Merton and the Mennonite Church Down the Road

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. John 14:6

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who did not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. At the end of his life he had become so interested in Buddhism and Asian monasticism that he showed up at a monastic conference in Bangkok. In rare footage, Merton said:

“That’s a thing of the past now, to be suspicious of other religions, and to look always at what is weakest in other religions and what is highest in our own religion. This double standard of dealing with religions — this has to stop.”

The Muddy Theology of Thomas Merton
http://muddystreams.wordpress.com/2010/04/28/the-muddy-theology-of-thomas-merton/

During his Asian pilgrimage Thomas Merton stood in front of the Buddha statues and finally found the ‘clarity’ he was looking for – not in the word of God, but in the faces of the statues. Listen to his words:

Thomas Merton and Buddhism

After meeting him, the Dalai Lama [1] called Thomas Merton his comrade and spiritual brother, which was the foundation for the interreligious Compassion Rising Project, revealing how closely Merton’s beliefs resonated with Buddhism and New Age pagan religions.

Merton’s untimely death by accidental electrocution in Bangkok did not zap him into silence. Today he has begun showing up in many Christian churches. In fact, Thomas Merton and his teachings can now be found at the Mennonite church down the road. In an August 2012 MB Herald article called Viewpoint: “My church meets just down the road…” Seeking a theology of place for the church, author Len Hjalmarson [2] writes:

“Thomas Merton, both a mystic and a rooted man, embodied in his life and work this paradox – between earth and spirit – that expressed his gospel journey. I was first drawn to Merton’s work in 1981 with New Seeds of Contemplation. I recognized the threads of a common pilgrimage: a search for a place to belong…

Thomas Merton, trying first to escape the world, perceived that the path to life was in and through creation. Life became sacramental: the created world a window opening toward God. All around him, creation was continuing – “the dance of the Lord in emptiness.””

-Len Hjalmarson, MB Herald, August 2012
“My church meets just down the road…” Seeking a theology of place for the church

Hjalmarson, who has a doctorate in spiritual formation from MBBS, then goes on to say that Merton would have heartily approved of songwriter Bruce Cockburn words in “In the Falling Dark” (last verse). The last line goes like this:

“Don’t you know that from the first to the last we’re all one in the gift of grace!”

Hjalmarson is right that Merton would have agreed. Merton also said, “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity … I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” [3]

Next, Hjalmarson quotes Merton’s kindred spirit Henri Nouwen [4]…

“Writer Henri Nouwen reminds us we must convert hostility to hospitality – and this is a call to prayer. In prayer, we will discern the Spirit in the rhythms and textures of the neighbourhoods to which we are called, and which Jesus died to redeem.”

Only after reading Hjalmarson’s other writings[5] does it become apparent that this could be another reference to contemplative prayer and spirituality in the form of Rule of St. Benedict, the Daily Office and fixed hours of prayer.

In “My church meets just down the road…” Hjalmarson also points out that the missional church should invest in its own neighbourhood, but is this how to do it? Should the Bride of Christ, the head of which is Jesus Christ, be drawing from the living water of God’s Word, or from the words of men like Merton and Nouwen [6] and Benesh and Cockburn? Hjalmarson also alludes to the analogy of planting trees and deepening our roots, but instead of trusting in the words of mystics and men to do this we should consider the words in Jeremiah 17:5-8.

Unfortunately Hjalmarson is not alone in his quest for wisdom from other sources than the Word of God. Like many leaders and teachers affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren who now promote men like Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr (see: Rob de Cotes, Steve Klassen and Gareth Brandt), Hjalmarson too draws deeply from these same sources to find ‘wisdom’.

Learning to Approach Mystery

Approaching mystery isn’t an easy thing to do in our world of daytimers, constant interruptions, cellular phones and pagers. We have some unlearning and some learning to do.
The contemplative tradition offers some help. Pick up a book by Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, or Richard Rohr. Try “The Way of the Heart,” by Nouwen, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” by Merton, or “Everything Belongs,” by Richard Rohr. You’ll be amazed at the wisdom there.”

