Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Thomas Merton, Zen & Aboriginal Spirituality GLENN LOUGHREY

On Friday the 25th of May, Glenn Loughrey offered a paper on the Cistercian spiritual writer Thomas Merton, Zen, and Aboriginal Spirituality, as part of this year’s Carmelite Centre Symposium, ‘A Readers’ Festival of Spirituality’. The paper was informed by three of Glenn’s art works, which are reproduced here where they first display during the paper.

In preparing for this talk, I found myself pondering on a peculiarity within the Australian religious scene. In looking at the program for this week I found myself reading about voices from other countries and other sensibilities. There are no Australian voices, and more importantly, there is no representative of the ancient spirituality that preceded western civilisation.

Now, in the context of this conference there are obviously good reasons for that. This is a reader’s conference and we are looking at authors and spiritual guides who have made an indelible impact on the Christian religious landscape. It makes sense to look at those writers and contemplatives included in the program. Yet I would like to make a claim for the indigenous spiritual voice to not only be heard, but to be included in the spirituality of the indigenised commonwealth we call Australia. As the Hindu guru Bramachari suggested to Merton when the young man asked him to suggest some writers to read on mysticism and contemplation, look first at your own mystics and when you know all about them I will recommend some for you, but only then.

The author Richard Flanagan, in a recent talk at the National Press Club, stated that Australia is not a European or an Asian nation. He asserted that because of our engagement with the land on which we live we have become indigenised. We have taken into ourselves some of the sensibility of Aboriginal spirituality found in our relationship with the land, landscape and all that makes this a rugged and dangerous place. An understanding of this perspective makes sense of the loose affiliation Australians have to organised religion and the sacrificial guilt that is inherent in traditional religion. We are not people of Europe, Asia or even America, and our perspective on spirituality and faith comes primarily from that which we have unconsciously absorbed on a land we stole from the sovereign custodians.

A recent project of mine has been to translate the Christian liturgy and its imported language into the symbols and language (not traditional spoken language) of the Aboriginal spirituality and worldview. If the church in Australia is to grow up, it must grapple with the task of becoming one with what is already here. Much of the history of the church and of spirituality, contemplative and other, has been one of supplanting that which already exists. The church has been complicit in the destruction of language, ritual and culture through such as its role in the civilisation of the natives and its continuation of the Doctrine of Discovery. The church exists on stolen ground and has continued to steal the identity and vibrant spirituality from those who have been here for 85,000 years.

I have been using this new liturgy in our Wednesday service which is streamed on line. It averages over 120 viewers every week. The question I have asked myself is: how does a service, which is not welcomed or embraced by the church hierarchy or liturgical commission, connect to a relatively large group of non-church attending Australians? Is there something within the ordinary Australian that hears a voice from the deep and responds without understanding and why? Or are these ordinary Australians more in tune with the land, the dirt beneath their feet, than we recognise?

In the beginning of Merton’s autobiography we read: ''On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadows of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.''[1] In this single line we read, I could suggest, all we need to know about Merton. Merton places himself in the world, not in a specific town our place, but in the midst of a wide sweep of time, place and awareness which frames all he does from that moment forward.

Yes, Merton lived in England, emigrated to America, travelled to Cuba and had connections to New Zealand, but he remained always within the description he gives of his birth. He was European in both origin and thought. He was scarred by the war he was born on the edge of and the subsequent second major European war that followed. He was influenced by the southern French landscape and beauty.

His copious correspondence was primarily with those on the continent and he remained always deeply Roman Catholic even in the midst of the changes wrought by Vatican II. Merton was, at his centre, a product of the enlightenment, unable to connect with English niceness or American commercialism. It is true he engaged with American thinkers and leaders but it was always from the starting point of European thought and practice.

Merton carried the country of his birth in his body and he could never break free from it. This is key idea in Aboriginal culture – we carry our country in our body. That is why, when you ask me who I am, I say Wiradjuri and my name is…….. I am my country first and it dictates how I respond to and  engage in the world both physical and spiritual. Like Merton, no matter how far I may travel from my place of birth physically or through such as education or faith, I remain always in one place because that place is here, in my body.

