Into the mystic ... with Merton

Years ago I met spirituality author Matthew Fox after the publication of his book "One River, Many Wells," and the title of that book has stuck with me ever since.

One river, many wells: a great description of the reality of God.

Another metaphor is: Imagine that God is the sun, shining on an apartment building. One window belongs to the Catholic tenant, another to the Jewish one, the Muslim, the scientist (he sits in the sunlight thinking about String Theory), the Buddhist, Hindu, even the atheist (his blinds are drawn shut). The only problem with this image or Fox's is that it enrages dogmatic believers. It's blasphemy to them. They start shaking a finger at you and citing canon law, and any hope of common ground is lost.

That wasn't true of Thomas Merton, thank God. That Trappist monk embodied the mid-20th century ideal of American Catholicism, but he was also a questing, spiritually hungry thinker who looked east for insights into faith.  He didn't rebuff dialogue: He welcomed it. A few months ago, the publisher New Directions released two small collections of Merton's reflections, "On Eastern Meditation" edited by Bonnie Thurston and "On Christian Contemplation" edited by Paul Pearson, that capture his vibrant inquiry into the reality of God.

Merton was a man of Christ, and the Pearson volume demonstrates that on every page. But he also struggled with the Christian practices of his time, complaining that people clung to a "crabbed, rigid piety" or else were trapped "in a straitjacket." He called for a renewal of approach that amounted, he writes in "Contemplation and Action," to a "new depth and simplicity of love, and ... a new understanding."

Perhaps that's why he looked East. For inspiration.

When I think of those fierce believers who wag a finger at anything outside their comfort zone, I like to recall this reassuring line from Thurston's volume: "Merton was convinced," she writes, "there was a 'real possibility of contact on a deep level between ... contemplative and monastic tradition in the West and the various contemplative traditions in the East...' "

"On a deep level": the words make me think of Matthew Fox's river. Or an apartment building in the sunlight.

These two books are small -- a selective, engaging sample of Merton's thought, poetry, private questions.

Ideal to tuck in a coat pocket and pull out during your next coffee break.