A 40 Year "Retrospective Journey"

“Be good, keep your feet dry,
your eyes open, your heart at peace
and your soul in the joy of Christ.”
Thomas Merton

December 5, 2008

Merton's Three Epiphanies

Gary Commins wrote a wonderful piece in "Theology Today", "Thomas Merton's Three Epiphanies", in April 1999 describing three significant epihanies in Thomas Merton's life. He summarizes these three events as follows...

  • Havana, Cuba, 1940: Thomas Merton goes to church and sees heaven.
  • Louisville, Kentucky, 1958: He goes to town and sees the human race.
  • Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, 1968: He goes to Asia and sees creation.

St. Francis - Havana

"One experience came as a "thunderclap," another woke him "from a dream," the third "suddenly, almost forcibly" yanked him into a deeper level of awareness. The events and his interpretation of them are markers of his personal transformation, stations on his journey with Christ, icons through which to gaze into Merton's personal eternity." Gary Commins

Fourth and Walnut

After some insightful analysis of each of these events Commins goes on to say...

"In Havana, he had seen heaven; God belonged to him. In Louisville, he had seen the human race; they belonged to one another. At Polonnaruwa, the inert rock pulsated with divinity, reality, life: all matter was charged with compassion, the cosmic body of Buddha, the essence of all things. He had seen emptiness (sunyata) and compassion (karuna), the primary elements of enlightened-mindedness, the All and the Nothing of St. John of the Cross. Theologically, he had written, there were differences, but psychologically, there was "an exact correspondence between the mystical night of St. John of the Cross and the emptiness of sunyata." All religions, Merton had said, end up "with the simplest and most baffling thing of all: direct confrontation with Absolute Being, Absolute Love, Absolute Mercy or Absolute Void." Gary Commins


Regretably Merton was not afforded the opportunity to subject his Polonnaruwa experience to the kind of reflection, interpretation, and presentation that he applied to the Havana and Louisville experiences. Perhaps that is how it should be. We are left with the simple yet profound remarks of a person who has realized in large measure the goal of a great quest, to "settle the great affair" and find "the great compassion".

Holy Ground

As a minister I am often blessed to hear personal stories of "epiphanies" and experiences of "The Absolute", in whatever way they choose to name it. Often a person will relate a story of an experience, a dream, or a sense of "presence" which they clearly know connects them with God, the Holy, the Spirit, the Ancestors... For some, they will choose not to share this experience with friends or family because they feel it will not be believed, understood, or respected. But for most of them the common result is a deeper faith grounded in an experience which lets them say with confidence "I KNOW", or "I HAVE SEEN", or "I BELIEVE". When I find this in a person I am always inspired by how much a single "epiphanic episode" can sustain a lifetime of faith and compassion in the midst of trials and suffering. Merton's contemplative gaze on all things helped him to live in a place that most of us experience only fleetingly, if ever. We are truly blessed by what he has written and shared of his experiences!

Advent Peace and Blessings... Rob

"Buddhist words such as compassion and emptiness don't mean much until we start cultivating our innate ability simply to be there with pain with an open heart and the willingness not to instantly try to get ground under our feet." Pema Chodron

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