We Are Already One: Thomas Merton's Reflections on Childhood and Recovery of Our Original Unity

Drawing by Robert McGovern 

By Virginia Kaib Ratigan

A sermon given at Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Collegeville, PA, June 26, 2015.                                      

It is with great joy that I come with my family to join you this Sunday morning here at Thomas Paine Unitarian Fellowship.  We are delighted to be here with you.  And it is a great honor to be continuing the yearlong celebration of Thomas Merton's 100th Birthday!

Merton was a spiritual seeker, born in France on Jan. 31, 1915 of artist parents, and was orphaned at an early age.  He studied at Cambridge until poor behavior resulted in being called to the U.S. under the care of his grandparents who sent him to Columbia University.  On November 16, 1938, Merton was received into the Roman Catholic Church, graduated from Columbia and, in 1940, taught English at St. Bonaventure College.  A very bright, sensitive and socially conscious young person Merton joined the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, on Dec. 10, 1941.

Merton's autobiography published in 1948, the Seven Storey Mountain, paved the way for fellow pilgrims to know that they had met a person whom they could turn to for spiritual wisdom and guidance to live a deeper and more fully human life. Indeed Merton has been called writer/poet/ mystic/philosopher/theologian, teacher/student, monk, priest, hermit, social critic/peace activist, ecumenist, environmentalist, spiritual master, always a friend and advocate for others — the Dalai Lama would call him a “holy man” — truly one of the great human beings of the 20th Century.  In an interview last year with Paul Pearson, director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, the Dalai Lama referred to Merton as his “spiritual father.”   It is important to note as well that throughout his life Merton was known for his sense of humor despite the many health problems that often plagued him.  Merton died at a meeting of monks from the East and West in Bangkok, Thailand on Dec. 10, 1968.  His influence has come down to this very moment in the 21st Century.

My husband, Jim, and I were fortunate to be a part of the grand celebration for the 100th held at Bellarmine University in Louisville (KY) by the International Thomas Merton Society this past June.  People attended from all over the world and from many religious traditions — it was a fitting celebration — Merton would have loved it!  So we will celebrate just a little more and let Merton continue to speak to us today.

You may wonder why the theme “We are already one” was chosen.  Throughout his monastic life, in essays, letters and poetry, Merton consistently reminds us of our “original unity” and he does this very often by looking through the lens of childhood.  So I would invite us to look through that lens today.  As you have seen, our grandchildren are here with us to help!  Whatever our age this simple and deep reflection on the child may cast light on our own lives, our lives in the local and world community and the principles which guide us.  Without “idealizing” childhood the question becomes how do we dismantle the many barriers that keep us from recognizing our shared humanity — our goodness, our unity?

As you have heard in the opening words from the famous “revelation” at 4th and Walnut in Louisville, for Merton: “it was like waking from a dream of separateness . . . I have the immense joy of being a member of the human race” (although Merton does not minimize what he calls the stupidities of the human condition).  He goes on to say, “now I realize what we all are. And if only everyone could realize this!  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all going around shining like the sun.” (CGB, 158)  This, shall we call it “mystical”,  experience was the beginning of a real turn in Merton's writing on social issues, prayer, spirituality and interreligious dialogue.   And again in that famous meeting in Bangkok, read this morning from his Asian Journal, Merton underlines that it is . . .  “Not that we discover a new unity.  We discover an older unity.  My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one.  But we imagine that we are not.  So what we have to recover is our original unity.  What we have to be is what we are.”

So taking these two very important insights — our beauty even in the sorrows of the human condition and the need to recover our original unity — we are “already one” — let us focus the lens a bit.

In a beautiful story told in The Sign of Jonas, Merton reflects on a series of children's drawings sent to the Abbey of Gethsemani from “somewhere in Milwaukee.”   He notes that these pictures are the “only real works of art I have seen in ten years.”  And then very thoughtfully he continues: “But it occurred to me that these wise children were drawing pictures of their own lives.  They knew what was in their own depths.  They were putting it all down on paper before they had a chance to grow up and forget.”  (SJ, 341)  Merton scholar, Christopher Pramuk, notes that for Merton we “need not have it all figured out ahead of time.  The way of love, on pilgrimage together in faith, implies spontaneity, vulnerability and risk.  When we really listen to our children we discover “hope being born in us!”

Let us take this insight and go deeper.  You heard the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes beautifully told by our daughter, Beth, this morning.  Let us listen to the poem that Merton wrote when the story of Sadako first came out:

PAPER CRANES    (The Hibakusha come to Gethsemani)

How can we tell a paper bird
Is stronger than a hawk
When it has no metal for talons?
It needs no power to kill
Because it is not hungry. 

Wilder and wiser than eagles
It ranges round the world
Without enemies
And free of cravings.

The child's hand
Folding these wings wins no wars and ends them all.

