I warmly encourage you to read this lovely and thought-provoking essay by my friend Matt Milliner. Here’s a key quotation from the essay:
For readers of my time and place, Thomas Merton remains an important guide. I had heard varying opinions as to whether he remained faithful to Christianity in his Eastern experiments. I was surprised, therefore, to realize that Merton never lost his bearings. Merton died in 1968, and in his 1967 Mystics and Zen Masters he insists, “[Zen] is not by itself sufficient. We must also look to the transcendent and personal center upon which this love, liberated by illumination and freedom, can converge. That center is the Risen and Deathless Christ.”
I think Matt is right to quote this passage, which is very important — though “deathless” is a carelessness — but there are other passages from the late Merton that may point in other directions. For instance, here’s a passage from my own recent essay on Merton, concerning the Asian Journal he wrote at the very end of his life:
The most interesting sentence here is: “May I not come back without having settled the great affair.” Two years earlier, when recuperating from back surgery in Louisville, he had fallen in love with a student nurse and had thought of abandoning his vows for her, though they never had sex. But that cannot be the “great affair” he had in mind; his rededication to the monastic life had been settled by then. It is hard to see “the great affair” as anything other than the status of Christianity among the religions of the world. Is Jesus Christ the world’s one Savior? Or is Christianity just one among several ways to reach toward the divine?
There are hints of how he might have settled it. For instance, he wrote of meeting an Indian hermit called Chatral Rinpoche, “The unspoken or half-spoken message of our talk was our complete understanding of each other as people who were on the edge of great realization and knew it and were trying, somehow or other, to go out and get lost in it.”
The passage Matt quotes from Mystics and Zen Masters is indeed very late Merton, but later still is this passage from Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968), the last book published in his lifetime:
Suffering, as both Christianity and Buddhism see, each in its own way, is part of our very ego-identity and empirical existence, and the only thing to do about it is to plunge right into the middle of contradiction and confusion in order to be transformed by what Zen calls ‘the great death’ and Christianity calls ’dying and rising with Christ.’
Is Christianity’s “dying and rising with Christ” the same thing as Zen’s “great death,” just under different names? My answer would be No: they are not the same, and indeed are utterly incompatible. But did Merton really mean to identify them as closely as he does here? Or was that just a concession to an ecumenical context? I don’t know, and I don’t think Merton knew. Trying to decide his answer to that question was, I think, “the great affair,” and I would not venture to say with any confidence where he might have settled if he had been spared. Matt seems sure that Merton “never lost his bearings”; I am not. Or maybe I should say that I am not sure that he never altered his bearings.
To be sure, there’s no doubt that Merton understood that he needed to pursue his spiritual vocation from within Christianity — that was effectively settled for him as early as his fateful 1938 meeting with Mahanambrata Brahmachari — but that’s not the same as saying that it would be best for everyone to follow Jesus. In the end I suspect that we are faced with a quite fundamental question of theological anthropology, and what may well be the incompatibility of two anthropologies.
I think in the last decade of his life Merton moved closer and closer to an understanding of human beings, or at least human beings called to the contemplative life, as people who seek God, who are on a quest for God. And indeed this model has a strong presence in Christian tradition: think, for instance, of Bonaventure’s great Itinerarium mentis in Deum. But over-reliance on this model can lead to an image of God as a kind of fixed monad, a transcendental Rome to which all roads at least potentially lead; or a sun which all contemplatives, Christians and Buddhist and Hindu alike, orbit. And I am not sure that that image can be wholly harmonized with one in which God is — not just might be figured as but fundamentally is — a loving Father who sees us in our self-chosen misery from a long way off and comes running to greet us and welcome us home.
Maybe the Merton model, or the model that he was flirting with, has a great appeal to those who have already dedicated their whole lives to the monastic life, who eagerly seek some “great realization” and hope to get lost in it; but for the rest of us, talk of “the human search for God” may sound as it did to the ears of the young C. S. Lewis: like “the mouse’s search for the cat.”