Thomas Merton Shows Us

Strict Boundaries Are Made to Be Crossed

by CSW Director Rob Field


We live in a time when everyone seems to be drawing stricter boundary lines. Borders all over the world are getting harder to cross. The coronavirus pandemic made many of us afraid to venture beyond familiar territory.

These same dynamics can also affect our thinking about spirituality and religion. “Better safe than sorry” isn’t just a saying that worried parents use to caution their children. It’s also a mindset that prevents people of all ages from following their curiosity and the better angels of their nature.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Catholic monk who became a best-selling author. He was one of the most influential spiritual teachers of the last century. Merton had many noteworthy qualities, but timidity and fearfulness were not among them. At a time when many of his fellow Christians were wary of exploring the depths of their own religion — much less other spiritual traditions, Merton threw caution to the wind.

Instead of discarding Christianity’s traditional teachings, Merton reinterpreted and re-applied them to modern society in light of fresh insights from science, philosophy, psychology, and the arts. Wherever someone tried to create a strict boundary, Thomas Merton seemed ready to cross it in the name of spiritual freedom.

“The only true liberty,” wrote Merton, “is in the service of that which is beyond all limits, beyond all definitions, beyond all human appreciation: that which is All, and which therefore is no limited or individual thing…, for if it were to be a single thing separated from all other things, it would not be All.” With this kind of conviction, it’s no wonder Merton has become a significant touchstone for seekers and the spiritual-but-not-religious.

I am looking forward to leading a pilgrimage to Kentucky later this year called The Interspiritual Journey of Thomas Merton Nov. 10-16 and I hope you will join me. Merton was a gifted writer, social critic, mystic, and explorer of other world religions. As the above photo with a young Dalai Lama suggests, Merton believed that crossing religious boundaries would help him and the world move closer to the unity God desires for all people. Merton’s unexpected death in Thailand in 1968 means that his interspiritual journey was not completed in his lifetime. His brilliant writings and personal example, however, can inspire us to adopt his vision of a world in which respect and appreciation between followers of the world’s enduring religious traditions will one day flourish.

On our pilgrimage, we will visit the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Kentucky as well as the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Merton lived in a monastic community. We will conclude the pilgrimage by participating in the Festival of Faiths, an annual conference in Louisville that was inspired by Merton’s interfaith legacy. Read more about the pilgrimage HERE. Register for the pilgrimage HERE by paying a refundable deposit of $300 per person. If you’re interested but not ready to register, plan now to join the Center’s information session Tuesday, Aug. 6 at 7:30 PM on Zoom. Admission is free, but you must register HERE to receive the Zoom link.

above: Thomas Merton meeting the Dalai Lama in India in 1968

below: The Dalai Lama visiting Merton’s grave in Kentucky in 2022