– Len Hjalmarson
Coloring outside the box
http://www.next-wave.org/aug01/coloring.htm

Like Klassen of the MB affiliated Mark Centre [7], Hjalmarson not only promotes neo pagan Franciscan priest Richard Rohr but also the silence of contemplative spirituality and Roman Catholic mysticism:

“… I have known a few Catholics over the years, and attended a few retreats, and I have observed that they are comfortable with silence. Silence is the one element almost completely missing from evangelical meetings.”

-Len Hjalmarson
Coloring outside the box

Welcome to the new neighbourhood Mennonite church down the road, but don’t forget to read the back of the sign. There you may find words like “new missional, monastic, and sacred” and quotes from universalist interspiritualist monks, but will you find THE Way, THE Truth and THE Life?

Endnotes:

[1] See: Thomas Merton & HH Dalai Lama
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXSnnYQEpkA

[2] Len Hjalmarson is co-author of Missional Spirituality and an adjunct professor of ministry at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago with a doctorate in leadership and spiritual formation from MBBS. A new missional author of several books, he has written previously for the MB Herald. See more here:
What Kind of Discipleship is this in the MB Herald?
https://mennolite.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/what-kind-of-discipleship-is-this-in-the-mb-herald/

[3] (David Steindl-Rast, “Recollection of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West” (Monastic Studies, 7:10, 1969)

[4] Thomas Merton & Henri Nouwen: Sacrificing Truth for Mystical Experiences
http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/blog/?p=104
Why Christian Leaders Should Not Promote Henri Nouwen
http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/blog/?p=1355

[5] See: Ancient Monasticism and the Anabaptist Future: A Tale of Two Reformers
Leonard Hjalmarson
http://www.directionjournal.org/article/?1583
Also see: the daily office
by Len Hjalmarson @ http://nextreformation.com/?p=2000

[6] WHO IS HENRI NOUWEN?
http://muddystreams.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/who-is-henri-nouwen/

[7] See: Richard Rohr Impacts the Mark Centre
https://mennolite.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/richard-rohr-impacts-the-mark-centre/
The Mark Centre and Silent Prayer – Strategy to Affect Millions
https://mennolite.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/the-mark-centre-and-silent-prayer/

RELATED:

Merton’s Spirituality
http://muddystreams.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/mertons-spirituality/

MB Herald Editor Quotes Interspiritualist (Thomas Merton)
http://rollovermenno.wordpress.com/2007/11/14/mb-herald-editor-quotes-interspiritualist/

Mennonites or Mertonites?
http://rollovermenno.wordpress.com/2007/08/11/mennonites-or-mertonites/

Contemplative Prayer and the Evangelical Church
by Ray Yungen
http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/contemplativeprayerarticlebyray.pdf

Contemplative Prayer – Does Our Intent to Find Jesus Justify the Method?
http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/blog/?p=4186

Missionary or Missional-lite?
https://mennolite.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/missionary-or-missional-lite/

UPDATE:

Please see:

A Historical Analysis of Mysticism: Part I
Catholic and Buddhist Spirituality in the Context of the 12th and 13th Centuries

http://moriel.org/MorielArchive/index.php/missions/thailand/a-historical-analysis-of-mysticism-part-i

2 thoughts on “Merton and the Mennonite Church Down the Road

  1. I don’t believe that jamming all these gotcha quaotes without context presents a fair portrait of Thomas Merton. In many other places Merton said, that Christianity and Buddhism were in fact different religions and that one cannot create a “synthesis” of them and one should not even try. THe fact that Merton died when and where he did gives a very poor indication of a lifetime’s dedication at being a Christian and Catholic monk in many ways the strictest order. Merton’s conversion away from sin was classical and augustinian. his interest was really the most in zen buddhism, which isn’t really a religion but a practise of being awake to the present moment and to creation around oneself – it was not definately to the primitive and idolatrous treatment within the millions of followers of Buddhism. Merton believed that he had discovered a graceful place within zen-like practise, which effectively barred the way to pelagianism. It was a way to view the whole of life as one unified experience of praise to the Lord – the Holy Trinity as omnipresent. Merton would get very enthusiastic with his latest discovery of the workings of God’s grace. But this did not mean that later, in his religious life that he did not reassess the relative quality or importance of his experience in his fundamentally Christian frame of reference. He was not a pantheist, and within his diaries, he confessed looking forward to returning to his monastery with its very Christian liturgy and teachings.

  2. Pingback: The New Mennonite Monastic Missional Model? | Menno-lite

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