Without a doubt, one of the books that made the greatest impact on my faith is The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton. Usually I devour books. But this one I read slowly and devotionally.
It’s an Advent book. Meaning it’s Merton’s testimony of his waiting, waiting to publish his book, to make his final vows, to become a priest. It’s about making your life your liturgy, seeing God, not only in the ancient prayers of the church, but also in silence and solitude. For Merton, God wasn’t powerfully present. But God’s presence was most markedly noted by God’s absence. A man after my own heart.
He begins his book on December 10, 1946, exactly five years after entering the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Ironically (or some might say providentially) Merton would die on December 10, 1968, exactly 27 years after entering Gethsemane.
For me, Merton’s most powerful legacy is the creative ways he engages the Christian tradition. For him, Christianity is not a staid, fixed, dogmatic religion. But a dynamic, living, breathing tradition. A conversation and an argument with all those saints and sinners who followed the way of the poor man from Nazareth throughout the centuries.
Today, when the loudest Christian voices are also the shrillest, I return to Merton for a gentle witness of the gospel’s life-changing, life-affirming power. Or when popular Christianity diminishes the gospel by turning it into a self-help program, Merton reminds us that follow Christ is walking the way of the cross and not of our selves.
So I propose (if it isn't already) that December 10 be proclaimed the Festival of Thomas Merton.
The grace of Easter is a great silence, an immense tranquility and a clean taste in your soul. It is the taste of heaven, but not the heaven of some wild exultation. The Easter vision is not a riot and drunkenness of spirit but a discovery of order above all order –
a discovery of God and of all things in Him. This is wine without intoxication, a joy that has no poison hidden in it. It is life without death…Sometimes we taste some reflection splashed from the clean Light that is the life of all things…slake us always with this water [O God] that we may not thirst forever. (Merton, The Sign of Jonas)
[Update: revised and edited.]