In the diversity of his vocation as a monk, writer, poet, political activist and priest, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) speaks to us as a prophetic witness for a new kind of spiritual and religous focus in times of change. I believe the four primary concerns for us today are those outlined some fifty years ago in his book, “Zen and the Birds of Appetite”. He begins with one simple question: “Is there some new possibility, some other opening for the Christian consciousness today?” and responds with the suggestion that new visions might well focus on four great needs.
First, the need for community, for a “genuine relationship of authentic love which implies a deep and radical understanding of those critical problems which threatens humanities survival –- war, racial conflict, hunger, economic and political injustice. Only this can lead to Transformation of that community.” Secondly, to Celebrate an adequate understanding of the everyday self “finding ultimate sense here and now in the ordinary humble tasks and problems of every day”.
Thirdly: he cites the need for a whole Education on the place of the sacred in the mundane, an integral experience of our whole self: bodily, imaginative, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. For, “in a culture centered on the stimulation and exploitation of egocentric desire, a false and divisive sacredness can only cripple.” And finally a radical Formation, leading to “liberation from inordinate self-consciousness, monumental self-awareness and our obsession with self-affirmation, so that we may enjoy the freedom from concern that goes with simply being what we are and accepting things as they are in order to work with them as we can.”
It is in light of these questions that Merton says we would do well to “acquire a more accurate understanding of… the basic teaching of Buddhism –- on ignorance, deliverance and enlightenment. [For it could offer] the same kind of life-affirming liberation that we find in the Good News of Redemption, the Gift of the Spirit, and The New Creation.”