To Dare to Imagine Again: Pope Francis and Thomas Merton

Author’s Note: Today is the 52nd anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, or better, his Second Birth, into new life with God, December 10, 1968. I revisit this post, first published five years ago, with gratitude for Merton’s life and ongoing witness to the marriage of faith and public life, mysticism and prophecy, contemplation and action.

During his historic address to the US Congress on September 24, 2015, Pope Francis lifted up four “great” Americans who “offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality”: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. For me, as a Merton scholar and admirer of the other three figures, it was a thrilling affirmation of Merton’s contributions to the American story and his enduring gifts to the people of God. (To tell you the truth, watching the event live, I literally jumped out of my chair at the mention of Merton.) 

Pope Francis listens to applause before addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so.  (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The first hint for me that the Pope’s address would not conform to the usual order of things on Capital Hill came when, about four minutes into the address, he pointed up at the back wall of the chamber and invoked the prophet Moses, whose stern visage looks down upon the congressional chamber from a wall high above. Speaking slowly and deliberately in English, by no means a comfortable language for Francis, he told US lawmakers that Moses’s story “provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.” 

Like Moses come to speak in Pharoah’s house, implicitly the Pope was asking, not to say accusing, are you being faithful to this sacred charge? In 1966, Merton had similarly declared that our first and last duty as human beings is “to be human in this most inhuman of ages, to guard the image of man for it is the image of God.” 

Francis described Merton as  “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.” Whereas once upon a time Merton was (and still is) derided by some American Catholics and dismissed by not a few US bishops for these very qualities, Francis has repeatedly emphasized these aspects of the Christian vocation as more urgent than ever in our times.

I cannot help but recall a passage in Merton’s journal of 1961, where he reflects with some anxiety on letters he was receiving from Catholics who were scathingly critical of him for his public stances on war, racial justice, and other urgent social issues: “Frankly,” he wrote, “I’m not one of the bunch, am I?” It was the year of his “Cold War Letters,” when he had just completed a book called Peace in the Post-Christian Era, only to see the manuscript censored as too radical by his own Trappist order.

Echoing a frequent theme of Merton, Pope Francis warned members of Congress that one of the first enemies of human dignity is the kind of “polarization” that divides the human community into “camps.” Invoking Lincoln’s sacrificial and courageous attempts to unify and transform America in “a new birth of freedom,” Francis observed that ideological and religious fundamentalism isn’t merely a political problem; in light of our call to protect the image of God in others, even in our enemy, it is both a political and a spiritual problem. In short, demonization of the “other” is a deadly temptation.

We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

“Is it?” I wanted to ask. (Thinking, for example, of Donald Trump’s reference to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” at the launch of his candidacy. And the crowds of jubilant supporters cheering him on in a thousand subsequent outrages.)

Hearkening to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic “dream” for racial equality and Dorothy Day’s “passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed,” Pope Francis called the world’s most powerful political body to “courageous action and responsible effort” to bring hope and new opportunity to “all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty.” Citing his encyclical Laudato Si, he urged “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

At the United Nations a day later, Francis would suggest that our common home, the Earth, has fundamental rights — and perhaps dreams — of its own. The Pope dares us to imagine: How dramatically would our relationship with the planet shift if we, and this Congress, our representatives, were to take seriously the sacred intuition that “a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist”?

Of course, both the allure and the danger of dreams — as Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton knew very well — is their capacity to haunt our waking and sleeping hours with images of what is yet possible, if painfully far from realization. Francis shares with Merton an uncanny ability to stir an unlikely hope in people of diverse cultural, political, and religious backgrounds, the capacity across gaping divides to dare to imagine things that we had long ago dismissed as “mere dreaming.”

Moreover, both Francis and Merton articulate hope not in a downward direction, as if from “on high” to us commoners below; rather hope reverberates in their life and writings sideways, as between fellow pilgrims walking the road together. Stylistically, theirs is not “insider language.” Both speak cor ad cor loquitur, from heart to heart, in ways that resonate beyond tight boundaries of religious, cultural, racial, or political identity. Hope catches fire, as Pope Francis has written, “from the heart of the people.”

Merton.rusticIn that spirit Merton was once described, and accurately, I think, as “a people’s theologian.” It is beautiful and perhaps not too surprising that Pope Francis, whom many are calling “the people’s pope,” would invoke Merton, and precisely in this context before the US Congress, as he beckons people everywhere to shoulder the responsibilities of public life and embrace the gifts of faith in the twenty-first century.

Somehow both Merton and Francis answer the call joyfully, prayerfully, even playfully, as we face the great challenges of the future. To dare to dream again we need new eyes, perhaps something of their eyes, “for seeing and interpreting reality.” I should speak for myself. How I need new eyes and new energies for the work to which both Merton and Francis call us in these difficult days. 

May their witness guide us. 


Postscript (Dec. 10, 2020): The title of Pope Francis’s recently published book, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, reflects a heart and imagination always bending toward new possibilities, for human beings and for God, so long as we dare to imagine together. Likewise his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship, might be read as a sustained elaboration of themes he articulated before the US Congress in 2015. Whether Francis “has the ear” of the world I cannot say, but I can name few other public intellectuals or persons of faith who have his reach and potential influence on people and events across the planet today.  


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