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mertonsmileOn this date in 1968, shocking news from Bangkok, Thailand reported the death of Thomas Merton, who had just presented a paper entitled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives” to an international gathering of monks. During the afternoon rest period, Merton was electrocuted by a fan with faulty wiring that fell on him as he emerged from a shower. It seemed impossible that this prolific writer, theologian and seeker of justice should have left the planet after only 53 years, just on the verge of a meaningful opening of East-West understanding in the world of spirituality. This year groups and individuals the world over have celebrated the centennial of his birth. Today, in remembering his death, we celebrate his great contribution to spiritual conversation that is, in many ways, just beginning to comprehend the depth of what he was saying a half-century ago. The first of the quotes below is part of one of Merton’s most familiar texts and the other seems appropriate for an Advent day. I join with so many others today to give thanks for the bright light that was Thomas Merton, somewhat hidden in the cloister of the Abbey of Gethsemane, Kentucky during his life and now shining in the world at large and in eternity.

In the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. 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 the 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.  (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 158, excerpted)

Make ready for the Face that speaks like lightning, uttering the new name of your exultation deep in the vitals of your soul. Make ready for the Christ, Whose smile, like lightning, sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps, in your paper flesh, like dynamite. (“The Victory,” Collected Poems, 171-172)