I belong to the Mennonite tradition within the Anabaptist stream of contemporary Christianity, and I’m writing here to reflect on my encounter with Thomas Merton. Let me be clear that I don’t claim to represent any official or standard Mennonite position! I doubt that I’d even be considered a “typical” Mennonite, if there is such a thing anymore. But here are a few of the topics I expect to consider in these posts.
- Mennonites and related groups are known today for focusing on discipleship to Jesus, particularly with regard to nonviolence and peacemaking. This was a concern of Merton’s as well. How then did his basis for practicing that kind of discipleship relate to my Mennonite understanding?
- Merton, of course, was much more than an advocate for peace and justice. Above all he was a contemplative monk, a mystic. This is the aspect of his thought that resonates most deeply with me, even though traditional Mennonite practice has been much more active than contemplative, and Mennonite theology has been very skeptical about monasticism. (Remember, I said I don’t claim to be typical!) So where do I see positive interactions between Mennonite belief and practice and contemplative monasticism? Where are the tensions I have to live with?
- Here’s the one I find most challenging and most significant: Anabaptists understand the church to be a free, voluntary body of believers, living in mutual accountability and discipline, but not bound by creeds or councils or claims of apostolic succession. It is in this church, obedient to him and standing apart from “the world,” that they believe Jesus is at work. Such a take on the church contrasts with Thomas Merton’s understanding in two ways. On the one hand, there is his Roman Catholicism, to which he remained firmly loyal (though he could be aggravated by backward-looking institutions and nationalistic entanglements). On the other hand, there is Merton’s broad expectation that Jesus Christ is present and active everywhere in creation—even in non-Christian religions and philosophies. In thinking about the church, I find that Merton both challenges me and presents ideas that I would challenge.
These three topics suggest some starting points for a Mennonite/Anabaptist dialogue with Thomas Merton; others may crop up as well. I’d love to see your comments and reflections in response to my posts, whether or not you’re of Catholic or Anabaptist persuasion, whether or not you’re a contemplative or a peace activist, whether you’re a fan of Merton or have your doubts about him.