Gethsemani and Calcutta

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-by Brian Cole

Oh God, we are one with You. You have made us one with You. You have taught us that if we are open to one another, You dwell in us. Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts. Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection. Oh God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept You, and we thank You, and we adore You, and we love You with our whole being, because our being is in Your being, our spirit is rooted in Your spirit. Fill us then with your love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes You present in the world, and which makes You witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. Amen.

Prayer offered by Thomas Merton at the First Spiritual Summit Conference in Calcutta, India, 1968 from The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and spiritual writer, was born 100 years ago. His 27 years as a monk were spent in central Kentucky, outside of Bardstown, at the Abbey of Gethsemani. The rural setting of the monastery, along with the deep silence that pervades the monastic grounds, stood in stark contrast to the hyperactive urban life that Merton led in New York City in the 1930s.

Yet, Merton’s last days, before his accidental death in December 1968, were spent in southern Asia, in a months’ long journey to see a world that Merton only knew previously in books. He died in Thailand, outside of Bangkok. The journey also took in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal. He had also planned to add Hong Kong and Japan to the trip. Included in the trip was time spent in Calcutta.

Could any two places be farther away, both in miles and ways of being, than Calcutta and Gethsemani? In his journals kept while traveling, Merton commented on the noise, the smells and the vast number of people who comprised Calcutta. From my own travels to Calcutta, I recall it as a city of extremes, with more people assembled in one place than you think possible, or wise. For Merton, who had spent many years in the monastery, in a time when the monks primarily communicated through sign language, the contrasts must have seemed even stronger.

For nearly 27 years, Merton lived, prayed, and wrote from the countryside of Kentucky, from nowhere. From that place, he was able to awaken the hearts and minds of people who often had little in common with each other, except that Merton stirred something in them.

While traveling in Asia, Merton participated in a conference in Calcutta and offered the above prayer as a means for concluding a diverse gathering of believers, from many faiths. The monk, from Kentucky, named the wholeness and holiness shared by all those gathered in Calcutta.

Merton’s writings—letters, journals, essays on prayer, literature, civil rights, war and peace—span nearly 30 years. Read today, it is remarkable how timeless, and timely, they remain. Not only is he still read, but also now he is referred to as the patron saint of the Spiritual But Not Religious.

The message of Easter is not a tribal story, not a message we proclaim only for the elite few. Rather, it is a story of holy love, born from the body of the One who promised to lose nothing given to Him. No words could ever adequately express it. But when words give us a glimpse of Grace and Glory, we should pause and give thanks, for the words, and for the writer.

Happy 100th, Thomas!

Where are you from? Describe the place, with pictures and stories and memories that recall it.

Now, where have you traveled from there that is most unlike it? Describe that place, with picture and stories and memories.

Now, besides you, what connects those two places? What do they have in common? What is universal in both?



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