Desert Wisdom

Like Zen Masters of the Orient, the communal hermits of Skete who lived during the formative years of patented Christianity abandoned a corrupt society that has been compared to the western society of today, epitomized by life in the USA. Thomas Merton, a twentieth-century monk and author of many books, including: The Wisdom of the Desert, helped preserve the writings of those ancient radicals by translating their words from Latin and then mass-market publishing them with the intention to edify all who might be drawn to read them. That book has been reprinted about thirty times during the past fifty-odd years. Although those writings only rarely correlate with my NoetitTaoist™ philosophy, they still appeal to the twenty-first century hermit in me. 

Here’s an amusing one that I like: “One of the brethren had been insulted by another and he wanted to take revenge. He came to Abbott Sisois and told him what had taken place, saying: I am going to get even, Father. But the elder besought him to leave the affair in the hands of God. No, said the brother, I will not give up until I have made that fellow pay for what he said. Then the elder stood up and began to pray in these terms: O God, Thou art no longer necessary to us, and we no longer need Thee to take care of us since, as this brother says, we both can and will avenge ourselves…” (p. 37). 

These writings that Merton preserved and shared are of minor significance when compared to the influence of Merton himself as a proponent of interfaith understanding. In light of my last post, it is interesting to see that, unlike me, Merton never ceased seeking a place to fit in, a religious group to join. His affiliation with Catholicism, and as a Trappist monk, supplied connections that allowed him to write and have his writings published by a recognized house—not that this was likely to have been a motive for his conversion. Yet it is clear that his spiritual inclination was, from his early years, ambiguous and eclectic. As a young man he was agnostic and freewheeling… 

Rome never fell. The spirit that established the Empire and an Emperor to rule over obedient culturally-inculcated conforming masses of people, with the aid of Christianized paganism—monetized salvation—remains alive and well and continues gathering forces and expanding its control even though its policies and practices have been tempered by the buffering influence of some renowned philosophers, by the persistence of secret societies founded on tenets of human freedom, and by certain vociferous nonviolent radicals—not fanatics—such as Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968), and Thomas Merton (1915-1968). 

When I use the term “radical” I am referring here to those whose actions are rooted in core humanitarian values the same way that a radius extends from center-to-edge of a circle. Radicals, such as the four mentioned above, are not perfect people, but they hold to, exemplify, and act in accordance with certain ultra-mundane principles. They are outspoken, unwavering, and committed to bettering humankind, even in the face of death threats. I am not the first to speculate that Merton, along with Kennedy and King, was assassinated as part of someone’s ideological house-cleaning in 1968. The better question is: Who engineered his “accidental” demise? Which group of imperial minions? 

Would we have ever heard of Thomas Merton if he had not grafted himself into “Rome” via his acceptance into the constraining hierarchical environment at the Abbey at Gethsemani? But what might he have written had he lived as an unbridled solitary seeker in the “desert”—where the only authority is the authority that comes from within—a hermit of the kind it is said he longed to be but never lived to become?


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