You are on page 1of 11

Thomas Merton's Encounter With Sufism Rasoul Sorkhabi

Conferences, declarations and publications are all useful, but we also need real personalities, who have devoted their lives to their own faith and yet have also seriously studied other faiths and have reached out to other cultures, histories and geographies.
n interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural understanding, we need bridges. Conferences, declarations and publications are all useful, but we also need real personalities, who have devoted their lives to their own faith and yet have also seriously studied other faiths and have reached out to other cultures, histories and geographies. The stories of these solid, enduring bridges link the hearts of various faiths and peoples through these persons own journeys and experiences. In a previous article in this journal,1 I introduced the Persian Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi as a bridge between Islam and other religions including Christianity. This article examines a Christian personality Thomas Merton (1915-1968), an eminent Trappist monk and author who tragically died in December 1968. Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941, where he followed a relatively secluded life of contemplation and writing. In the 1960s he ventured to understand other religions, especially Buddhism and Sufism. This article examines his encounters with Sufism through his letters, journals, readings, poems, and books.
Thomas Merton; photo, courtesy of the Thomas Merton Center

Mertons Correspondence on Sufism

hanks to William Shannons efforts, Mertons letters have been complied in a valuable volume, The Hidden Ground of Love 2 (Cited as HGL in this article). Although Merton corresponded with several Sufi scholars, including the eminent French Orientalist Louis Massignon in the late 1950s, it seems that Mertons systematic study of Sufism was triggered by a letter he received on 1 November 1960 from Abdul Aziz, a civil service office and (a lesser known) Sufi scholar in Karachi, Pakistan. Abdul Aziz had read Mertons Ascent of Truth (1952) and was impressed by

Dr. Rasoul Sorkhabi is a professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and directs the Rumi Poetry Club. Email: rumipoetryclub@earthlink.net.

22 | V6 N4 October2008

Rasoul Sorkhabi

it. He had requested Massignon to introduce to him a contemporary Christian mystic with whom he could correspond. Massignon had given Mertons name and address. In the HGL, we only have Mertons letters, not (unfortunately) Abdul Azizs letters.3 Mertons 15 letters date from 17 November 1960 through 24 April 1968. These two pen-friends also exchanged several books by mail Merton sending mostly his own books (for example, his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain) but also some other books on Christianity, and Abdul Aziz sending him books on Islam and Sufism. One of the books that Merton received from Abdul Aziz (and probably the first book he read on Sufism) was Titus Burckhardts An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine. The Merton-Abdul Aziz letters are cordial and friendly. (Merton was one year older than Abdul Aziz, and both were unmarried). These men, as we learn in the letters, remembered each other in their prayers. Mertons letters have many references to Sufi books and mystics, from which we learn about his sources of knowledge and influence. Among the classic Sufi masters, Merton mentions Mansur Hallaj (that great saint and mystic, martyr of truth and of love); Jalaluddin Rumi (who is to my mind one of the greatest poets and mystics, and I find his words inspiring and filled with the fire of divine love); Mohammad Ghazzli (very akin to our monastic life); Ibn Arabi (I think the book on Ibn Arabi [Henry Crobins Limagination cratrice dans le soufisme dIbn Arabi] is going to be very important to me); Hujwiri, the

author of the Kashf al-Mahjub (I have found Al-Hujwiri [English translation by Reynold Nicholson] especially useful); Junayd Baghdadi (I also read a book on Al-Junayd [The Life, Personality and Writings of al-Junayd, by A.H. Abdel Kader] in the hospital and was greatly impressed. He is surely one of the great mystics). Merton also refers to several

eminent European scholars of Sufi studies: Louis Massignon (1883-1962), Rene Gunon (1886-1951), Henry Corbin (1903-1978), Arthur J. Arberry (19051969), Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), and Martin Lings (1909-2005). In turn, Merton suggests to Abdul Aziz several Christian mystics and books as being useful for approaching the Christian contemplative tradition: St. John of Cross (I might also refer you to the life of St. John of Cross, in French, by Pere Bruno de Jesus-Marie, which has some interesting pages on the possible influence of Sufism in the mysticism of St. John of Cross); John Ruysbroecks Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage; the anonymous authors Cloud of Unknowing; St. Bernard of Clairvaux (one of the early fathers of the Cistercian Order of which I am a monk); Meister Eckhart (who was greatly influenced
Interreligious Interreligious

Insight | 23

Creative encounters

Merton and Abdul Aziz also discuss certain aspects of Christian or Islamic mysticism, which shed light on commonalities and possible points of debate in this inter-faith dialogue.

