Robert King, a retired philosophy and religion professor and academic dean, discovered only late in his academic career the contemplative dimension of Christianity. "Indeed, the very idea of contemplative practice was alien to the tradition in which I was educated," he notes. "There is a strong emphasis in traditional Protestantism on ethics and social responsibility, but very little attention is devoted to spiritual practices of any kind. When I discovered a contemplative longing in myself, it was like coming home—yet to a home I had never known."
Educated at Harvard and Yale in the liberal reformed traditions of Christianity as represented by Paul Tillich and H. Richard Niebuhr, King notes that his formal education familiarized him neither with Thomas Merton (a Trappist monk who died in 1968 at 54, having spent the previous 27 years of his life at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky) nor with Thich Nhat Hanh (a Vietnamese Buddhist monk currently living in exile from his homeland in southern France). While teaching courses in Buddhism during the 1960’s, King became interested in the protests against the Vietnamese war led by Buddhist monks and especially by Thich Nhat Hanh. Most particularly, he was fascinated that contemplative Buddhist monks were engaged in social protest and wondered about the relationship between their practice of meditation and that protest.
King himself then began the daily practice of Zen meditation—having been introduced to the discipline by a Jesuit priest, who assured him there was no conflict between this practice and Christian contemplation. His practice of meditation led him to the contemplative dimension of his own tradition: "By now I had begun to re-evaluate my own religious training and to inquire into the contemplative tradition that had been largely absent from my theological education. I began reading people like Merton and the Christian mystics who preceded him and actually taught a seminar on Buddhist and Christian approaches to contemplation." He became especially interested in discovering any commonality in their approaches to engaged spirituality, a form of practice that could serve as a unifying paradigm for the world’s religions in the age of globalization.
Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Spirituality in an Age of Globalization is at heart an exhortation. Having discovered personally the centrality of contemplation for religious practice, as well as the relationship between contemplation and action, King now exhorts religious believers of every tradition to unite with one another on this foundation and work together toward solving our common world problems. He concludes that this engaged spirituality is the best foundation for ecumenism, since all religions embrace this contemplative-action dynamic, and all believers suffer from the same momentous ills plaguing our globe.
Both Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh began as monks committed to a cloistered contemplative life, and both gradually found their vocations—leading them to prophetic social involvement. Early chapters explore the emergence of their contemplative-active dialectic. The final chapters (Entering Into Dialogue and Engaged Spirituality in an Age of Globalization) trace the encounters of Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh with others’ tradition, focusing on Merton’s encounter with the Japanese Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh’s encounter with the American Jesuit Daniel Berrigan. (Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh themselves met only once, in May, 1966, at Gethsemani Abbey.)
King’s book serves as a fine introduction to the life and thought of these well-known monks. More important, however, it should be read for its central thesis, a thesis that must be taken seriously and may be crucial for the continued relevancy of religion in today’s world. Contemplation must not remain the preserve of a few marginal monastics! Religious believers of every tradition must open their hearts to a contemplative transformation by God, and from within this transformation move out and work together to alleviate the problems of our troubled planet.
I liked much about the book, but have two reservations. First, the thesis is not as new as King imagines. In the 16th century St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, originated a school of spirituality embracing equally contemplation and action, espousing the ideal of becoming contemplatives in action. Granted the ideal has not been lived out over the centuries—it was too radical for the time—but it has been revived with the help of the Second Vatican Council’s exhortation to religious orders to reappropriate the charisms of their founders. Second, King could have strengthened his text by giving personal witness about how his contemplative practice energized his service and how reading each author influenced him personally.
Jonathan Montaldo’s book complements King’s. Dialogues With Silence: Prayers and Drawings by Thomas Merton presents some 90 prayers and drawings culled from 400 prayers by Merton and 800 drawings. The dialogues with silence are, of course, dialogues with the God who can be known most fully in this life not through cognitive reflection but through contemplation—the direct knowledge of God that transcends ordinary human knowing. This contemplative knowing of God occurs when our minds are clear of thoughts and images and our hearts are still. Every religious tradition participates in this knowing. Thich Nhat Hanh would be comfortable with most of the dialogues.
In a very brief preface, Montaldo presents the now famous description of Merton’s typical way of meditating, written in a letter to a Sufi mystic:
Yet it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for to my mind this would be a kind of idolatry. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring Him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension, and realizing Him as all. My prayer tends very much toward what you call fana. There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence.
Montaldo—director of the Thomas Merton Study Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville and editor of the second volume of Merton’s journals, Entering the Silence: 1941-1952, as well as co-editor with Patrick Hart, O.C.S.O., of the one-volume compilation of the series The Intimate Merton—explains: "The prayers and drawings of this book are artifacts of Merton’s dialogues with silence. Placed together, they resonate to reveal his desire to return to the Father, to the Immense, to the Primordial, to the Unknown, to Him Who loves, to the Silent, to the Holy, to the Merciful, to Him Who is All."
The book’s drawings, most frequently of monks, Our Lady and Jesus, are Zen-like in their simple bold black brush strokes; the prayers are usually brief and incisive. Though all the prayers are excerpted from Merton’s published writings, most of the drawings have not been previously published. The combination is startling, often sacramental, opening the reader to the imageless experience of God.
The Merton prayers excerpted frequently bemoan Merton’s inability to be truly silent. For example, "You do not want me to be thinking about what I am, but about what You are. Or rather, You do not want me to be thinking about anything much: for You would raise me above the level of thought. If I am always trying to figure out what I am and where I am and why I am, how will that work be done?"
Occasionally they attempt to describe the residue of the dialogues with Silence:
What can I say about the emptiness and freedom into whose door I entered for that half-minute, which was enough for a lifetime, because it was a new life altogether? There is nothing with which to compare it. I could call it nothingness, but it is an infinitely fruitful freedom, to lack all things and to lack my self in the fresh air of that happiness that seems to be above all modes of being. Don’t let me build any more walls around it, or I will shut myself out.
Dialogues With Silence, handsomely bound and printed, is the perfect gift for the Merton lover, though less suitable as a first meeting with Merton. In an almost sacramental way it helps the reader enter Merton’s spiritual vision and participate personally in the monk’s encounters with Silence.
Dialogues With Silence: Prayers and Drawings by Thomas Merton is available from the Catholic Book Club.