A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Albert J. Raboteau
At the time of his assassination, plans were underway for Martin Luther King, Jr., to make a retreat with Thomas Merton at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey. We shall never know what might have resulted from a dialogue between this Roman Catholic monk and this black Baptist preacher whose lives still fascinate and inspire us twenty years after their deaths. But the act of recalling their common struggle against the evils of racism, materialism, and militarism, may enable us to recover what they would have brought to such an encounter and to imagine the joint “word” they might have left those who strive to live out their legacy.(1)
They came, of course, from two very different backgrounds. A quick comparison of their biographies would seem to demonstrate that the only thing that Fr. Louis Merton, O.C.S.O. and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., held in common was the year of their deaths — 1968. Merton was born in Prades, France in 1915, the son of Owen Merton, an artist from New Zealand and Ruth Jenkins Merton, an artist from the U.S. His mother died when Merton was only six and his father when he was fifteen. His childhood and adolescence were unsettled. Shuttling between France, England, Bermuda, and Long Island, N.Y., Merton experienced the homelessness of the expatriate, the rootlessness of the transient adrift in an uncaring world, and the longing of the orphan for family stability. Educated at European boarding schools, at Cambridge, and at Columbia, between the two World Wars, Merton experienced the disillusionment with the modern world that many of the intellectuals of his generation felt. His conversion to Roman Catholicism incorporated him into a firmly established system of values and doctrines that countered the anomie and hedonism he deplored in modern society. “Leaving the world,” he would find both a home and a family in the monastic enclosure and the community life of a Cistercian monastery in Kentucky.(2)
From his parents, Merton absorbed the temperament of the artist, though his talent expressed itself in writing, not painting. This artistic perspective tended to nurture in him a critical distance from the world. Fortunately, Merton’s superiors recognized and encouraged his vocation as a writer and throughout his years in the monastery he remained an amazingly prolific one, publishing over forty-eight books of poetry, essays, biography, autobiography, journals, fiction, meditations, and social criticism. Writing requires discipline and solitude. The strictly regulated life of a contemplative monk offered the disciplined structure he needed. And Merton himself helped persuade his order to recover the value of solitude in its own tradition by reinstituting the practice of allowing some monks to retire to the more complete solitude of the hermit life. His own request for greater solitude granted, he lived the last years of his life in a hermitage.
Illustrating the old theological adage, “grace builds on nature,” Merton’s distanced perspective upon the world and his need for disciplined solitude derived from his “expatriate” past and from his sensibilities as a literary artist, were deepened, fulfilled, and — as we shall see – transformed by the contemplative tradition in which he immersed himself.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, in 1929, the son of Alberta Williams King and M. L. King, Sr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. King’s middle-class childhood was emotionally as well as economically secure, though, like most black children, his awareness of racism came early: a white friend who suddenly refused to play with him, a white shoe salesman who insisted that black customers wait in the rear of the store, a policeman who insulted his father by calling him “boy,” a bus driver who forced him and his teacher to stand in the aisles for a ninety-mile trip in order to seat whites. King was shocked and hurt by these incidents, and he never forgot them.(3)
As the son, grandson, and great grandson of Baptist ministers, King was deeply rooted in the Afro-American religious tradition. Though he briefly considered careers in medicine and law, he decided as a teenager to accept what must have seemed inevitable: he too would enter the ministry. Already, it was apparent that he was, as his father proudly remarked, “a magnificent preacher.” Throughout the years of his leadership in the civil rights Movement, King would remain a preacher, who drew instinctively upon the black church tradition in which he was formed for both the style and content of his message. Courses in philosophy, ethics, and theology at Morehouse College, Crozier Semi nary, and Boston University provided King with the opportunity to develop an intellectual framework for systematic analysis of the relationship between Christianity and society, but the existential base for King’s commitment to social action was already established in the tradition of black religious protest. Certainly the intellectual sources commonly credited with influencing King’s development — Thoreau’s doctrine of non-cooperation with evil, Rauschenbusch’s social gospel, Gandhi’s non-violence, and the philosophical school of personalism at Boston University — were important, but so was the example of his father and maternal grandfather. In 1935, Martin Luther King, Sr. had led several thousand black demonstrators on a march from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Atlanta’s city hall in support of voting rights for black citizens. A decade earlier, Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, King’s maternal grandfather, organized rallies at Ebenezer to protest a munici pal bond issue that contained no provisions for high-school education for black youth.(4)
Strongly attracted to the intellectual life, King might very well have followed the example of Benjamin Mays or Howard Thurman by combining ministerial and academic careers. He could have taught in a seminary in the North and we might today be reading his texts in social ethics, but he decided instead that the place for his was a pastorate in the South. And so he accepted that fateful call to pastor the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the shadow of the capitol of the old Confederacy in Montgomery Alabama.
Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Catholic monasticism and Black Protestantism, two very different locations and two very different traditions and yet, they did share a common trait — marginality. Monks were marginal by profession; they had rejected the “world.” Blacks were marginalized by discrimination; they were rejected by the dominant white society. Both monasticism and the black church were profoundly extraneous to the priorities and to the values of America in the 1950s. Marginality provided Martin and King with the critical consciousness necessary for radical dissent from the religious and political status quo. Moreover, the contemplative tradition within monasticism, and the prophetic tradition within Afro-American religion, furnished Merton, the contemplative, and King, the prophet, with the spiritual insight necessary to articulate convincing critical analyses of society and the religious experience necessary to ground their prescriptions for social change in personal authenticity.
And yet, it was not the traditions, per se, but what King and Merton took from them, or better, the ways in which King and Merton were transformed by them which made all the difference. Initially, neither Merton or King set out to “save the soul of the nation,” as King’s SCLC would later put it. There was in the young Merton, the enthusiasm of the convert, which led him to espouse in his earlier works, like The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), a world-rejecting attitude that he later came to recant:
The contemplative life is not [he wrote in 1964], and cannot be, a mere withdrawal, a pure negation, a turning of one’s back on the world with its suffering, its crises, its confusions and its errors. First of all, the attempt itself would be illusory. No man can withdraw completely from the society of his fellow men; and the monastic community is deeply implicated, for better or for worse, in the economic, political, and social structures of the contemporary world.(5)
We are all, according to Merton, in the fine phrase he used to entitle one of his published journals, “Guilty Bystanders.” The Merton who had written a series of widely read “modern spiritual classics,” Seeds of Contemplation (1949), The Ascent to Truth (1951), Bread in the Wilderness (1953), The Living BreadThoughts in Solitude (1958) was suddenly turning out volumes of essays on civil rights, nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and expressing radical views on social and political issues. No doubt the change in Merton came about due to maturity, the deromantization of monastic life, the recovery of earlier concern about race and peace, but also due to a deepening understanding of the vocation of the monk and the meaning of contemplation. The change was probably gradual, but, Merton interpreted it in his journals as a revelatory experience. ‘One of the most famous passages in Merton’s writing, it is worth quoting extensively: (1956),
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion …. [W]e are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest …. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud …. To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking …. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.(6)
Merton went on to assert that it was precisely the task of the monk to speak out of his silence and solitude with an independent voice in order to clarify for those who were “completely immersed in other cares” the true value of the human person, amidst the illusions with which mass society surrounds modern man at every turn. The contemplative then has a responsibility to dissent lest by his forgetfulness, ignorance, and silence he actually complies with what he thinks he has left behind in the world. And then in a profoundly paradoxical statement Merton claims: “My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone they are not ‘they’ but my own self. There are no strangers!(7)
King’s life, like Merton’s, was turned from its expected trajectory by an unexpected event. That event was the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott which King had neither started nor suggested, but which irrevocably changed him from the successful pastor of a moderately comfortable church to the leader of a national movement for racial justice. He later recalled, “When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis …. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman.”(8) As spokesman for the boycott, King was overwhelmed with a load of back-breaking responsibilities and frightened by serious threats against his life and his family’s safety. Reaching the end of his endurance, King sat at his kitchen table one night over a cup of coffee, trying to figure out how to get out of the movement without appearing a coward.
And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it …. I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage they will begin to get weak. And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And to I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” …I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.(9)
King’s kitchen table experience and Merton’s Fourth and Walnut vision were breakthrough events in the lives of each man. King committed himself to the movement completely despite his growing realization more certain as the years went by — that it would cost him his life. Merton grasped with his heart a truth that he had only known with his head, the monk left the world for the sake of the world. These events confirmed each in the path he had already started.
Both paths converged on the issue of civil rights. Merton, as well as King, perceived civil rights as a moral and religious struggle, indeed as the religious cause of the day, a view disputed by many Christians who saw it as basically a political struggle with extremists on both sides. Merton and King had a profound sense that they and the nation were living through a kairos, a “time of urgent and providential election.” …
The conclusion of this essay can be found at SPIRITUALITY TODAY For the Trumpet Shall Sound: Protest, Prayer, and Prophecy — Conference Proceedings Aquinas Center of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, October 26-30, 1988 Winter 1988 Supplement, Vol.40, pp. 80-95.
Dr. Albert J. Raboteau is Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., and the author of Slave Religion: “The Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South.
“Professor Raboteau is a source of inspiration for all who wish to build the kind of society that Dr. King envisioned, a society in which the life of the mind and spirit propel us toward each other rather than apart, where suffering, if it must occur, is redemptive rather than destructive,” Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman, MLK Day Journey Award for Lifetime Service, January 16, 2006.