Thomas Merton's Encounter With Sufism

by Avicenna); and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his best book Le Milieu Divin. Merton and Abdul Aziz also discuss certain aspects of Christian or Islamic mysticism, which shed light on commonalities and possible points of debate in this inter-faith dialogue. In his 2 June 1963 letter, Merton begins with his

At one point Merton asks Abdul Aziz about the month of Ramadan in 1965 because I would like to join spiritually with the Moslem world in this act of love, faith and obedience toward Him.
reaction to Muslim beliefs. He admires Islams cardinal faith in One God and One Reality, and writes, I can certainly join you with my whole heart in confessing the One God (Tawhid) with all my heart. He then continues, I believe with you also in the angles, in revelation, in the Prophets, the Life to Come, the Law, and the Resurrection. Mertons 18 October 1963 letter is significant in that he replies to doctrinal issues of the Trinity and Salvation in Christianity. Regarding the Trinity, Merton remarks that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit do not imply three numerically separate beings but represent different relations of One God. He then emphasizes the supreme transcendent Unity of God, and the fact that there is no other with Him or beside Him. He has no helper. The work of creation and the salvation of
24 | V6 N4 October2008

man is entirely His work alone. Merton also comments on whether a person who does not accept all that the Church teaches about Christ will be saved: I perfectly agree that any man who in his heart sincerely believes in God and acts according to his conscience, with all rectitude, will certainly be saved and will come to the vision of God. Sufis place a high emphasis on the remembrance and recitation (zikr) of Gods Names (Attributes). Merton remarks: 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. Merton also encourages friendship among the People of Book an Islamic reference to the followers of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad to whom the Abrahamic holy books were revealed. Merton read (with deep attention and reverence) Arberrys translation of The Koran Interpreted (which Abdul Aziz had sent him) and writes: I love the passages of the Quran which speak of the manifestation of the Creator in His Creation and I know that Mary is treated with the greatest reverence in the Koran and have read these passages with deep emotions. At one point Merton asks Abdul Aziz about the month of Ramadan in 1965 because I would like to join spiritually with the Moslem world in this act of love, faith and obedience toward Him. Merton also articulates his solitude retreats in his monastery in a Sufi term, Khalwa. Mertons last letter to Abdul Aziz concludes: We can continue to hope in

Rasoul Sorkhabi

The Name of God; photo, Cetta Kenney

Interreligious Interreligious

Insight | 25

Thomas Merton's Encounter With Sufism

the mercy of the Lord, that He may give light and peace to men and help them make the necessary efforts to recover peace and wisdom.

Encounter with A Sufi Master

artin Lings, a British Sufi scholar, had written his Ph.D. thesis (for the University of Londons School of Oriental and African Studies) about the life and thought of the Algerian Sufi master, Shaikh Ahmad al-Alawi (1869-1934). This thesis was later published as a popular book, A Moslem Saint of the Twentieth Century (1961), a copy of which Merton had received from Abdul Aziz, and had read and even written a book review of it. In a letter to Abdul Aziz, Merton commented that The first thing that must be said about this encounter with present-day Muslim mysticism is that it is quite obvious that with someone like Shaikh Ahmad, I speak with the same language and indeed have a great deal more in common than I do with the majority of my contemporaries in this country (HGL, p. 55). In 1965, Martin Lings, who was then working for the British Museum in London, had sent another book of his to Merton for review. In reply, Merton expressed doubt if he could review the new book (owing to restrictions from the monastery), but took the opportunity to thank Lings for his book on Shaikh Ahmad al-Alawi: The book was an inspiration to me and I often think of this great man with veneration. He was
26 | V6 N4 October2008

