Thomas Merton and the one in whom all things cohere
Thomas Merton died 52 years ago on Thursday. One of the most important Roman Catholic voices of the mid twentieth century he wrote and spoke extensively about the relationship between personal spirituality and working socially and politically for justice and peace.
He argued that personal prayer and spirituality were subversive. That if we seriously engage in prayer it will take us down into our deepest, inner selves where we will connect with God, but also find ourselves face to face with the darkest parts of our own selves, the deeply hidden wounds and the anger, resentment, pain, guilt and shame that go along with those wounds, and the unhelpful ways those negative feelings contaminate our dealings with other people and the world. Merton knew that it is in deep engagement with God in the depths of ourselves that we find healing and forgiveness, become our true selves, deepen and extend our relationship with God and with other people and the wider world. At first, we can only glimpse this but gradually find and become our true selves and that changes us and changes the whole way in which we see and engage with the world around us. So he was able to say that to become a holy person a saint was to simply to become ourselves, our true selves. And he realised that if we fail to engage with that inner journey of what Christians have called spiritual growth, healing and forgiveness then we inflict our wounds and hurt on the people around us and undermine and damage even the best things we try to do.
If we do go on that spiritual journey and begin to see ourselves and others and the world differently, that brings us into conflict with the ways of the world, we become subversive, in the way that Jesus was subversive, challenging the conventions, challenging religious leaders, challenging his disciples who so often misunderstood him and were baffled and confused by what he said and did most of the time!
Jesus then is a supreme example of a true self, at one with himself and at one with God and at one with the whole universe. That is why the writer of the letter to the Colossians (Ch 1;13-20) deliberately uses the most extraordinary, overblown and exalted language to describe Jesus – claiming not only that Jesus has rescued us from darkness and released us from sin, but that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, that in him everything has been created and that absolutely everything is held together in him.
This is the Jesus we prepare to meet again every year as we journey through Advent and look forward to the coming of this one true self who invites us to go on a journey of discipleship with him, so that we can find healing and release from our damaged and damaging selves and become our true selves, seeing the world and living in the world from a different perspective, a perspective grounded in that inner experience of healing and oneness: unity with God, the universe and other people.