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.
Thanks David! I now see where to “leave a reply” so will add my earlier email post below, with four personal connections to Merton and monasticism. I could add that when I was pastor of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, from 1984-95, my primary place for spiritual retreats was Gethsemane. Weldon
1. Merton, along with Nouwen, have been hugely important to me, beginning in seminary at AMBS four decades ago. However, over the past three decades, Richard Rohr, OFM, Joan Chittister, OSB, and Jim Douglass have been more formative for me. All are Catholic and catholic. It was notable to me at AMBS how much attention was given to Merton and Nouwen — mostly without acknowledging that they were Catholic. Could it be that we could draw on their work as long as we could conceive of them as catholic without identifying them as Catholic?
2. Catholic connections have been hugely formative for me throughout ministry, especially the peace movement, resistance communities, monasticism, Women Religious, and Catholic Workers. I am a Benedictine Oblate of Saint John’s Abbey.
3. Gerald and Marlene (on your email list here) and the late Ivan Kauffman and I founded the Mennonite Catholic Bridgefolk (www.bridgefolk.net). I think Merton’s cloistered monasticism and worldly wisdom is one key to make such endeavors imaginable and possible. Another key that I believe makes such Mennonite and Catholic connections possible is the Second Vatican Council.
4. Merton’s naming of the “unspeakable” (e.g., Raids on the Unspeakable) is profoundly significant for a theological understanding of U.S post WII history leading to 21st century permanent war. Jim Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters is the best revelation of the “unspeakable.” Jim’s Gandhi and the Unspeakable followed the JFK book and he is now deeply in the midst of the writing another volume in the “unspeakable” series on the assassinations of Malcolm X, MLK, and RFK. I just spent the first week of December with Jim and Shelley Douglass in Birmingham, AL exploring the “unspeakable” and radical discipleship. This would be a primary concern and connection for me to Merton and Mennonites.