so perfectly so right in his spirituality. Certainly a great saint and a man full of the Holy Spirit. May God be praised for having given us one such, in a time when we need many saints (HGL, p. 454). In the autumn of 1966, Sidi Abdelsalam, a Sufi master from Algeria, visited Gethsemani and met with Merton. He was visiting the US at the invitation of Dr. Bernard Philips of Temple University; and although he did not speak English, nor Merton could speak Arabic, both men were very delighted of the opportunity to meet the first time ever for Merton to see a Sufi, especially one who was also a follower and successor of Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawis path. Merton wrote to Abdul Aziz about this visit (we had a very pleasant conversation through his interpreter and I feel he is a true friend), and also exchanged a few letters with Sidi Abdelsalam after his return. Sidi Abdelsalams letter is equally friendly (Sidi Abdelsalam hasnt forgotten your meeting, the moments on the hill and all that remained untold rather than we did tell each other.4)

Mertons Book Reviews


erton read many books on Sufism and also wrote brief reviews on eight of them, which appeared in the Collectanea Cisterciensia, published in French by the Cistercian Order. Mertons Sufi books reviews are as follows5: 1. One Hundred Poems of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore and Evelyn Underhill (Macmillan, London, 1962)

Rasoul Sorkhabi

Gethsemani Abbey; photo, Cetta Kenney

2. A Modern Muslim Saint of the Twentieth Century, Shaikh Ahmad alAlawi, by Martin Lings (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1961) 3. Three Muslim Sages, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1964) 4. The Transformation of Man in Mystical Islam, by Fritz Meier, in Man and Transformation, Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks volume 5 (Pantheon, New York, 1964) 5. Final Integration in the Adult Personality, by Reza

Arasteh, American Journal of Psychoanalysis, volume 25: 1 (1965) 6. Ibn Abbad de Ronda, by Paul Nwyia (Institute of Oriental Studies, Beirut, 1961) 7. Le Monachisme en Islam et Chrtient, by Dom Jean Leclercq, in Images de Toumliline (Morocco, 1963) 8. The Persian Sufis, by Cyprien Rice (George Allen & Unwin, 1964) Merton also used to underline passages or write remarks on the margins of the books he read; a study of his notes
Interreligious Interreligious

Insight | 27

Thomas Merton's Encounter With Sufism

would be valuable to better appreciate the inter-faith Christian-Sufi concepts that attracted his attention.

Mertons Lectures on Sufism


uring 1966-68, Merton gave a series of lectures on Sufism to novice monks at Gethsemani. (I have been giving conferences on Sufism her to the monks, he wrote to Abdul Aziz, based largely on book you sent me in the past.) The cassette tapes of these lectures exist,6 and passages from the lectures are given in Bernadatte Diekers article.7 In these lectures, Merton talks in a an informal, colloquial language; nonetheless, it will be useful to collect and publish these lectures (with necessary edits and notes) in a book format because in these lectures Merton explains basic Sufi concepts and practices in relation to Christianity. Mertons taped talks on Sufi topics are as follows: 1. The Mystical Life: Introduction to Islam and the Sufi Mystic 2. Sufism: The Mystical Knowledge of God 3. The Creative Love and Compassion of God 4. The Straight Way 5. Sufism: The Desire for God 6. The Thirst for God 7. True Freedom 8. The Heart Alive with Love 9. Awakening the Heart 10. Facing the Truth of Life 11. Poverty and Religious Experience
28 | V6 N4 October2008

It is not possible to summarize these lectures in a single article (I suggest listening to the tapes), but several key Sufi concepts apparently fascinated Merton, including: 1. remembrance of God (zikr); 2. meditation on the Divine Names; 3. seeing Gods manifestation and mercy in the whole creation and creatures (Ibn Arabi says, Merton quotes, If it were not for this love, the world would never appear in its concrete existence); 4. knowing God through a loving-relation and loving-service (because you can prove the existence of God until you are blue in the face, and you have no knowledge); 5. Straight Path (Islam) is simply a total surrender to and total trust in God;

