Merton's Last Words...

Thomas Merton died on December 10th, 1968 at only 53 years old. He was in Bangkok and touched a fan with poorly grounded wiring while stepping out of the bathtub. He was electrocuted.

Only a few hours before his death, Merton wrote:

Christianity and Buddhism agree that the root of man's problems is that his consciousness is fouled up and does not apprehend reality as it fully is... Christianity and Buddhism alike, then, seek to bring about a transformation of man's consciousness... [and] to transform and liberate the truth in each person, with the idea that it will communicate itself to others. Of course, the man par excellence to whom this task is deputed is the monk. And the Christian monk and the Buddhist monk - in their sort of ideal setting and ideal way of looking at them - fulfill this role in society... The whole purpose of the monastic life is to teach men to live by love.

This seems, to me, the core of the human condition in a context of postmodernity: we are limited, broken creatures. Depeche Mode sings, "we're damaged people - praying for something - that doesn't come from somewhere deep inside us..."

We seek the Other and are "liberated" only by the truth beyond us that we cannot fully comprehend, but recognize - most importantly - as love.


Dwayne Hilty said...

Very interesting, insightful words from Merton (didn't know these were the last he penned). I started reading a new book this week - A Failure of Nerve - and in it, I found it fascinating that the author continually identified our culture's major leadership dilemma as equating "good leadership" with knowing more, which seems to be one of the modern bubbles that PoMo has burst open.

I realize some people will become unsettled by Merton's meshing of Christianity and Buddhism, but I wonder if PoMO is preparing us ("us" being post-enlightenment humans) to hear something about depravity and liberation in fresh ways.

Peter said...

Dwayne, thanks! Found the quotation in a class text on ancient and modern mystics.

"our culture's major leadership dilemma... equating "good leadership" with knowing more, which seems to be one of the modern bubbles that PoMo has burst open."

I like that observation a lot. Len Sweet is trying to get away from the term "leadership" altogether: Christians were never meant to be leaders or have leaders beyond Christ. "The Church needs to discover followership."

You're right: associations of Christianity to other religions can make some folks squirm (Merton himself was usually careful to clarify that such comparisons only go so far - as in his introduction to his partial interpretation of The Tao Te Ching). I agree with your hunch about "pomo preparation."

AJ said...


Wow, fantastic quote from the end of a marvelous life. Merton has for years compelled me since reading his Seeds of Contemplation. What a way to go heh?

Quite odd that was one of the last things he wrote. Poignant.


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