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Thomas Merton: A Saint for All Seasons

by Christina Honchell

Forty-seven years ago, Thomas Merton stopped at Our Lady of the Redwoods Abbey in Humboldt County on his way to Japan, India and Thailand. He said to those gathered: “There is here an authentic atmosphere of prayer. Enjoy this. Drink it all in. Everything – the redwood forests, the sea, the sky, the waves, the birds, the sea lions. It is in all this that you will find your answers. Here is where everything connects.”

mertonMerton’s whole life was about making connections: between East and West, between the religious and secular worlds, between art and God, between nature and humanity, between the material and the spirit, between faith and social justice. He was a prophet, a mystic and an activist, at a time when many in the church were not able to make those connections.

Merton has been a saint for all seasons in my life. When I was beginning my serious faith discernment in my thirties, I carried a book of Merton’s poetry with me everywhere I went. I loved the “beat” quality of it; Merton loved jazz, and that love oozed out through his words and rhythms. When church teachings wore me down, I turned to New Seeds of Contemplation and he taught me the primacy of love over knowledge or experience or doctrine. I wanted to be a Christian because he was one. And when the civil wars to our south brought refugees and migrants north, I found solace in his writing about peace, racism and dehumanization in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. When more recently I found myself turning to Buddhism to help me understand the suffering in my life, I turned again to the Christian monk who famously said, “I want to become as good a Buddhist as I can,” and immersed myself in his Asian Journal.

This year is the centennial of Merton’s birth, and we have been having a wonderful Year of Merton here at All Saints: from Ed Bacon’s inspiring preaching, to Gary Hall’s summer forum, to the musical wonders of Merton poetry expressed by Open Gate Theater, to a thrilling new documentary by Morgan Atkinson screened here in September. We are capping off the year in a grand way, with a visit from Dan Horan, O.F.M., a Franciscan priest who wrote the wonderful book, The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton, and who was highly praised and recommended to us by Richard Rohr as someone we needed in our life. Dan will lead us in an Advent Quiet Day on the morning of Saturday, December 19, titled Thomas Merton and the Challenge of Faith in a Complex World, and will be our preacher and Rector’s Forum speaker on Sunday, December 20.

A few weeks back I spent some days at La Casa de Maria in Montecito for a retreat Dan offered, centered on Merton’s writing on contemplation and social action. On that last trip to Asia in 1968, before Merton stayed at the abbey in Humboldt, he stayed on the grounds of La Casa. I’ve been on retreat there dozens of times over the last 30 years, but I’d never intentionally stepped in his footprints, been so aware of that holy ground. I am thrilled that Dan is going to bring his wisdom, passion and pastoral presence to be with us to close out the Merton Year. Give yourself the best sort of gift this December and plan to be with us for a very special weekend.

Christina Honchell is the Parish Administrator at All Saints Church in Pasadena — and this reflection was the cover article in the December edition of our monthly newsletter: Saints Alive.
For more information on the Advent Quiet Day with Daniel Horan, click here.

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