Fifty years ago, on December 10, 1968, Catholic monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton died in Asia, the victim of an accidental electrocution. It was a strange ending to an extraordinary life. Merton had gone to the East with tremendous joy, desiring to meet the Dalai Lama and to fulfill what he believed to be the vocation of every Christian: to be an instrument of unity, “to realize the unity that already is and to find ways to live together that are consistent with unity.” Two decades later, the Dalai Lama would remember his friend with great affection. “It was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.’”
Some months prior to his Asian journey, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Merton wrote in his journal that 1968 was “a beast of a year.” The image of the “beast,” a symbol of apocalypse, Merton borrowed from the book of Revelation.(1) A few days later, in the same journal, he wondered whether Bobby Kennedy might also be killed. He began to wonder about his own death. As one of my former professors liked to say of the 1960s, “It was like the whole country was having a nervous breakdown.” Much like King and Kennedy, Merton showed us, we might say, the art of living courageously in apocalyptic times.
The word “apocalypse,” contrary to Hollywood imaginings, does not mean “violent end.” It means revelation, the advent or coming of God, the unveiling of hope for a people “whose hearts are frightened.” In the scripture readings for December 10, the anniversary of Merton’s death, the signs of God’s advent in history are unmistakable. Hands that are feeble are made strong again. Knees that are weak are made firm. The eyes of the blind are opened, and the lame suddenly “leap like a stag.” Even the suffering Earth is made whole. “Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water” (Isaiah 35:1-10).
Advent, as Merton suggests, is an apocalyptic time, a time for stillness and silence, for listening deeply to the beating of our desiring hearts.(2) When we dare in the midst of seeming chaos to dream and to face every moment as if everything remains possible with God—“to realize the unity that already is and to find ways to live together that are consistent with unity”—perhaps the people of our time will marvel no less than the crowds who marveled at the wonders of Jesus, and say, “We have seen incredible things today” (Luke 5:26).
Who could have imagined? A Tibetan Lama and an American Catholic monk build a bridge of dialogue and become enduring friends, forging a path of interfaith dialogue that inspires people of every faith to this day, half a century later. Young people from every corner of the United States join with the embattled youth of the Sioux Tribe at Standing Rock to claim their part in history and to labor for the renewal of society, the healing of Earth. A pope from Latin America stands before the US Congress and celebrates the enduring witness of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. And my students, inspired by Merton’s life and writings, travel with me and my family to Snowmass, Colorado, to celebrate the dawning of Advent with the monks of St. Benedict’s Monastery. The curiosity and desire of young people sparks renewed wonder and hope in me, and in all who are privileged to accompany them, including the monks.
Though all may seem lost, God’s future draws near when we slow down long enough to listen, to reconnect with our deepest desires, and allow God to birth in us the courage to love. God’s advent gives way to God’s arrival. And the people will find hope again.
“We have seen incredible things today.”
(1) “The murder of Martin Luther King lay on top of the traveling car like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse. It finally confirmed all the apprehensions — the feeling that 1968 is a beast of a year, that things are finally and inexorably spelling themselves out” (April 6, 1968, The Intimate Merton, 322-23).
(2) See Thomas Merton, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,” from Raids on the Unspeakable (1966).