Thursday, August 20, 2015

Merton's Vision: Transfiguration, Transformation and Transcendence

On a very unassuming street corner in Louisville, KY, just cattycorner-and-a-step behind the Catholic cathedral, Trappist monk Thomas Merton had a life changing revelation in 1958.  He suddenly saw the interconnectedness of all people, clearly, as if a veil had been lifted from his eyes.  The echoes and implications of that revelation continued to reverberate throughout the remainder of his life and in his writings.

Transfiguration: Not Cheap Grace

Thomas Merton's deep awareness of the interconnectedness of all people may be dismissed as flowery, at first glance.  I can imagine people mocking it like some kind of sentimental hippie love in, with strangers holding hands and singing kumbaya

It can come across as cheap grace for people to claim an instant bond of togetherness.  It seems to deny the messiness of life and the need to work hard building relationships and fostering commitment through trust.  It is like walking up to a total stranger and proclaiming love to them.  There is a kind of truth in that--an appreciation and respect for all people and a nod toward an ultimate bond we all share--but it also does not meet most definitions of love which require personal investment over time and self-sacrifice.  No matter how wonderful a vision, something is always missing without a deeper relationship.

But that is exactly why Merton's continual efforts at social justice and interfaith dialogue were so necessary.

Transformation:  Come Down From That Mountain!

Like the disciples Peter and John during the Transfiguration, Merton had a mystical experience.  This fleeting glimpse into Truth--what Christians call the Kingdom of God--can be profoundly uplifting at first.  It is tempting to want to stay there.  Further, it might even seem like an obligation to stay there.  Once you have a toehold onto something you may describe as the Kingdom--or Nirvana--or peace on earth--or Shalom--why leave that to return to the ugliness you find elsewhere?  Peter wanted to pitch tents at the spot of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:34).  However, Jesus had them all come off the mountain the next day (I owe gratitude to Fr. Ron Atwood of Columbus, OH, for pointing this out to me).

For reasons we may never understand in this lifetime, it is not our job to "live" there.  Christianity is about Incarnation--putting flesh and bones onto what we experience as spiritual.  We intuitively know there is a gap between heaven and earth--Christians call it the "fall."  We get glimpses into heaven, and then it is up to us to go back into the messiness of the world, compelled by the flickering memory of that vision, and engage in the ongoing work of bridging heaven and earth, God willing.  We are instruments of Christ in this profound work of cosmic reconciliation.

While Merton's experience may have been unusually profound, a mystical vision is not altogether uncommon.  People get glimpses into the Kingdom all the time--perhaps on retreat, doing service work or in a worship service. 

My life was profoundly changed at age 18 the first time I participated in a week-long service immersion experience at Nazareth Farm, WV.  The prayer, community, simplicity, service and solidarity I experienced that week--all holistically integrated--forever left me changed.  It was like I recognized from some deep place that this was everything I had always wanted.  It felt oddly familiar, although I had never previously considered it and had no idea I was even looking for it.  Yet, it was all right there to taste, touch and see.  I have spent the rest of my life attempting to live into the truths I experienced that week. That initial experience propelled me on a trajectory that has not subsided in the 22 years since.  While there are times I feel distant from it, looking back I see its presence strong and true. 

Why the Raincoat?

The Kingdom is both "now" and also "not yet," as Jesus described throughout the Gospels.  Yes--we are all interconnected with all people right now, but yes--it is also our job to build relationships, resolve differences, overcome divisions and grow into the future.  In other words, we ought to live like the Kingdom is now--because it is--but we are usually behaving as if it is not yet.  We are like people huddled under make-shift shelters, outfitted with rain gear, goulashes and umbrellas, when in fact the sun is actually shining warm and dry, but we believe instead in the illusion that it is raining and cold. We all look just as ridiculous as that. That is how I interpret Merton's vision.


A mystical vision can be a burden. It can cause quite a tension as we are forced to sit with the contrast between this vision of the ideal and the imperfect reality of this world.  No matter how joyful, it can quickly become sobering as it settles into the yoke of responsibility.  This is how a mystical vision in 1958 eventually brought Merton to immerse himself in (among many other things) the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and an interfaith journey with Zen Buddhism (the latter I will explore briefly below). 

It is like being the only person to witness a crime or injustice.  Like it or not, fair or otherwise, it burdens you with a tremendous responsibility to tell other people.  Based on where they are in their own journey, they may not be able to understand or even hear you, but that does not absolve you of the responsibility to give witness to it in word and deed.  You cannot make them hear, but you ought to make yourself talk. Ultimately, you would not want to do otherwise, and the joy that accompanies it may more than compensate for the struggle, but it can be difficult waking from this slumber and crawling out of bed the first time. Transformation often involves the welcome relief of shedding a skin that no longer fits your new worldview, but it can come with growing pains in the process.

Merton has long stressed the relationship between contemplation and action--that is to say, the interplay between one's prayer and devotional life with the outward actions in lifestyle and involvement in society.  In the case of this post, his devotional life led him to a moment of profound insight, and that insight then drove his outward actions from that point on. He spent the rest of his life working for the unity on earth that he experiences in his spiritual revelation.


