Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new.
― Thomas Merton
I was rather surprised when Pope Francis mentioned Thomas Merton in his address to Congress during his visit to the United States in 2015. Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude is one of my favorite books.
I first came across Thomas Merton during my deep dive into Buddhism a few years back I was surprised to discover a large number of Christian scholars and Catholic priests, like Merton, who openly embraced components of Buddhism. Merton went further than most, with deep study into the Zen tradition, which he discussed in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, as well as a book he co-authored with none other than the Dalai Lama, The Way of Chuang Tzu.
At the core of Merton’s interest was his belief that most Christian traditions had become so focused on ritual and dogma that they had forgotten about the quest for understanding and a true personal relationship with the ultimate source of that knowledge.
He embraced, both in his writing and his own spiritual journey, the fundamental Buddhist concept that there is no single, perfect path, and that each of us has to learn and understand ourselves before creating our own unique journey. That does conflict with many Christian and especially the Catholic traditions. But, as we’ll soon see, not all of them.
Hence why it was remarkable that Pope Francis lauded Thomas Merton, a Catholic priest that believed in multiple paths to salvation and once said “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” Wow.
In 2015 my annual goal was a deep dive into the history of the Bible, partially to assuage some family members concerned about my previous foray into Buddhism. As with all my annual goals, it was an enlightening experience, filled with palace intrigue at the Vatican and early Church, mysterious sailors carrying fragments of scriptures, scribes with agendas, and archeological finds that both confirm and deny prior set beliefs. As part of that year’s effort I learned about the Gnostics.
For most of the current era the Gnostics were more commonly known as “those crazy Gnostics.” Strange rituals and beliefs, loosely associated with Christianity, their scriptures quickly discarded by the early Vatican councils and not included in the traditional Biblical canon. Then the Nag Hammadi texts were found in 1945 and fully translated a couple decades later (interestingly with financial support from none other than the noted psychiatrist, Carl Jung), suddenly supporting some of earliest known manuscripts that had been deemed too controversial by the early church.
Contrary to the prior perception of Gnostics, these newly discovered texts described a spiritual belief system far more aligned with traditional Christianity than originally thought, with one of the major differences being they did not insist that everyone must believe as they did.
To the Gnostics, faith is an inner experience, still generally aligned with classical Christianity, but one that does not have to be the same for everyone, and is grounded in individual investigation, introspection, reflection, and circumstance – as opposed to ritual. It is a dynamic process of seeking truth, not arrogantly declaring it. Starting to sound familiar?
Almost daily I come across articles, questions, and comments about the “true path to Lean” – and the supposedly correct sequence of tools performed in the singularly correct fashion to accomplish a transformation. That misconception is what, along with not understanding the respect for humanity pillar, causes most Lean failures.
Like the spiritual journeys of Buddhists, Gnostics, and many Christians like Thomas Merton, when on a Lean journey you must first seek to learn and understand, contemplate and reflect on how it applies to your circumstance and beliefs, and only then apply what makes sense to create your own path. Don’t simply accept what others say or copy what others do.