Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Exercises
the School of Our Lives
December 8, 2020, 8 PM ET
Register for this webinar sponsored by the International Thomas Merton Society and the Bernadine Center of the Graduate Theological Union, Chicago at Merton.org. Participation is free to all.
The volume Monastic Observances includes Merton’s notes for teaching prayer. He inspired his novices to apprehend their lives as “schools of wisdom”. He mentored a contemplative re-translation of their historical and inner experiences as exercises designing their truest selves. Merton’s writing contains his own spiritual exercises for his continuing education in the school of a Divine Providence. Exercises in his journals can mentor re-translations of our own lives, producing conscious epiphanies of the graced interdependence of “all things” that continually conspire to propel our loving the world of our relationships that create our “one, wild and precious” lives” (Mary Oliver).
Jonathan Montaldo served as director of the Thomas Merton Center and as president of the ITMS. As associate director for the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, he directed its retreat center Bethany Spring. He co-created Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton and co-edited The Intimate Merton. Other renditions of Merton’s writing include A Year with Thomas Merton, Dialogues with Silence, and Choosing to Love the World. He narrated five Merton audiobooks. A co-general editor for Fons Vitae’s Thomas Merton & series, he presents retreats based upon Merton’s legacy for mentoring our spiritual formations.
The Epiphany of Kindness Shining in Sorrow’s Face
© Jonathan Montaldo
On March 19, in Louisville, Kentucky on the downtown corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, after visiting his doctor, the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton stepped out unto the busy sidewalk and found himself suddenly in deep communion with the human beings he saw there. “Thank God,” he wrote later in his book Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander (1966: 156-157) about the event, “I’m a member of the human race just like everyone else. 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. […] I have the immense joy of being a member of the human race: if only everybody could realize this! There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
In a different version about his “epiphany,” of human kindness that day, he wrote about having bought for fifty cents a copy of photographs from Life Magazine compiled in a book, The Family of Man: “All those fabulous pictures. How scandalized some would be if I said that the whole book is to me a picture of Christ, and yet that is the Truth. There, there is Christ in my own Kind, my own Kind—Kind, which means “likeness” and which means “love” and which means “child.” Humankind. Like one another, the dear “Kind” of sinners united and embraced in only one heart, in only one Kindness, which is the Heart and Kindness of God. I do not look for sin in you, Humankind. I do not see sin in you anymore today (though we are all sinners). There is something too real to allow sin any longer to seem important, to seem to exist, for it has been swallowed up, sin has been destroyed, and there is only the great secret between us that we are all one kind. God is seen and reveals God’s self as human, that is, in us and there is no other hope of finding wisdom than in God-humanhood: our own humanity transformed in God (The Intimate Merton (1999):125. Inclusive language added.)
When my sister Janet was dying of breast cancer, she lived more than I had ever experienced her living before. It was as if she had surrendered the masks she had worn to protect herself and became the person whose face I had seen only in glimpses. She reconciled enmities, she drew her children to herself, and she healed long-standing open wounds. Without the graces of palliative medicine, my sister would have been unable so strongly to reveal her true face, but it was more than medicinal herbs that robbed her death of its sting. It was the epiphany of our kindness in the middle of everything that was failing her that made her dying a final act of compassion for the life she had loved living.
Life and Death are identical twins to every human being of us. We eat foods both sour and sweet. We banquet together sometimes celebrating, sometimes in tears. Our wheat grows among weeds. We are hot for one another, then turn cold. We are happy this month and depressed the next. This year we are famous, next year we suffer disgrace. In the morning we are kissing our children as they leave for school and by that afternoon someone has shot them dead. We are all kin as we suffer the curved streets of this life that every one of us travels.
But being kindred, why are we so unkind to one another? Why are we blind to each other’s dilemmas as being identical to our own? Why do we so unrelentingly accept Unkindness as the order of relations among us when it is our Kindness that binds us all together? To be unkind is to be unnatural. For us to live our lives vis-à-vis one another unkindly is to be sick of soul. Our thoughtless unkindness to one another is a low-grade depression of the spirit that robs us of joy and sanity. Unkindness among us exiles us from the sun-lit paradise our lives could more be were the scales of self-interest to fall from our eyes and we could see everyone bathed in light revealing them to us as our own precious kind.
How do we relearn kindness in an unkind world? Humility is the mother of Kindness. Humility prevents our taking first places at life’s banquet; humility prevents our hogging resources while sisters on other continents or just down the street cannot feed their children. Humility helps us step down from the pedestal of individual, unkind destinies to share life with the crowd of us. Humility helps us see how easy it is to lose everything we hold dear in an instant: our houses, our status, our families, our very selves lost in the distractions of shiny things that keep us from realizing our kindness with one another.
For the health of our collective souls, we must uncage our kindness from the narrow cells of our immediate family and friends. We must go off the restricted reservations of our corporate interest groups. We must leap over the wall of the gated communities of our minds that divide our world into the precious few who are saved, while the rest of them, not our kind at all, go unwashed in the Lamb’s blood. Who will deliver us from these narrow-minded perspectives every one of us easily adopts that divide our one humankind into the family and the strangers, into tribes of Abel and tribes of Cain, into the descendants of Sarah and the offspring of Hagar?
This virus of our irresponsibility for other human beings, our own kind, infects our relationship with all of nature upon which the health of all creation depends. The circumference of our enacting kindness must, as Albert Einstein wrote, be as large as planet Earth’s. We must repair our kindness to all beings. We should convert ourselves to fostering ecologies of kindness in all our relationships as a daily spiritual practice. Right this moment is the acceptable time to be kind to one another, not next week, not in our next reincarnation, not in heavens that are elsewhere than where we are alive now. This great work of our becoming shining epiphanies of human kindness to one another is the personal inner work that we each should practice more deeply. In her poem “Kindness” in her collection The Word Under the Words, the Palestinian-American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye bears witness to us:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.
Only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I, kindness, you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend. (Written in Columbia, SA)
In this season of a pandemic of outrage and reclusion Thomas Merton and Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us we are all one kind. We are mothers and fathers, sisters, and brothers, all cousins under our skin. We must recognize ourselves as kin or not be well. Kindness is the cure. Kindness is the medicine prescribed for every day. Only Kindness can burn cataracts from our eyes so that everywhere we look we can see kin, everyone, our own kind, everywhere. Even in the middle of all that fails and divides us as Sorrow again unveils her face, may we see in Her the epiphany of our hidden kindness, God revealed and shining out in and to all our faces at last.
© Jonathan Montaldo August 2020
Publications on Thomas Merton
by Jonathan Montaldo
Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton
Volumes 1-4 Revised Edition 2010
Volumes 5-8 Revised Edition 2011
A spiritual development program in ten volumes that leads participants in small group dialogue to an experience of spiritual transformation and a more contemplative, peace-filled life. Each eight-session volume offers an introduction to Merton and contemplative living through prayers, readings from Merton and other spiritual masters, and questions for small group dialogue.
The second volume in the seven-volume presentation of Thomas Merton’s extant private journals (1939-1968) published by HarperSanFrancisco. This volume presents his journals for the period 1941-1952.
A highly edited anthology of Merton’s private journals (seven volumes presented in seven chapters), The Intimate Merton is a HarperSanFrancisco best seller and has been translated in over ten languages.
Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart & the Eastern Church (The Fons Vitae Thomas Merton series)
Audiobooks: Montaldo Reading Merton
Reading Poetry with Kathleen Deignan