Seeing the interconnectedness of all people suggests that we should do a serious evaluation of all the boundaries between people--perceived or otherwise.  It calls us to engage those boundaries.  Are they healthy boundaries creating space to allow distinct traits to shine, or are they attempting to divide what God has not intended to be divided?  Are they real or illusionary? 

This includes both exterior and interior boundaries.  Not only do those boundaries have to be encountered, but more importantly, the people behind those boundaries need to be encountered--for our sake as well as theirs.  This includes finding our own self behind our interior walls--and then finding ourselves also within others, and so on and so forth. 

This path may call us to ultimately transcend all boundaries on the path to the Kingdom, even what seems like the limits of our own faith tradition.  In this light, the interfaith path starts looking like a requirement--not just something that scholars and mystics do out of curiosity but rather something we may all be called to engage in as part of our faith journey, not as something extracurricular.  This is as if to say that the only way to live out Christianity is to transcend Christianity.  This may sound sacrilegious at first, but the testimony of spiritual masters of the faith like Thomas Merton shows that the Christian life is not as linear as we might think.  The Way of Jesus is a path marked by paradox.

The certainty that can come from religious conviction runs the risk of actually distracting us from the romance and drama--and even the core reality--of faith itself:  "Faith means doubt, and any person of faith who has never had doubt is not a person of faith.," said Morgan Aktinson at the Festival of Faiths in May, paraphrasing Thomas Merton.  There is always the risk of making a false idol out of our convictions.  Convictions may come, but faith always comes first.

Perhaps in this way Merton was aware of a deeper rhythm in the Judeo-Christian experience that goes beyond the rules and regulations of Church membership:  Jesus said he was fulfilling Jewish Law when it looked like he was breaking it.  Jesus kept including people who--through individual bias or societal infrastructure--had previously been excluded.  Jesus said to look to the lost to find ourselves.  Jesus ultimately demonstrated Resurrection through death.  Perhaps likewise, Merton found a connection to the world when it looked like he was isolating himself within a monastery.  Merton kept finding Christianity by encountering its boundaries.  The contemplative path suggests that we may all find ourselves by leaving behind what we thought was ourselves--leaving our false self to find the true. If nothing else, this exploration gives us an outside perspective.

It might be easy to guess that someone like Thomas Merton, who was so invested in interfaith exploration, would have a kind of mixed identity.  Perhaps he divided his attention between a couple of traditions and ended up only at intermediate levels of each.  Perhaps he had a watered down version of the faith.

The evidence points to the contrary, however.  The great interfaith pioneers, such as Thomas Merton, are masters and teachers in their own traditions.  It is not in spite of that, but rather because of that foundation that allows them to recognize the good in other traditions and to find that good reflected back within themselves. Merton's interfaith exploration could be seen as the result of full immersion in his tradition, rather than some kind of detour.

Benedictine monk Br. David Steindl-Rast (pictured at left, appearing via video at the Festival of Faiths) described it this way:  "Going so deeply into our own tradition that we reach the point where all traditions originate."  He described a conversation he had with Thomas Merton where the latter said, "I could not understand our Christian faith the way I do if it wasn't in light of Buddhism." 

Putting these two quotes together:  A person cannot reach this level of insight without being a master of her or his own tradition--and a person cannot become a master of her or his own tradition without exploring beyond where its reaches seem to be.  This is not cheap grace or a simple COEXIST bumper sticker, nice as those may be.  This is a conclusion gained after many years of rigorous spiritual exploration down a given path along with the bravery of taking seriously what someone outside the tradition has to offer.

Thomas Merton ultimately did not leave Catholicism but through his engagement with Zen Buddhism became a stronger Catholic.  The boundary between the two traditions was not so much broken, erased or watered down, but rather boundary itself was overcome.  He did not attempt to remove that which was distinct about either Zen Buddhism or Catholicism.  Rather, it was through that very diversity--not in spite of it--that he found the connection that ended up being a key to a locked part of himself.

The goal of reconciliation is not to erode or erase all distinctiveness to create a homogenous end product.  Rather, it is about not letting a boundary be an obstruction to seeing that it is the very distinctiveness of the other which reflects a truth back to us about ourselves.  "This is not simply dignity in difference, there is divinity in difference," said Rev. Willie D. Francois, II, in my previous post.

From Transfiguration to Transformation to Transcendence

Thomas Merton's life demonstrates so well the interplay between contemplation and action.

Merton got a glimpse behind the veil and saw that the Kingdom is right here and now.  He could also see the boundaries--real or otherwise--that get in the way of us realizing the Kingdom.  These boundaries include, but are certainly not limited to, racism, militarism, religious intolerance, and all manner walls between our own self and others.  That vision compelled him to transform his life on the path to transcending those boundaries.


“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, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
-- Thomas Merton, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander


This post is part of a series on the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, KY.  Other posts include:

Part 1:  Interfaith is a Verb
Part 2:  The Journey Out is a Journey In
Part 3:  All Others

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