The Making of an Ecumenist
Passionate love of God and neighbor, and of learning, along with a prodigious gift of prophecy, appear to be unassailable signs of a saint. As a member of his religious community and correspondent to thousands, Thomas Merton as though unwittingly committed himself to the search for truth in a life of dialogue. His secret lay in that he did not regard other traditions as alien but integral to what he recognized as a unified human legacy that we all--without exception--rightfully share. In the preface to one of his books published abroad he wrote: "Man is made in the image of God, and until he is fully united with himself, with his brother, and with his God, the reign of God cannot come and manifest itself on earth so that all may see His Kingdom." (1) He recognized in the other unique qualities of knowledge and wisdom, and that, in inculcating and cultivating such qualities, he would become an ever more complete person, and closer to God. Goethe once wrote what can be applied to Merton: "Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, And in their pleasures takes joy, as though, 'twere his own.'" (2)
In coming upon other traditions, Merton brought himself ever more intimately into the inner sanctum of others and their cultures. He tread this path both through active learning and what might be called the Taoistic wu wei, literally "no action" or "non-action," or loosely rendered, "non-ado" or "action of the Tao." By the time Asian culture and thought had became more than a passing fancy for him, Merton was, through the concentrated mining of his own tradition, a master of both the active and contemplative ways of life. He was also abreast of their rich overtones and, equally, their limits. He understood the many pitfalls that belie activism, the dangers of meddling with both nature and the divine will; at the same time, he was equally observant of the dangers of contemplation degenerating into mere quietism, when one lives without a moral or spiritual compass. Monastic life taught him two critical lessons, one of earth, the other of heaven: the sacredness of labor and waiting expectantly and patiently for grace.
In Entering the Silence, the second volume of journals, Merton notes: "What God wants of me will crystallize out, and there are things I need badly to find out, but I know I cannot find them out by pushing and pulling." (3) From an Asian perspective, these words reflect the harmonization and reconciliation of Confucian humanism with Taoist contemplation. From his early twenties, Merton had already possessed the notion of life with harmony as both a given and intellectual virtue not so much to be pursued but as lived. In his prime when he threw himself fully into Asian philosophy, he was not coming upon virgin field, for much of what he was to learn then was an extension of what he already had in...