Thomas Merton's letter to Sufis and views on Sufism

"I'm deeply impregnated
with Sufism
- Thomas Merton,
In 'The Springs of Contemplation'

"I am the biggest Sufi in Kentucky though I admit
there is not much competition"

- Thomas Merton, October 1966

"My prayer tends very much to what you (sufis) call fana.^"
- In letter to a Sufi master Abdul Aziz

^ Fana in sufism refers to the inner act and unitive experience of merging with the Divine oneness

1. Sufism: a very strange subject and it should be kept a strange subject

"Who wants mystical theology in a monastery?!", says he mischievously. "That’s almost as bad as bootlegging or something!" dismissing it, bug-eyed with mock wondering disgust. "The last thing in the world any modern, progressive Catholic wants to hear about is mystics... I sort of throw it at you with a Moslem disguise or something like that in which it is more acceptable."

At this point, having warmed his audience up, he launches into the topic of the day.

"Now, we’ll talk about Sufism. Sufism is a very strange subject, and it should be kept a strange subject." He has his listeners intrigued. "Don’t ever let anybody ever get up here, or anywhere else, and give you a course on Sufism," introducing the class with bonhomie to cover his genuine modesty about presenting a subject for which in fact he was, despite his humble disclaimers, perfectly well qualified. "Because anybody who is giving you a course on Sufism is giving you a false bill of goods, and anyway, what do you suppose Sufism is all about?"

- from a series of informal Sunday classes which the teacher has organized to stimulate the monks’ faith and practice: the topic is Sufism, six talks, during 1967-68, venue The Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Kentucky. The speaker is Father Louis, better known to the world by his given name: Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968). [1]

2. A Catholic Monk in Sufi Garb

Merton’s interest in Sufism was a venture he specifically sought out. Initially his correspondence with the French scholar Louis Massignon, the presenter par excellence of the martyred master Hallaj to the West, was a triggering point for his interest in Islam. Particularly its mystical dimension, Sufism, the study of which Merton pursued through the works of two other important living scholars in the field, the French Henry Corbin and the Iranian Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

His discovery of Ibn 'Arabi, who bridged the domains of mysticism and philosophy, had a special impact on him, and he took an avid interest in the Spanish Sufis. It was not lost on him that the Arabic word suf referred to the coarse wool worn by a particularly ascetic group of the Prophet’s Companions, and that this was the very material with which the austere Trappists traditionally garbed themselves. And not to mention, he was a trappist monk himself, living the life of a catholic monk in sufi garb.

3. Thomas Merton's letters to Sufis

Father Thomas Merton's most fruitful correspondence which he had on Sufism was with a Pakistani sufi master and scholar, Abdul Aziz, who first wrote to him in November 1960 when his name had been furnished by Massignon, in answer to his request for the recommendation of a contact with “some genuine Christian saint and contemplative mystics”. It was the letters and books which Merton received from this fertile source that spawned the series of Sunday lectures on Sufism.

In answer to a query by Abdul Aziz about books on St. John of the Cross, Merton mentions the works of the two contemporary priests, Fr. Bruno de Jésus-Marie and Fr. Paul Nwyia, on the saint and his possible Sufi connections.

One of the fruits of the exchange of books between Merton and Abdul Aziz was the monk’s receipt of a copy of Titus Burckhardt’s classic text on Sufism, which prompted him to comment to his correspondent that Sufism clearly involved “a deep mystical experience of the mystery of God our Creator Who watches over us at every moment with infinite love and mercy”. He mentions that Burckhardt’s book also directed his attention to the importance of tawhid as central to the Sufi perspective, prompting him to note:

"I think that the closest to Islam among the Christian mystics on this point are the Rhenish and Flemish mystics of the fourteenth century, including Meister Eckhart, who was greatly influenced by Avicenna (the Persian mystical philosopher Ibn Sina). The culmination of their mysticism is in the ‘Godhead’ beyond ‘God’ (a distinction which caused trouble to many theologians in the Middle Ages and is not accepted without qualifications) but at any rate it is an ascent to perfect and ultimate unity...

Another point from Burckhardt which impresses Merton is the matter of “the dhikr which resembles the techniques of the Greek monks, and I am familiar with its use, for it brings one close to God”. He agrees that God “alone is Real, and we have our reality only as a gift from Him at every moment. And at every moment it is our joy to be realized by Him over an abyss of nothingness”, a comment which reflects the agony of Merton’s existential state as much as anything springing from Sufi doctrine, for he goes on to say with a particularly un-Sufi-like bitterness, “but the world has turned to the abyss and away from Him Who Is. That is why we live in dreadful times”. The Sufi perspective would be that no time in the world is better or worse than any other; the ‘dreadfulness’ comes in one’s individual inattention to God at any time.

