Thomas Merton and Affirmation

Thomas Merton has always been a favorite of mine. Yesterday I watched Merton: A Film Biography, a 2004 documentary on Merton’s life. Although much of it contained material with which I was already familiar, it was wonderful to see clips from Merton’s talk in Bangkok just before his death, as well as to listen to the commentary of the likes of the Dalia Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh about their meetings with Merton.

During the latter part of his life, Merton became convinced that other world religions can enlighten Catholics and bring spiritual wisdom. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton wrote,

“The heresy of individualism: thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unit and asserting this imaginary “unity” against all others. The affirmation of the self as simply ‘not the other.’ But when you seek to affirm your unity by denying that you have anything to do with anyone else, by negating everyone else in the universe until you come down to you: what is there left to affirm? Even if there were something to affirm, you would have no breath left with which to affirm it.”

“The true way is just the opposite: the more I am able to affirm others, to say ‘yes’ to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.

“I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.

“So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot ‘affirm’ and ‘accept,’ but first one must say ‘yes’ where one really can.

“If I affirm myself as Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”

I think Merton makes a very important point here, one that is often ignored. Far too many people seem to want to deny all that is whatever religion they are not, failing to say yes where it is possible to say yes. Would that we were all more willing to “affirm the truth” of the faith of others where we can.