Today is the commemoration day of Thomas Merton, mystic and contemplative of the 20th century. Merton came from the hills of Kentucky, not quite the place one might expect a contemplative to emerge from. But, then again, Jesus came from the small now-where town of Galilee, and no one expected that. As Philip said in the Gospel of John, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” The Messiah, it was thought, would come from Jerusalem, or from a place of power.
But the only thing that came from Jerusalem was a cross.
One of Merton’s most poetic and beautiful life moments came when he was in the presence of another religion, Buddhism, a place where it was thought no spiritual good could come from for a Christian (at least, in his time and place). But Merton writes this about encountering the giant Buddhas of Polonnaruwa:
I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. The silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, the peace not emotional refutation…that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything—without refutation—without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures….Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious…I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination.
The above writing came on December 4th. Six days later, on December 10th, Thomas Merton had lunch with friends, retired to his room, and died peacefully in his sleep, having gained a clarity most of us, mystic or not, can only dream of.
Perhaps it’s important for us to take the absurdity of this week’s Bible verse and really embrace it. After-all, the child and the snake cannot play together. Or so the worlds says. Likewise, much of the world says that differing religions cannot learn from one another. And yet…
Questions for reflection: Where in my life have I learned from something that I thought would give me nothing? How can I keep my eyes open to accept gifts of wisdom in any form they come?