 Thoughts of a child's heart
Without care, without weapons!
So the child's eye
Gives life to what it loves
Kind as the innocent sun
And lovelier than all dragons!   (CP, 740)

I actually rediscovered this poem when our Milwaukee grandchildren Zoe, Eva and Stella, began making paper cranes.  They are all experts (no prejudice here)!  Eva can make paper cranes out of candy papers, gum wrappers and place mats in restaurants, and they all make presentations of these cranes to family and friends.  In all of them, I see the generosity and compassion that flows so freely when they discover someone in need — be it human or animal — and in so many ways, they are moved to make their world a better place.

But what I also discovered is that this lovely poem paves the way for Merton's later writings that denounce the evils of war — our oblivion to the real threat of further nuclear disaster and the clarion call for the rediscovery of our “original oneness” which is only possible by rediscovering the gifts with which we are born — not some romantic idea but the real self — the true self.  A central theme that weaves its way through Merton's writings is that sanctity consists in discovering our true identity.  The essence of the spiritual quest is our search for our true, or real self.  Early in his monastic writing he says: “For me to be a saint means to be myself.  Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”  This will be the only way to peace.  This is the lesson of little Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes!

Merton interfaces the tragedy of war with the tragedy of racism and again turns to the beauty and innocence of the child — movingly remembered in the poems, The Children of Birmingham and Picture of a Black Child with a White Doll — where we witness his anger and sadness at the blindness of a society and of persons (including our ourselves) playing itself out down to this very day in Ferguson, MO, in Charleston, SC, in Flint, MI — across our nation and across our world.  The call for peace is loud and clear.

The poem speaks of the “darkness of our night” and of “guns and fury”.   It speaks of the beauty of the child next to that manufactured doll and of the child's innocence.  The poem ends:

And what was ever darkest and most frail
Was then your treasure-child
So never mind
They found you and made you a winner
Even in most senseless cruelty

Your darkness and childhood
Became fortune yes became
Irreversible luck and halo.  (CP , 626)

Another insight into these gifts, which we are born with, is found in the poem, Grace's House.  There was a little drawing of a house by five-year-old Grace Sisson, whose father, Elbert, was a friend of Merton in the peace circles and especially over concern in the Cuban Crisis.  On receiving the drawing Merton immediately wrote a poem which he returned in a letter to Sisson claiming that Grace had “stolen his heart”.  Merton begins the poem:

On the summit: it stands on a fair summit
Prepared by winds: and solid smoke
Rolls from the chimney like a snow cloud.
Grace's house is secure. 

No blade of grass is not counted,
No blade of grass forgotten on this hill.
Twelve flowers make a token garden.
There is no path to the summit —

No path drawn

To Grace's house.

Merton goes on to meticulously describe every feature of the drawing including the Valentines in the mail box.  Then he continues:

Between our world and hers
Runs a sweet river:
(No, it is not the road,
It is the uncrossed crystal
Water between our ignorance and her truth.)
O paradise, O child's world!
Where all the grass lives
And all the animals are aware!
The huge sun, bigger than the house

Stands and streams with life in the east
While in the west a thunder cloud
Moves away forever. 

No blade of grass is not blessed
On this archetypal, cosmic hill,
This womb of mysteries. 

And finally the poem ends:

Alas, there is no road to Grace's house!  (CP, 330-331)

Writing to Mark Van Doren, Merton mentions this poem and says “What a drawing, what a house, what sun and birds.  It is true that we do not know where we are.  I have read a little of Thoreau and know enough to lament that such good sense died so long ago.  But it could still be ours if only we want it.”

This involves transforming our consciousness.  And of course for Merton this is a matter of the heart.  It is a matter of prayer — of being in nature — of simply breathing with and in the heartbeat of the universe!  But it is important not to think about it too much!  Later when Grace is a bit older she sent another drawing to which Merton replied: “I am glad that you are still drawing things with love, and I hope you will never lose that.  But I hope you and I together will secretly travel our own road to joy, which is mysteriously revealed to us without our exactly realizing. I don't want you to start thinking about it.  You already know it without thinking about it.” (RTJ, p. 353) 

It is this insight that comes through in a text from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:  “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God . . .it is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.  It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. . . I have no program for this seeing.  It is only given.  But the gate of heaven is everywhere.” (CGB, p. 158)

And one final story is from a conversation with our granddaughter, Julia, who made her first communion this past June.  One day when we were out driving (doing errands) she began asking many questions about heaven and whether it got dark in heaven, whether there was a church in heaven, whether her family and friends would be there.  We established that there is dark that is scary and dark that is beautiful — with stars lighting the way.  Heaven would be beautiful and yes, church, family and friends would surely be there.  I told her that I had a friend named “Tom” who once said, “the gate of heaven is everywhere” and asked Julia what she thought that might mean.  We reflected together and by the end of the conversation, we had entered the gate of heaven through the seashore, flowers, hugs from Dad and Mom, friends and even her first Communion.  Merton spoke to her in that simple statement — still a guiding word for all ages today.

To come full circle we go back to our opening reading: the “'we are all walking around shining like the sun”!  This is the path to that great insight that “we are already one”.  Our children have much to teach us.

Do I Hear an Echo Here?

  •        The inherent worth and dignity of every person
  •        Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
  •        Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth
  •        World community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
  •        Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

(From the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism)

Yes, friends, “We are already one”!