A few weeks after his election, Merton wrote John a letter describing his vision of a monastery.
“My dear Holy Father,
… It seems to me that, as a contemplative, I do not need to lock myself into solitude and lose all contact with the rest of the world; rather this poor world has a right to my solitude …” (Letter to Pope John XXIII, November 10, 1958)
Two months later a Venetian architect, who was a personal friend of the pontiff, came to Gethsemani. He brought to Merton a liturgical stole which had been used by John XXIII, and which John wanted Merton to have. The gift was unexpected and a startling indication of John’s affection and respect for Merton. Merton sent back a copy of his latest book, The Wisdom of the Desert, a collection of sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers and wilderness hermits. In an accompanying letter he mentions the ecumenical project: “A few days ago I had the pleasure of addressing more than fifty Protestant seminarians and pastors here in our monastery. They showed remarkable good will … I spoke to them … as a brother.” (Letter to Pope John XXIII, April 11, 1960)
This week’s reflection from the Merton Institute reflects well that ecumenical spirit that John XXIII and Merton so treasured and shared:
"The heresy of individualism: thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unit and asserting this imaginary "unity" against all others. The affirmation of the self as simply "not the other". The true way is just the opposite: the more I am able to affirm others, to say "yes" to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.
I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.
So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot "affirm" and "accept," but first one must say "yes" where one really can.
If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to
Thomas Merton. Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander. New York: Doubleday, 1966: 144.