared religious heritage, and so some of my own ideas and autobiography also appear in this book.
My new book is in part a thank-you to Thomas Merton and an acknowledgment of my debt to him, a debt that is quite unique in some ways. I offer it also as an outreach to others, monastic or not, who may not be familiar with the Creation Spirituality tradition, which has not only marked my life and work but, I am now certain, did the same for Merton in the last decade of his life. Many times since 1968 — in the face of culture’s rapid leaps and profound evolutions — I have lamented Merton’s untimely death, asking myself the question many others have no doubt asked as well: “What would Merton say?” and “What would Merton do?”
Risking gross understatement, I dare to say that Merton’s thoughtful and deep commentary on spirituality and on cultural and historical events has been sorely missed these five decades since his death. Nor am I alone in this stance. For example, the late Michael Toms — the “Socrates of radio,” who for decades gifted the world with brilliant interviews with some of our culture’s greatest thinkers on his radio program New Dimensions — told me on more than one occasion: “I am a Thomas Merton Catholic.” By this he surely meant a thinking, critically minded, and justice-oriented Catholic. Pope Francis, in his talk to the U.S. Congress in September 2015, invoked Thomas Merton, saying, “Merton was, above all, a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certainties of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” I would maintain that much of Merton’s spiritual journey parallels the articulation of the Creation Spirituality tradition and its Four Paths, which have proven foundational in my own journey. How could this be otherwise, since Meister Eckhart was so pivotal to Merton’s journey from 1958 up to his death in 1968? Eckhart, so fully a creation-centered mystic and prophet, has been a guide to me, as well — and indeed a “lifeboat,” to use Merton’s phrase.
I will confess that for decades I resisted over-associating myself with what seemed to me to be a veritable “Merton industry,” or what Merton himself called “Mertonism.” As I forged my theological and spiritual way — not only in my writings and research but in designing educational programs that would make an engaged mysticism more accessible — I shied away from institutional power trips wherever I sensed them, whether they came from religious institutions or academia. Of course, this reaction related in part to my own wounds at the hands of both. This does not mean that I neglected Merton’s genius. I hosted courses on his work, I assigned his books for reading by my students, and I included him in my writing. It’s just that I felt the need to keep my distance a bit from the “Merton machine,” which sometimes seemed to suck all the air out of the room.
With this project, however, I feel a certain reconciliation — with Thomas himself, and with Merton scholars and the institutions Merton was closely related to, including both Bellarmine University, where Merton left many of his papers, and the Trappist Order within which he lived his adult life. I praise Thomas for his fidelity to his vocation, and I praise his monastery for keeping his work alive and providing ever more resources from his rich legacy. I especially salute with a loud kudo the wisdom of the Trappist Order for taking Thomas in, first of all, and then for eventually encouraging him to write what was in his mind and heart, for giving him logistic and personnel support, and for assisting in the dissemination of his work both before and following his death. They deserve praise for being so integral a part of the deep journey of Thomas Merton, sharing their lineage with him but also being humble enough to learn from him along the way.
I have been moved in my writing of this book to rediscover my roots and intersections with Thomas Merton. Merton was born in 1915; I was born 25 years later, in 1940. We were obviously of different generations, but Merton and I connected at many levels and on many occasions. Merton was born in southern France, while I was “reborn” in southern France, as I was busy writing my doctoral thesis while living on a simple Basque farm. It was there one day, while sitting at my typewriter, that I said out loud to myself: “I am a writer. Because I am so happy writing and putting ideas together and in a form I can communicate with others. And I learn so much doing this.”
Merton was a very prolific writer, having written over 50 books in a period of about 27 years. Writing brought Merton joy, though it could be a burden at the same time. I have experienced this same thing, and I, too, have been called prolific. However, where Merton took a vow of poverty to an institution and was spared the demands of having to make a living, much of my life and writing time has been tempered by years of administration. I designed and guided programs at Barat College, and then at the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality (both in Chicago and Oakland). I also launched and ran my University of Creation Spirituality with a master’s program that operated in conjunction with the Naropa Institute of Boulder, CO, which was founded by a friend of Merton’s, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Yet, despite our differing positions in the world, the spiritual journeys Merton and I underwent and shared with others — our vocations, therefore — ran very parallel.
I end the book by citing Merton’s own words about a “perfect circle.” I argue that his life was that way for him personally, but also he carried the rest of us to that new beginning by completing a full circle back to his (and our) Creation Spirituality roots. The very writing of this book has proven to be a great circle for me. I first encountered Merton when I read his autobiography as a teenager, and I have been deeply moved in writing this book at how deeply he and I have journeyed together, with Eckhart as a guide to each of us, ever since. This was happening all along without my being deeply aware of it. Deep down, though we were 25 years apart in age, and though I have lived longer than he by another 22 years, we have been traveling together on a “way to God” that I have come to call Creation Spirituality.
While Merton, as in the citation that opens this book, talks about “the way to God,” I am happy to talk about his and my journey via Creation Spirituality as being A way to God.
What does Thomas Merton have to say about silence? A lot. Consider the following poem:
Listen to the stones of the wall
Be silent, they try
To speak your
To the living walls.
Are you? Whose
Silence are you?
Such an invitation! To listen to the stones of the living walls and learn who one is, to whom one belongs. I cannot read this poem without thinking of a sweat lodge where, thanks to the ancient wisdom of the indigenous peoples, a ceremony is created wherein the rocks themselves, the oldest beings on Earth and our elders, speak to us when they are heated up and glowing. I do not know if Merton ever experienced a sweat lodge, but I remain profoundly grateful for the numerous ones I have been blessed to attend. And in them all, silence is honored.
Another poem by Merton speaks to silence, as well:
World is secretly on fire. The stones
Burn, even the stones
They burn me. How can a man be still or
Listen to all things burning? How can he dare
To sit with them when
All their silence
Is on fire?
Here, too, Merton evokes a sweat lodge. But he is also speaking to a profound truth revealed in postmodern science, which is that every atom in the universe contains photons or light waves. Thus, all atoms and all beings ARE on fire. All beings are a burning bush. One does not have to travel to Mount Sinai to encounter the Divine in a burning bush — every bush is a burning bush, every leaf, every stone, every fish, every bird, and every person. We are all on fire. But we have to “sit with them” and be receptive to them. We have to DARE to sit and to listen. We have to DARE SILENCE. That is the contemplative way.
Merton says: “Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy.” All beings are, in Eckhart’s words, “words of God and revelations of God.” Merton knew this, as well. But it takes silence to grasp it.
For Eckhart, emptying the mind is: The most powerful prayer, one almost omnipotent to gain all things, and the noblest work of all is that which proceeds from a bare mind….a bare mind can do all things. What is a bare mind? A bare mind is one which is worried by nothing and is tied to nothing, which has not bound its best part to any modes, does not seek its own in anything, that is fully immersed in god’s dearest will and goes out of its own.
A bare mind dwells in the now. Merton advises us to “love winter when the plant says nothing.” Even nature enjoys darkness and solitude. Winter is that Via Negativa time of the year.