|Thomas Merton Martin Luther King, Jr.
I finished teaching another Spiritual Formation class last week at Payne Theological Seminary. Part of my instruction included the spirituality of Thomas Merton, Howard Thurman, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Merton, Thurman, and King are kindred spirits. I found myself wondering if they ever connected?
I googled the three of them and, to my delight, found this essay by the great African-American scholar Albert Raboteau - "A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr." what a beautiful find!
It seems that, prior to King's death, plans were underway for King to have a retreat with Merton at Our Lady of Gethsemane Abbey. It didn't happen, as King was assassinated and Merton was accidentally electrocuted, both in 1968.
One of the similarities between Merton and King was that they both had paradigm-changing non-discursive encounters with God. (A non-discursive experience is one that is real but incapable of being discoursed about; a transcendent experience.) Raboteau quotes in entirety the famous passage where Merton describes what happened to him.
"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." (Ib., quoting from Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp. 140-141)
A result of this encounter was that Merton now saw his solitary times with God as "belonging to others" as well, and that he therefore had a great responsibility to spend much alone-time with God. It was all for God's sake, and for the loving of others. Raboteau writes: "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." (Ib.)
When King participated in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott he went as "a successful pastor of a moderately comfortable church" but emerged as "the leader of a national movement for racial justice." (Ib.) King writes: "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." (Ib., from King, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 101)
It was there that King had his famous "kitchen table experience." Raboteau writes: "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." (Ib.) King describes what happened.
"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." (Quoted in Ib.)
Merton had his "Fourth and Walnut vision." King had his "kitchen table experience." Both were breakthrough events in the lives of each man. The results were that:
"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."
Note the power of the God-encounter to change the inside of a person so that the outside will respond as God desires. Such encounters are real, irreducible to linguistic description (they contain, as Ricoeur would say, a "surplus of meaning"), and transforming. Such things happen to people who pray with the desire to be wielded by God.