For Me To Be A Saint Means To Be Myself: Thomas Merton and Pope Francis

by Bob Schwartz

Thomas Merton

In his speech to Congress, Pope Francis put Thomas Merton back in the public light, where he has long belonged as an American spiritual master:

A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a “pointless slaughter”, another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

Pope Francis, like Merton, is a natural. One of those players who finds their game and becomes a star because their nature brought them to it. This doesn’t mean there aren’t struggles on the way to greatness. On the contrary, the unceasing struggles are an essential part of their nature. At first we may be inspired by the worthy message and outward model. But ultimately, when we explore them, it is the dimensions and shading we come to admire. A child’s drawing is all black and white, a simple sketch. A master drafts with subtle and powerful lines and shadows, in which we see so much depth.

The Pope’s regard and mention of Merton in his speech to Congress is also natural. Merton chose to be a cloistered monk, then rebelled against his voluntary and self-imposed discipline. The demands of quiet and obedience to authority clashed with the imperative of a great writer freely writing and a great thinker freely thinking. Not gratuitous and loose writing and thought. Always guided by a compass that pointed both higher and back to an inescapable benevolent source, always grounded in the reality of daily life, strong and weak. That sort of creative independence in calling seems to mark Pope Francis too.

Merton died in 1968, almost exactly a year before Pope Francis was ordained. To say they would have loved to have met is understatement. Like many of us, Pope Francis met Merton in countless books, by and about him. In those writings, we learn that Merton was a mystic and a man. What else are saints anyway? “For me to be a saint is to be myself,” Merton said. We can’t be our better self without being our truer self, our littler self and our bigger self. No divine without human, the most and best human possible. It’s all about love and awareness. So Merton lived and wrote. So Pope Francis echoes in his life and his messages.

If you want to learn more about Merton, see The Thomas Merton Center. Among the overwhelming list of books, consider starting small with these:

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings

Love and Living, a collection of essays from the later days of his life.

An excerpt from Learning to Live, the first essay in Love and Living:

What I am saying is this: the score is not what matters. Life does not have to be regarded as a game in which scores are kept and somebody wins. If you are too intent on winning, you will never enjoy playing. If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves…

The least of the work of learning is done in classrooms. I can remember scores of incidents, remarks, happenings, encounters that took place all over the campus and sometimes far from the campus: small bursts of light that pointed out my way in the dark of my own identity. For instance, Mark Van Doren saying to me as we crossed Amsterdam Avenue: “Well, if you have a vocation to the monastic life, it will not be possible for you to decide not to enter” (or words to that effect). I grasped at once the existential truth of this statement.

One other scene, much later on. A room in Butler Hall, overlooking some campus buildings. Daisetz Suzuki, with his great bushy eyebrows and the hearing aid that aids nothing. Mihoko, his beautiful secretary, has to repeat everything. She is making tea. Tea ceremony, but a most unconventional one, for there are no rites and no rules. I drink my tea as reverently and attentively as I can. She goes into the other room. Suzuki, as if waiting for her to go, hastily picks up his cup and drains it.

It was at once as if nothing at all had happened and as if the roof had flown off the building. But in reality nothing had happened. A very very old deaf Zen man with bushy eyebrows had drunk a cup of tea, as though with the complete wakefulness of a child and as though at the same time declaring with utter finality: “This is not important!”

The function of a university is to teach a man how to drink tea, not because anything is important, but because it is usual to drink tea, or, for that matter, anything else under the sun. And whatever you do, every act, however small, can teach you everything—provided you see who it is that is acting.