Over the last two and a half weeks I have been immersed in the life, work and writings of Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk who died tragically in 1968 aged 52. You may ask the question why and it would be a sensible one.
To discover what made him the acclaimed author of over 60 books; teacher and spiritual director of young men in the monastery; a collaborator with over 2,000 correspondents, producing over 21,000 pieces of correspondence; rapacious reader of the classics, the religious masters and contemporary literature; a social activist involved in the 1960’s ferment of race, nuclear weapons, Vietnam war and technology; and someone who fitted all this in between 7 periods of prayer, time for private prayer and the work-a-day life of a Trappist monk in an economically viable monastery.
The answer? He was an innocent and playful learner and teacher!
Innocent in that he never thought he knew the answers. There was always more to learn, more to know, more people to hear from, more inspiration to gather. He was like a small child who simply soaks up the world around them, making sense of it as they grow and become more and more engaged with the world. A cursory scan across his books will show that he assimilated ideas in such a way that he never became static. He was always becoming.
Playful in that his sense of humour was never far from the surface. He played with ideas, engaged with people in a way that bought out their ideas and thoughts, and allowed space for others to become in the way he was. Listening to his lectures one discovers an openness, warmth, depth and willingness to listen his audience responds to with laughter, questions and discussion. His classroom was alive with playfulness.
Learner, because that was his vocation. Yes he was a monk, but the task of a monk is to be open to God and the creativity alive in the world. His journals, working notebooks and correspondence reveal a man on the search for something he hadn’t seen or heard before. He epitomises the life-long learner.
Teacher, because in learning, he taught. Teaching wasn’t a skill or method for him. It was the natural outcome of a life lived in a state of perpetual learning. And he still teaches today in that his life and works have inspired over 300 doctorate and masters theses, the International Thomas Merton Society of scholars and ever-growing corpus of books using his thought to expound everything from ecology to solitude to Zen!
As parents, teachers and students are we, like Thomas Merton, innocent, playful, learners or teachers? And if not, why not?