Such an idea holds great possibilities for the church if we could understand that the body broken on the cross was not just Jesus’s physical body but his country. Country referring to the place he came from and the place he was born into. He remained always in the first and made his home in the second and in his brokenness he opens up the possibility for us in both countries.

It could be suggested this is Merton’s life story. He lived a life broken in many ways by his experiences and his constant spiritual struggle with identity, freedom and his past. He failed to reach the spiritual high bar he sought as a contemplative, had an affair with a much younger woman and lived in conflict with authority. His was a life that was incomplete in many ways yet held within it the wisdom one can only find in the deep abyss, deep beneath the surface. Merton was a man of his country in that sense. A man from a rugged inner and outer landscape requiring personal engagement with everything that makes us human and whose voice remains relevant.

Out of his country Merton, like Jesus, shares with us the wisdom given to him for his own personal benefit. Merton is one in a long-line of elders, just as Jesus was. The idea that Jesus is our elder strikes fear into the hearts of some theologians who wish for him to remain always Lord. For Aboriginal people the concept of Lord is a foreign one. There is no such concept for us. We are a matriarchal people built on relationships of respect and trust and not on the hierarchal model of power favoured by Western theologians. Power is shared by the land to those who listen to it and are invited into the role of elder. Like Jesus who said that he only shares what he heard from the Father, Aboriginal elders only share that which comes from the country on which they were born and live.

Speaking of Jesus as elder is not just appropriate, for us it is the only way. Merton has become an elder, a holder of transmitted wisdom which began in the nature of his birth and continued in the nature of his life as a contemplative monk. Merton shares with us only that which he has heard through quietness and stillness, reading and learning, prayer and practice as well as though the interaction as a flawed human being in an even more flawed world. As my father would say, “ Walk your country and your country will tell you what it needs and what you need to hear.”

This was the practice that governed Merton’s life. His last secretary, Patrick Hart relates that Merton would leave the monastery on an afternoon walk, walking calmly away from the building into his beloved woods. Sometime later he would reappear, in a frenzied hurry, robes billowing in the wind as he scurried to his room and began to feverishly record what he had heard in the wild. Again, this encapsulates Merton as elder, one who listened deeply to that which gave him life, life itself, and who shares that with us in his writings.

Finally there is in Merton much of the child of the Dreaming. For Aboriginal people the Dreaming is not a far off place of creation stories but the everywhere, then of meta-spatial spirituality. Everything that has existed, exists or will exist exists now within the material environment in which we live. The ancestors are not past, they are present. Every creature, stone, tree or river is alive with story and presence. They speak from the deep the truth we need to hear.

Merton embraces this idea in his engagement with Zen as well as with his Christianity. For one he says “all is Zen” and the other he says the hills here are full of the New Testament. This everywhere, then of spirituality is an always renewing, ever remaining connected to the deep experience of living. Merton could see the presence of the spirit in everything from the birds in the air to the blacksnake in his toilet, the sound of Kentucky storms or the ancient chanting of the monks. These all held the stillness and quietness of the still small voice of God defying the noise of the bombers flying overhead with the nuclear egg in its hold. His last statement in Polunnaruwa, “ I have finally found what I was looking for” was a nod to this everywhere, then of the Spirit, Zen and the Dreaming. It was not about knowledge, power, wisdom or fame. It was about a sense of being that pervades all things all the time and through all of time.


How we understand country, eldership and dreaming impacts on how we engage with Aboriginal people in terms of spirituality and respect.

A friend of mine in Utiopia, Central Australia, was talking to Centre-link on behalf of a female client. They wanted to know where she was born. She said, “Under the tree”. They wanted a more concrete address and after several attempts my friend said 1 Main Street. Centre link said, “You made that up”. He replied it is either that or under the tree.

He went on to say that under the Closing the Gap program, all mothers-to-be are moved off country to have their babies. The result is young people born disconnected from the law, language and culture on someone else’s country. This creates materially and spiritually disconnected young people and deeply shamed mothers.

Merton lived a life in conversation with these three integral ideas and challenges us to do so in this place and at this time.

[1] Merton

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