Last year, in Cologne, the Pope met with representatives of the Muslim community and delivered an address. He said, “Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends.” And so, I thought that it would be relevant to post a little more on Thomas Merton and his pioneering relationship to Islam. The following excerpt will come from a lecture delievered last year in Calgary by the Rev Dr Bonnie Thurston, a Disciples of Christ minister, former professor of New Testament, and one of the founding members of the International Thomas Merton Society. For some background, I can refer you to my earlier post on “Thomas Merton and Islam” (which also briefly discusses Louis Massignon).
Needless to say, I have no intention of minimizing the dangers of radical Islam. Many scholars would suggest that any real understanding of Islam must involve grasping how its heritage can be appropriated by extremists (see Michael Cook here). But no real understanding of Islam can ever end there.
In the interests, then, of the “vital necessity” of “interreligious and intercultural dialogue,” here is Rev Thurston on Thomas Merton:
That Merton was deeply interested in Islam long before the unhappy political events of our day is evident. The question for us is why might he have been so attracted by Islam and, in particular, Sufism? I think it is, basically, for the same reason that he was so deeply involved in the study of Buddhism: it gave him another set of concepts, another set of “vocabulary words,” if you will, to speak of his own Christian spiritual experiences, for Merton was, and remained, a follower of Jesus Christ. Studies of Islam and Sufism gave Merton more insight into the deep life of prayer that God makes available to all human beings who seek God.
Merton’s studies focused on central Islamic concepts like the unity of God (tawhid) and the “sending down” (revelation) of God’s word (tanzil). But, as I suggested, his real fascination was with spiritual realities, the way in which Islam, as Merton put it, set people “free to travel in a realm of white-hot faith as bare and grand as the desert itself, faith in the One, God, the compassionate and the merciful. What are compassion and mercy but the gifts of freedom to freedom?” (Confessions of a Guilty Bystander 90). Merton was fascinated by the Sufi path (tariq), the jihad al-akbar (the Greater Jihad, or the struggle with/against self, the struggle to conform the human will to the Will of God), the concept of fana (annihilation, extinction or passing away of the self/ego), and the prayer practice, dhikr, (remembrance, recollection, recitation of the Holy, Beautiful Names of God). Furthermore, Merton, himself, tells us that he held a great many beliefs in common with the Muslim community …
Merton correctly asserted that “Islam in a nutshell” is that “God wishes to make himself known to his creatures and they know him.” Merton continued, “the basic thing in Islam is that man should come to know Allah by his name, not all his names, but by the name he speaks to us under the names of Allah. This is the basic thing in religion, the total response in one’s heart and to confess he is our creator.” Serious students of Islam will certainly agree with Merton. The basic “facts of the religion,” the “sending down” (tanzil) of the Holy Qu’ran to the Prophet Muhammad, the Five Pillars of Islam, the law (sharia), are all gifts of God, ways God attempts to make the Divine Self known to creation.
[Merton wrote various poems on Islam. Rev Thurston cites his poem, “The Night of Destiny,” in entirety. It refers to the night when Muslims believe that Muhammad received his first revelation.]
In my ending is my meaning
Says the season.
Only the heart’s blood
Only the word.
In the knowing night!
O tongue of flame
Under the heart
For love is black
Says the season.
The red and sable letters
On the solemn page
Fill the small circle of seeing.
Long dark –
And the weak life
Who holds the homeless light secure
In the deep heart’s room?
Kissed with flame!
My love is darkness!
Only in the Void
Are all ways one:
Only in the night
Are all the lost
In my ending is my meaning.
Merton’s poem is about tanzil, the coming of the “Word.” It begins and ends with the T.S. Eliot-esque line, “in my ending is my meaning.” In the poem the speaker seems to be reading at night by a lamp, a “Weak friend/In the knowing night.” But he is, in fact, illuminated by the “tongue of flame/Under the heart,” an image from Sufi literature. The poem very beautifully asks, Who illuminates, “Who holds the homeless light secure/In the deep heart’s room?” The enigmatic, but precise answer is “Midnight! Kissed with flame!” Life, interior life, is mysterious and may be dark (“love is black”), but there are moments, however fleeting, of illumination, of being kissed by love (another Sufi notion and turn of phrase). All of the images of darkness in the poem are positive. Night is “knowing,” love is “black and “darkness” but it is love, in the night the lamp provides “the small circle of seeing,” midnight is “kissed with flame,” and in the night all the lost are found. God is inscrutable, but Benevolent and Merciful (rahman and rahim). The speaker of the poem exclaims, “My love is darkness!” and closes in the “void” where all ways are one and “all the lost” are found. In the “void” or “emptiness” of the inscrutable love of God, Christianity and Islam embrace.
The reasons for this embrace was profoundly Christian. Writing to Abdul Aziz on June 2, 1963, Merton said, “We must strive more and more to be universal in our interests and in our zeal of the glory of the one God, and may His Name be magnified in us.” The Christian’s “universal embrace” reflects the nature of the God of Christians Who, as Jesus taught, stands in the road waiting to embrace those who come home.
It would be conforting to end these remarks on this attractive, and, I believe, accurate, note. But our present troubles times suggest to me at any rate, that Merton’s remarks to Abdul Aziz on November 7, 1965 are a more appropraite and timely conclusion:
Well, my friend, we live in troubled and sad times, and we must pray the infinite and merciful Lord to bear patiently with the sins of this world, which are very great. We must humble our hearts in silence and in poverty of spirit and listen to His commands which come from the depths of His love and work that men’s hearts may be converted to the ways of love and justice, not of blood, murder, lust and greed. I am afraid that the big powerful countries are a very bad example to the rest of the world in this respect.