In discussing the approach of St. John of the Cross, in whom Abdul Aziz had expressed particular interest, he could be expounding Sufi doctrine in the approach he takes, stating that there are two levels of detachment: first the outward, which he says is easier, then the inward, explaining that:

Inner detachment centers around the ‘self’, especially in one’s pride, one’s desire to react and to defend or to assert ‘self’ in one’s own will. This attachment to the self is a fertile sowing ground for seeds of blindness, and from this most of our errors proceed. I think it is necessary for us to see that God Himself works to purify us of this inner ‘self’ that tends to resist Him and to assert itself against Him. Our faith must teach us to see His will and to bend to His will precisely in those points where He attacks the self, even through the actions of other people. Here the unjust and unkind actions of others, even though objectionable in themselves, can help us to strip ourselves of interior attachment.

By June 1964 Merton is telling Abdul Aziz that he is to "provide notes on Islamic mysticism from time to time for the magazine of our Order. This is a new step, and a promising one". In another letter he reaffirms the harmony of perspective he feels between Christianity and Islam, asking when Ramadan is to be that year (1965) and saying:
I would like to join spiritually with the Moslem world in this act of love, faith and obedience toward Him Whose greatness and mercy surround us at all times, and Whose wisdom guides and protects us even though, in the godlessness of the world of men, we are constantly on the edge of disaster. We must humble ourselves truly and seek to see our state, and strive to pray with greater purity and simplicity of heart.

4. Disclosing the Inner-ness of Thomas Merton's Prayer

Br. Patrick Hart of the Abbey of Gethsemani commented in an interview over Thomas Merton's correspondence with Sufi master Abdul Aziz, "That’s a wonderful correspondence. I recommend it to everybody to read because it’s the only time when he talked about how he himself prayed."

This is what Merton wrote in a final note in the correspondence with Abdul Aziz:
Strictly speaking I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say that it is centered on faiths by which alone we can know the presence of God. One might say this gives my meditation the character described by the Prophet as “being before God as if you saw Him.” Yet it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for to my mind this would be a kind of idolatry. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring Him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension, and realizing Him as all. My prayer tends very much toward what you call fana [‘annihilation’]. There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up and out of the center of Nothing and Silence. If I am still present ‘myself’ this I recognize as an obstacle about which I can do nothing unless He Himself removes the obstacle. If He wills, He can then make the Nothingness into a total clarity. If He does not will, then the Nothingness seems to itself to be an object and remains an obstacle. Such is my ordinary way of prayer, or meditation. It is not ‘thinking about’ anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible, which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is Invisible.

The significance of this passage is, first, that it is written as a confidence, involving the expression of something which he would normally find too private, even too inexpressible, to expose to anyone; and second, that Merton has been inspired to find terms to express the inexpressible through the vocabulary of the Sufis which has come through the works which Abdul Aziz has led him to. He does not have a ‘dhikr’ (a sacred formula), which he acknowledges to be the key to Sufi contemplation, but he is struggling to embrace the process of Divine communication in a conceptual way, beyond the rituals, the litanies and the offices of the Church and the monastic rule offered to the devotee in his own tradition.

Other than the correspondence with Pakistani sufi Abdul Aziz and the abundant reading material that sprang from it, there was another sufi master who shaped Merton's view on sufism and it was Algerian Sufi shaikh, Sidi Abdesalam.

Merton’s biographer, Michael Mott, describes the impact of Sidi Abdesalam: Now a man (Sidi Abdesalam) he (Thomas Merton) recognized as a true mystic, a man who represented the most authentic tradition in Islamic spirituality, left him with the message that he was very close to a mystical union and that the slightest thing could bring that union about.

In carrying on the teaching of his visit, the shaikh wrote Merton a letter the following February, asking if he “had set aside the distractions of words, his own words and those of others, in order to realize the mystical union” he had foreseen. At this time, in the winter of 1967, Merton was in the throes of debating within himself whether or not to travel. As Mott puts it:

“What is best is what is not said,” Merton translated from Sidi Abdesalam’s letter. He was in search of the “not said”. Solitude had borne many fruits when Merton had trusted it [in his solitary hermitage].

This is the context in which Merton was giving his lectures over the years 1967-68, basically from the time of his encounter with the Sufi shaikh to that of his departure on his journey.

In attempting to give the ‘strange’ Sufism greater immediacy to his fellow monks, Merton, the teacher, explores the idea of a connection between Sufism and the Christianity of his monastic listeners, suggesting a link with Syriac Christianity, which must have come up in his voluminous reading, through which he had, no doubt, come across the fact that the Prophet Muhammad had received his first religious instruction from a Nestorian monk in the course of his commercial journeys into Syria long before his revelation. He then turns to the great late medieval mystics of the Netherlands and the Rhineland, notably Ruysbroeck and Meister Eckhart, who he says “are like the Sufis,” continuing on to state approvingly: “That’s why they are good,” and, furthermore, “That’s also why they get into trouble.”

