Glenn Hinson recalls friendship with the influential contemplative
ATLANTA — “A precocious monk, poet, prophet and thinker who etched himself ineradicably on my life and thought” is how longtime Baptist professor Glenn Hinson described Thomas Merton to a May gathering at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
Hinson said he is “among an increasingly small number of people still living, apart from the monks at Gethesmani, who knew [Merton] personally and attended klatches in his hermitage.”
That friendship, he said, was “one of my happiest accidents.”
In November 1960, Hinson took a group of church history students from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky., for the first time. Sometimes that story has been misrepresented.
“No, I didn’t take them to meet Thomas Merton, about whom I knew virtually nothing,” said Hinson. “I wanted to expose them to the Middle Ages; and they were, for Gethsemani was a very austere place in those days.”
Encountering Merton, said Hinson, “was our bonus.” Merton shared insightfully with the students about life in the monastery.
“His insight, humor and engaging manner disarmed us,” said Hinson.
Hinson recalled an embarrassing question from one Baptist student, basically asking Merton why a bright person like him would throw his life away in such a place. Hinson expected the student to be devoured by the sharp-minded monk.
Instead, Hinson recalled, Merton grinned and said, “I am here because I believe in prayer; that is my vocation.”
“I had never met anyone who believed in prayer enough to think of it as a vocation,” said Hinson. Merton’s response caused Hinson to wrestle with that idea and how it contrasted with Protestant-fueled busyness.
“All the way back to the seminary that day his statement kept echoing down the corridors of my mind alongside the Protestant rubric, ‘God has no hands but our hands, no feet but our feet, no voice but our voice,’” said Hinson.
“And I kept thinking, ‘If our axiom is right — that everything depends on us — then our world is in a desperate condition.’”
Hinson pondered and prayed over Merton’s assumption “that the God of this vast universe is doing something we can’t control and thus need to pay attention to.”
A couple of weeks later Hinson received a note from Merton that he would be coming to Louisville and would like to pay a visit. Hinson asked Merton to speak to his class.
“I can’t speak to groups,” the monk wrote in response, “but if some of my friends happen to be around I can talk to them.”
So Hinson assembled the seminary faculty for a two-hour conversation among “friends” with Thomas Merton. Criticism from some colleagues about taking students to the Catholic monastery ceased after that, he said.
Hinson’s friendship with “Tom” grew as he took groups to the monastery each semester — and Hinson was invited several times to take part in seminars in Merton’s hermitage.
Merton’s writings — for Hinson and others — were not well known until after his tragic death at age 53 in December 1968. On a trip to Bangkok, Merton was accidentally electrocuted.
“I must confess that I didn’t really get to know his writing and thinking until after his death,” said Hinson. “… What prompted me to read Merton’s writings, all then in print, were invitations just after his death to speak about him.”
Best known is Merton’s 1948 auto-biographical The Seven Storey Mountain.
As Hinson read and spoke on Merton, such as lectures at a Baptist college in Wales in 1970, he began to incorporate some of Merton’s thinking into his own. He was attracted to Merton’s “progression from radical world denial to critical world affirmation.”
And Hinson began to plug into the contemplative tradition as being vital for all followers of Jesus.
While Merton’s writings have gained great notoriety, Hinson warns that Merton “would never have thought he had spoken a final and definitive word on any subject.”
Merton, he added, “continually fed earlier thoughts through his fertile mind in an effort to come up with more mature perspectives.”
The evolution of Merton’s thinking reveals no attempt at creating something new, said Hinson. Rather, Merton was simply plugging into the contemplative tradition that had rescued him.
“In the worst of times he could cling to the contemplative tradition like a shipwrecked sailor would cling to whatever flotsam he could lay hold of,” said Hinson descriptively.
Merton was an “unconventional traditionalist,” said Hinson. He entered the monastery in December 1941 as “a badly scarred youth … who wanted to clang the doors shut and never go back into the ‘world’ that had inflicted so much hurt and seemed so hopeless.”
That perspective was radically changed in 1958, at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville — now marked by a plaque. Merton’s “epiphany” was an overwhelming realization that all those varied people moving about the city were connected and valued.
That revelation and fresh perspective brought relief and joy to the monk.
“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race,” Merton wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. “A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.”
While that experience was dramatic, Hinson said it was not as sudden as many assume. Merton’s writings showed a slower progression of thinking about the world he had left to its own.
Hinson noted a journal entry in 1948 in which Merton wrote: “Perhaps the things I resented about the world when I left it were defects of my own that I had projected upon it.”
Merton’s new thinking, however sudden or protracted, said Hinson, is why his influence has continued to expand since his death.
“Were it not for this ‘second conversion,’” said Hinson, “we would not have gathered here to commemorate Merton’s 100th birthday — thinking about how we might extend his message to a wider circle of humankind.”
Merton’s great gift to broader communities of faith is obvious, said Hinson.
It was “his determined effort to convince people caught up in active pursuits that they need contemplation, that contemplation could do much to enrich their lives and indeed might lead to transformation of the world.”
Hinson quoted from Merton’s No Man Is an Island: “Action is charity looking outward to other men [and women], and contemplation is charity drawn inward to its own divine source. Action is the stream, and contemplation is the spring. … When action and contemplation dwell together, filling our whole life because we are moved in all things by the Spirit of God, then we are spiritually mature.”
Merton’s ecumenical and interfaith engagements were strengthened by his evolved understandings, said Hinson. So were his perspectives on critical social issues, particularly racism, violence and technology.
While Merton called the nonviolent civil rights movement “one of the most positive and successful expressions of Christian social action that has been seen anywhere in the 20th century,” Hinson warned of being too eager to presume Merton’s thinking on modern social issues.
One helpful, “prophetic insight” Merton brought to light, said Hinson, was his concern over “autonomous technology.” Technology itself was not the problem, according to Merton, but unlimited possibilities that it offered for destructive as well as constructive purposes.
With foresight, he warned of human beings becoming slaves to the machines they designed to serve them.
The legacy of Thomas Merton, said Hinson, is best honored by immersing ourselves “in the contemplative tradition that was Merton’s fallowing ground;” by “becoming contemplatives in a world of action;” and by practicing the spiritual disciplines that lead to “attentiveness to God.”
Doing so outside a monastic setting is more difficult, Hinson confessed: “We live in a busy and distracting culture filled with activity.”
“Indeed, as Merton observed, we get caught up in activity for activity’s sake,” said Hinson. “That is why we need to draw another insight from the monastic model — the retreat.”
While the monastery is a lifetime retreat, those of us living active lives must seek and be satisfied with short-term retreats, said Hinson.
“Solitude allows us to get away from the constant bombardment we experience in our daily lives,” he said. “Silence sensitizes and enables us to be better listeners, to be more attuned to others and to God beyond in our midst.”
He urged daily (such as a walk) and weekly retreats as well as longer ones at least annually and then extended sabbaticals.
Finally, said Hinson, Merton offers a lesson for our churches.
“I would propose that, despite their differences from monasteries, our churches should set as their goal to become ‘schools of love,’” said Hinson, borrowing Bernard of Clairvaux’s description of Cistercian monasteries.
“I love God. Love carries me all around. I don’t want to do anything but love…,” wrote Merton in a 1948 journal entry. “Love is kicking me all around like a gong, I tell you; love is the only thing that makes it possible for me to continue to tick.”
Noting the Apostle Paul’s call to the struggling church at Corinth, recorded in 1 Corinthians 13, Hinson asked in conclusion: “Wouldn’t that be truer to the intention of Jesus than that our churches be businesses marketing religion?” BT
By John Pierce