Sufi Dancer; original art, Setsuko Yoshida

Rasoul Sorkhabi

6. an elaborate spiritual psychology of stations (attainment by your efforts) and states (gifts from God); and 7. dissolution and death of Self (fan) and living in truth and union with God (It is not self-extinction in order to become lost. It is not losing in order to find oneself. According to the Gospel, He would lose his life for My sake shall find it). In a beautiful passage, Merton touches on the crux of Sufism: Especially in Sufism, there is this idea that we come from God, thats why we desire to return to Him, because God is where we belong. Its in Him that we are Real and that away from Him we are not real, and that His Reality is The Reality and any other reality is only a sham and any other reality is only a lie. And this runs through the Bible.

1. Readings from Ibn Abbad (Collected Poems, pp. 745-752). Ibn Abbad of Ronda was a fourteenth century Andalusian-Moroccan Sufi master. These readings are Mertons free translations into English of Ibn Abbads texts published in a French book, Ibn Abbad de Ronda, by Father Paul Nwyia, Jr. In a preface to this poem, Merton remarks that some scholars believe that Ibn Abbad influenced the mystical views of St. John of Cross, especially the notion that it is only in the Night of Desolation (The Dark Night of Soul as phrased by St. John of Cross) that the Divine secret door is opened to the seeker, while in the day of knowledge and light the door is closed. 2). East with Ibn Battuta (Collected Poems, pp. 538-544). Mertons poetic and Sufi impressions of Cairo, Syria, the Nusayris, Mecca, Isfahan, Delhi, and Calicut as he imaginatively travels with the great Muslim traveler of the fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta. 3. Tomb Cover of Imam Riza (Collected Poems, pp. 985-986). On 27 October 1960, Merton visited the Cincinnati Art Museum and was impressed by a tomb cover of Imam Riza (a ninth century spiritual master and the eight Shiite Imam whose tomb is in Mashhad, northeast Iran). This silk cloth was beautifully embroidered with images of angles and
Interreligious Interreligious

Mertons Poetry
erton was also a poet and indeed a prolific one: The Collected Poetry of Thomas Merton8 includes ten previously published books of his poetry and eight appendixes (poems unpublished, translated or published in magazines), and runs 1046 pages. Merton has six full poems with relevant Sufi themes.9 These poems are briefly explained below:

Insight | 29

Thomas Merton's Encounter With Sufism

calligraphy of a Persian poem. Shortly later, Merton wrote to Massignon and Abdul Aziz for more information about this sacred art. Tomb Cover of Imam Riza is Mertons version of the Persian poem using the English translations (which were displayed along with the art piece at the museum) by the Cambridge professor Arthur Arberry and the art historian Phyllis Ackerman. In his very first letter to Abdul Aziz, Merton expresses his gratitude to God that by seeing the tomb cover he was able to come into contact with a great spirit. 4. Song for the Death of Averros (Collected Poems, pp. 325-329). This is Mertons rendering of Ibn Arabis own poem and describes the mystic Ibn Arabis encounters with the twelfth-century Muslim philosopher Ibn Rush (Averros in Latin) first in the latters house, then in imagination, and the third time in Ibn Rushs funeral. The poem describes how Ibn Arabi understood Ibn Rushs rational philosophy, while the latter had only bookish knowledge and his spiritual eye was blind to see God. 5. The Night of Destiny (Collected Poems, pp. 634-635). See! See! My love is darkness! Only in the Void Are all ways one: Only in the night Are all the lost found.
30 | V6 N4 October2008

