It is an unfortunate fact that so many of the world’s greatest and most inspirational thinkers are only acclaimed for their contribution posthumously. It is also extremely remiss of societies teachers and educators that whilst some popular writers are venerated others pass through the net virtually unseen.
Thomas Merton is one such writer and philosopher who has fallen foul of both these conditions.
A life of Value
Matthew Fox has endeavoured to renew interest in Merton’s works in his book A Way to God.
So then, who was Thomas Merton?
Thomas Merton was a spiritual philosopher about whom Pope Francis described as one of four exemplary Americans who still provides wisdom for us today. The others on his list were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.
Merton was a proponent of ‘Creation Spirituality’ and in a recent interview with Matthew Fox the author described this philosophy as ‘Honoring all of creation as Original Blessing, Creation Spirituality integrates the wisdom of Eastern and Western spirituality and global indigenous cultures, with the emerging scientific understanding of the universe, and the passion of creativity.”
Thomas Merton was born in southern France in 1915. He was a prolific writer having penned over fifty books in a twenty-seven year period. He died in 1968 which was the same year that both Dr Martin Luther King Jr. And Robert Kennedy were gunned to death.
Writing in the introduction to his book A Way to God, Fox describes the reasons for bringing the work of Merton to a wider audience as well as the similarities that he feels existents between the life of Merton and that of his own.
He also shares his first experience of encountering Merton as a writer through his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain which Fox read whilst a student at West High School, Madison, Wisconsin. The book proved to make a deep impression on the young Fox who although did not follow Merton’s spiritual leanings by becoming a Trappist monk did follow a similar vocation as a member of the Dominican Order.
In 1967 the two worlds intersected when Fox wrote to Merton and he received some of his unpublished articles in return. This initial contact resulted in Fox travelling to France to study spirituality.
Sadly Merton died some fifteen months later.
The Four Paths
In his book Fox readily admits that Merton’s work covers such a scope in depth and breadth that newcomers may become confused by it.
As a way of clarifying the wealth of material on offer Fox begins his exposition of his mentor’s ideas through what Merton refers to as the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality.
These he describes as points of entry into a deeper understanding and appreciation on one’s inner life through the path of wonder and awe, the path of letting go and letting be, the path of celebration and creativity, and the path of compassion and justice.
However Merton was no dry and academic spiritual philosopher. Despite the fact that he was a man who enjoyed a sense of isolation from society and who was firmly convinced that God is only knowable through quietude and solitude he was a political commentator and social observer with ideas that were, for their time, somewhat cutting-edge.
Fox covers many of these aspects of Merton’s thinking in his book including his thoughts on such topics as social conformity, living marginally, feminism, the feminine aspect of God and the Church, sexuality, and the Native American Tradition.
Orgy of Idolatry
Merton, as seen through the eyes of Fox, was much more than a comatose commentator. In his book he highlights Merton’s more acerbic opinions on such matters as what he rather prophetically observed as being the rise in religious fundamentalism. Fox also describes the subjects’ opinion on the Christian church and quotes Merton as labelling it “…simply the cult of the dead body of Christ compounded with anguish and desperation.”
Several other critiques by Merton are included in the book including those of his own monastery, the Catholic Church, the Vatican Council, and the relationship between church and state.
A Way to God closes with Fox revealing that Merton appeared to be aware that he would enjoy only a relative short time on this earth. It seems that prior to his final trip to the East in 1968 Merton made particular effort to wrap up several of his own personal affairs. Whilst his desire to take a deepening journey into the heart of spirituality remained it seems that for Merton there was a growing sense of awareness that his life had in fact come full circle and that it was time for even greater adventures yet still to come.
Our Review of A Way to God by Matthew Fox
Reading this book reveals why the author – something of a spiritual maverick himself, finds such rich pastures within the spiritual world that is Thomas Merton. Indeed, and most tellingly, both writer and subject operate or operated at a point in history in which the old order began to fall off their self-created perches.
What is particularly enjoyable in reading A Way to God is that Fox has given space for Merton to speak for himself via his writings, poetry and letters. The result is a splendid biographical journey through the life and transformative times of Thomas Merton.
This is not an account that timelines Merton’s life per se but it is one that allows the spirit of his subject to flow through and to engage with the reader. This has created a book that is particularly interesting and a deeply enjoyable reflection of Merton – one which despite appearing to be somewhat quaintly naive at times is, nevertheless, inspirational and up-lifting.
In short Matthew Fox has through A Way to God performed a notable and highly creditable role in drawing to the attention of the world the work, thoughts and times of a highly respected and authentic spiritual seeker.