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Merton, Eastern Thought and Real Love

A note - Blogging isn't free. Right now I provide gifts to my writers as a way of thanking people for writing. I would like to be able to afford to give them some sort of renumeration, even if it is small, for making this blog what it is. I'm in talks with a friend who may be able to help connect this blog, which has been in existence for one year now, with more religious communities dedicated to interfaith dialogue. Your donation will do a lot toward making that happen.

I tend to obsess about things and last year, I got a little bit obsessed with Thomas Merton. I went to visit with Gregory Wolfe, a professor at Seattle Pacific University with an enthusiasm for Merton. Late last year, feeling like I knew enough about it to talk about it, I wrote an article about the subject for the Hampton Institute, which was later republished by Truthout.

Merton died a really strange death of electrocution while in Thailand. I'm not an expert on his life or the dynamics of his life but I don't think foul play could be ruled out. As large and diverse as it is, the Catholic Church has been a terrifying force at times, aligning with fascist dictatorships and not standing in the way of oppression and murder. Radical Catholics are usually killed or get death threats and, for all his peace talks, Francis is known to have guards that pack serious heat.

Eastern Waters

A lot of documentaries on Merton showed Catholics who weren't too displeased with his elimination, just as many conservative Catholics like Ross Douthat loathe the current Pope Francis and accuse him of plotting to "break the church." Articles are forever being published like "Can you trust Thomas Merton?" That article is pretty telling - it shows how reactionary a lot of Christians are even when they are smart and knowledgeable enough to know they don't need to be:

He writes as if his Christianity and his Buddhism had already become enmeshed into a new hybrid religion, with "Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny," and he expresses his desire never to return until he has found mahakaruna, the Buddhist notion of "great compassion." As a Christian, I admire Buddhist mahakaruna, but as a Christian I also know that one need not look beyond Christianity to find it. I wonder—and we shall never know in this life the answer—what "home" Merton was headed for that day in October.

Merton's last speech, as I wrote in my article, extended  the olive branch to eastern thought and religion, saying that eastern religion had pursued the greater truths far longer than "we," "we" of course being the West, ever had.

One documentary I saw on Merton speculated that he fathered an illegitimate child. It all is really speculation but his early life was certainly hectic. His arrival in the Catholic Church was not a lifelong dedication, as the more conservative Catholics tend to do, but one of spiritual refuge from the sort of chaotic life that many of us lead. As such, he wasn't bounded by the guidelines that people raised in a church establishment usually have, in which deviating from one spiritual guideline is a third rail that means the whole enterprise is destroyed.

Merton was a socialist at heart, of course - he saw the monastery and its sharing of life as a demonstration of how resources could be cooperatively shared amongst equals. He wasn't a communist, however, and probably would have been averse to Marxist analysis even if it sprung up legitimately. I mentioned in my article that Merton had very harsh criticisms to lay at the feet of communism - he depicted the Dalai Lama as having tried in every way he could to placate the Chinese communists, who simply spat in his face regardless - driven by a militant secularism.

I looked for a lot of religious gurus in the last few years as life just got bizarre, tragic and bewildering. I went in to the Christian world because it's what I was raised in, the Jewish world because it is what I strongly suspect my ethnic heritage to be (only confirmed by actually being in it and helping organize synagogue services) and Buddhism because it seemed most realistic and without illusions about the truth of the human condition. Ultimately they all bare the fruits of truth, as they all were established by varying cultures who all had the same inherent pursuit of greater truth woven in to them. They also all had woven in to them humanity's great contradiction - a capacity for evil - and so even the great religions have a horrible history. Unification, at least as it has been presented to me, may be the logical home for such a denomination spanning outlook and it may have been the home for Merton if he had been born later.


I mentioned before that Merton had illicit affairs when he was younger and wasn't raised from toddler age to be in the church as many are. This possibly made him more sane and reasonable about sex than Catholics are known to be, even if he did take the celibacy vows. His wisdom about love and what love is are incredible:

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

Love hurts, love is frustrating. You can never really control someone's behavior or intentions - you can become evil and coerce or pressure someone in to something, sure, but that's power and control, not love. Whether you are a lover who loves a partner, a parent who loves a child or a child who loves a parent, you have to give in to the painful, frustrating and infuriating truth that to love at all means loving the person even if they break away from you and hurt you.

It's an incredibly difficult thing to do. Parents often talk about their children being little miniature versions of themselves with minds of their own, running around and doing whatever they do outside of their control. They may do drugs, shack up with someone awful, hurt the people who care about them, commit crimes or any number of things that the parent can't control. I've never had children - the anxiety must be insufferable. We feel this anxiety when we find lovers - even if we know they love us we can't stop them from finding someone else, pushing us away or hurting us and we have to decide if we actually love them even when they do these things or if we only did initially when they allowed us in to their lives.

My guru in Unificationism directed me to videos by a guy named Greg Baer, who did a series called "Real Love." The videos expressed the dismal reality of married life. Most people hold marriage as a pinnacle in the back of their minds even if they pretend to be nontraditional - they all want their partner to share life with, whatever their background may be. Baer demonstrated how bad marriage really was turning out - only half didn't end in divorce and of that half, only ten percent showed satisfaction, the rest staying put for the kids or whatever other investments the marriage had. Likewise he talked about how shallow many of these connections were - women sought validation about themselves or their bodies, sometimes by starving themselves, bringing men in their life more as a status bump than a real emotional investment while men sought the personal, one sided pleasure and power of an encounter with a woman. Love can be more than that and is more than that but it takes a wise person and one who can keep from being jaded as all hell to recognize it.

Even if it's recognized, the best people may run from real love because real love hurts like hell. Mother Theresa said this in different words:

It's a really scary thing. When I was in my early 20s, I met a girl who really was ready to be real love - I was used to just going out with girls and freaked out. That kind of relationship was going to take real heavy lifting and responsibility - not something I was ready for at all at 23. She went on to have kids with men who were not the cream of the crop. I felt bad about running away from her for years and am friends with her now.

I had real, unconditional love with my fiancĂ©, who I let in to my world with full knowledge that it may end up like it did, somewhat as a way of making it up to myself for having failed to be a real lover in the past. I stuck with her to the very end, knowing that Jennifer was someone who needed love and affirmation even if she was a fast burning candle, as one friend called her.

I'm not sure it's ever not scary and my experiences since both of them has only reinforced that. It's nothing to just have fun with someone but to love someone, that is scary because it's the real test of someone.


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About Radical Second Things

Michael Orion is a blogger, writer, artist and photographer based in the Bay Area. Besides his maintenance and promotion of Radical Second Things, he contributes to the San Francisco newspaper SF Western Edition, where he writes about local non-profit organizations.

Mark Cappetta is a practicing Catholic and active LGBT activist. He has been instrumental in keeping Radical Second Things and updates the Facebook account almost daily.

Eva Gnostiquette is an artist, programmer, "future scientist," bi-trans girl and graphic designer. She voluntarily helped to create the first print issue Radical Second Things and designed our beautiful banners. Thanks so much, Eva!

Jordan Denato is a professional artist based out of Iowa. He took the initiative to illustrate both Jennifer Reimer's story and Michael Orion's Oscar Romero work. He has his own art studio, Tar and Feather Studios, and is a critical part of Radical Second Things.

Radical Second Things is a liberation theology themed blog that has clear cut goals - we see the structural decline of the United States and much of the west and hope to present alternatives that will offer "a preferential option for the poor" as more become vulnerable.

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