He states that “this is a thing that the Sufis realised. You cannot go on indefinitely affirming and denying,... for sooner or later you are going to have to account for the things that you’ve denied... Because eventually the balance gets overbalanced and, all of a sudden, everything flops over and you suddenly find that the people who hold all the affirmations are supremely impious people. What happens is that there comes a time in this process where the most orthodox, the most fervent and the most holy people are real sons of guns.” At this point his exasperation with the sanctimonious and doctrinaire types becomes so strong that a wrath of the sort that fired Jesus to drive the money-changers out of the temple stirs him to begin spelling out that ‘naughty word’: “bastard”, to brand the hidebound, denying dogmatists who plague every faith.

To bring the point home to his listeners, he touches on the archetypal case from the Gospels: that of the Pharisees. “The supreme example of this process is where you have the officially holy people who’ve got everything taped so perfectly that when God appears, they kill him.” If he had used the term, ‘perfect human’ (insa’n-i kamil), he would have been virtually expounding Sufi doctrine.

What he does proceed to do is to come to grips with another doctrine vital not only to the Sufis but to Islam in general: that of the simultaneous transcendence (tanzih) and immanence (tashbih) of God with respect to the realm of existence. While similar issues have been raised in the context of Christian theology, Merton chooses to employ the Islamic concepts and terms, with which he is not merely familiar but over which he has clearly pondered considerably. This discussion leads Merton on to the topic of the ‘mystical knowledge of God’, the subject of his next talk, but which he introduces now, giving a foretaste of what is to come. He begins with the paradox of God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, saying that the former represents the “absolute otherness of God”, which is “not able to be expressed in any way, not able to be understood, not able to be manifested,” while the latter indicates that God “is able to be understood”, that, indeed, “He is manifested in concrete things, and He’s in everything.” The speaker tells us that the Sufis “run these two things together, and actually the point is that there is no knowledge of God without these.”

In the final talk, the second part of the discussion of ‘The Desire for God’, Merton states that the “Sufis are centered entirely around this love, this desire, this thirst, for God, which is a passion, you see. It is a supreme passion, and the Sufis emphasize the aspect of passion ... not passion in a purely erotic sense, but it is a passion of love arising out of a supreme intuition.” When it comes to question time, he replies to someone’s query with words he says he is quoting from the Sufis: “Those who once knew God in Him as their supreme love, when He manifests Himself to them in this life, they suddenly become beside themselves and intoxicated with ecstatic love, for they know the scent of the wine. They have drunk it before.” [3]

5. Sufi prayer from the Heart and Contemplative Prayer

Br. Patrick Hart, Speaking on the Legacy of Thomas Merton in April 2005 commented:
He (Fr. Thomas Merton) really observed things ... I recall that when he was getting ready to go to the Far East he said, "I’m hoping to bring back some of their wisdom, some of their techniques and their ways of praying and entering into the Silence." It wasn’t that he wanted to change any doctrines. He wanted to learn more about their methods so that he could deepen his own monastic experience. He didn’t deny that there were differences in doctrine; he wasn’t trying to wash that away.

But he felt that people like the Sufi mystics can teach you how to pray from the heart, to enter into the heart and not worry about the creeds and doctrines that divide us. On the experiential level, the level of how we experience God, Merton felt we have much in common.

6. Inspiration for Dialogue

Merton who was a preeminent pioneer of inter-religious dialogue and spiritual friendship, saw the Sufi concept of fana as being a catalyst for Muslim unity with Christianity despite the obvious doctrinal differences. He wrote to his letter to sufi Abdul Aziz:

Personally, in matters where dogmatic beliefs differ, I think that controversy is of little value because it takes us away from the spiritual realities into the realm of words and ideas ... in words there are apt to be infinite complexities and subtleties which are beyond resolution.... But much more important is the sharing of the experience of divine light ... It is here that the area of fruitful dialogue exists between Christianity and Islam.

In another letter he said:
"I am tremendously impressed with the solidity and intellectual sureness of Sufism. I am stirred to the depths of my heart by the intensity of Moslem piety toward His names, and the reverence with which He is invoked as the 'Compassionate and the Merciful.' May He be praised and adored everywhere forever." [4]

7. Merton and Sufism | The Untold Story: A Complete Compendium

The book published by Fons Vitae contains Thomas Merton's encounter with Sufi mysticism, views, his own sufi poems, edited transcriptions of his lectures on Sufism given to the Trappist novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and a selections of works from which he drew particular inspiration including the work of Al-Tirmidhi (d.932), which uses fascinating metaphors elucidate the difference between the Breast, Heart, Inner Heart, and the Intellect. Also included is Merton's famous correspondence with Abdul Aziz and Marco Pallis and a photo essay depicting similarities among Sufi and Christian practices.

May God be well pleased with Father Louis, Thomas Merton; bless his saintly soul in abundance and accept him among the sanctified lovers in the court of the Most High.

# Reference and Further Resources:
1.2.3. Quoted from 'The Strange Subject' - Thomas Merton's Views on Sufism by Terry Graham via Nimatullahi journal, Sufi, issue 30
4. Spirituality and Practice review



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Technology of the Heart: Thomas Merton's letter to Sufis and views on Sufism
Thomas Merton's letter to Sufis and views on Sufism
Technology of the Heart
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