Tuesday, July 17, 2007

the john xxxiii connection (and ecumenism)

Left: Pope John XXIII. Right: The stole worn by Pope John XXII at his coronation, presented to Merton as a gift.

Merton sensed in Pope John XXIII a new spirit of openness to the world and its many religions.

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)

Fourteen months later a package came from the Vatican with a signed portrait photograph. Merton responded on the same day, telling John his ideas to bring together Catholics and Protestants “ … various groups of people highly qualified in their own field who are interested in the spiritual life, no matter what aspect, and who will be able to profit from a spiritual and cultural dialogue, with Catholic contemplatives.”

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
affirm it."

Thomas Merton. Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander. New York: Doubleday, 1966: 144.


  1. Good Pope John XXIII only knew one gesture -- to embrace -- and the world knew it was holier for his presence among us. How ironic your post is in the light of recent stupidities.
    Merton was blessed to live during his papacy. Heaven help him if he lived now!

  2. Times sure have changed, haven't they, Barbara? (sigh)

  3. I have been envelopped in mourning since I read your post last night. I found something Madeleine Delbrel wrote about John XXIII and posted it in my blog, if you care to visit.

  4. Barbara - could you send me again the link to your blog? thanks, Beth

  5. Merton is alive, through the people that see his connection to world peace and justice and unconditional love of God and our fellow men and women. Keep talking, writing and praying. It is not in vain


The Stuff of Contemplation (Joan Chittister)

Thomas Merton, Trappist, died December 10, 1968 Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky, at the age of twenty-s...