The Night of Destiny (Laylat al-Qadr in Arabic, literally meaning the Night of Measures) is a mystical night in the month of the Muslim fast, Ramadan (usually believed to be the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th night of Ramadan), when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The devout Muslims (Sufis in particular) perform intense spiritual practices (night prayer, reciting the Quran, giving charity, or even retreat in addition to the obligatory daily prayers and Ramadan fasting) during the last ten days of Ramadan because as the Quran says (chapter 96), This Night of Power is better than a thousand months; in it the angles and the Spirit descend, and it is pure peace until the dawn. Merton became interested, through his correspondence with Abdul Aziz, in this Sufi observation of the Night of Destiny because in a sense, it shares the same spirit as Christmas when the Divine Word (Logos, personified as Jesus) was spoken to the world. Merton wrote this poem in January1966 before the monks retreat at Gethsemani and entered in his journal: Evening. Beginning of retreat. Since it is the Night of Destiny (27 Ramadan) I stayed up late. Like Christmas, The Night of Ramadan is perhaps a Moslem Christmas heavens open to earth the angles and The Spirit come down, all the prayers of the faithful are answered. Night of joy and peace! I shared the joys of the Moslems and prayed for them and for my own needs, and for peace.10 6. The Moslems Angel of Death (Algeria, 1961) (Collected Poems, pp. 307-308)

Rasoul Sorkhabi

Islams Angel of Death, called Azril in the Quran, is a bird of cosmic magnitude; nothing can escape from it. According to Merton, he composed this poem based on an Islamic text but we do know the source. The poem is placed in Algeria, 1961, when there were violent conflicts between the Algerian liberation movement and the French army. Merton compares Azril to a jeweled peacock who stirs the world with fireflies and a great honeycomb of shining bees, with a million fueled eyes, exploring life, and concludes the poem Azrael! Azrael! See the end of trouble! but sadly after much death and destruction.

A Heart That Knows God


n 1968, Merton was given permission by his monastery to attend a monastic conference in Thailand and to meet with other religious leaders and communities. He first journeyed through India during October and November, and then went to Thailand. This was his first trip to Asia, and alas, it would also be his last. On 10 December, he was killed in a Bangkok hotel by electric shock from an un-earthed fan as his wet feet touched it. (His body was flown to Gethsemani where he was buried). On 29 September, two and half months before his death, and on his way to Asia, Merton gave a lecture to a group of catholic nuns in Alaska, and spoke of a fundamental bond between Christianity and Sufism probably Mertons last words on his encounter with Sufi spirituality: Sufism looks at man as a heart and a spirit and a secret, and the secret is the deepest part. The secret of man is Gods secret; therefore, it is in God ... The heart is a faculty by which man knows God and there Sufism develops the heart. This is a very important concept in the contemplative life, both in Sufism and in the Christian tradition: To develop a heart that knows God, not just a heart that loves God, but a heart that knows God.11 Seyyed Hossein Nasr,12 a renowned Iranian scholar and professor of George Washington University, recalls that
Interreligious Interreligious

This is a very important concept in the contemplative life, both in Sufism and in the Christian tradition: To develop a heart that knows God, not just a heart that loves God, but a heart that knows God.

Sufi Heart; photo, Cetta Kenney

Insight | 31

Thomas Merton's Encounter With Sufism

He was a pioneer who built a bridge between the Christian faith and other spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism and Sufism.
Merton had read his books Three Muslim Sages and Ideals and Realities of Islam (a book Abdul Aziz had sent to Merton) and was supposed to visit Tehran, where Nasr then lived, after his Thailand trip, in order to learn more about Persian Sufism. But this trip never materialized due to Mertons untimely death at 53 years old. Had he continued to live he would undoubtedly have made more valuable contributions to interfaith dialogues. But even with his extant works and legacy, Mertons vision and efforts are significant: He was a pioneer who built a bridge between the Christian faith and other spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism and Sufism.
NOTES Rasoul Sorkhabi, Jesus Christ in Rumis Poetry and Parables, Interreligious Insight, April 2008, pp. 22-25.
1

Fonts Vitae, 1999). This article also mentions 17 of Mertons letters, not 15 letters as given in the HGL. Nichole Abadie (Khadidjia Benaissa), a Frenchwoman who was married to a Sufi and lived on a farm in Algeria, was Sidi Abdelsalams interpreter, and she has written an informative article on their trip to the USA: The Visit of Sidi Abdelsalam to Gethsemani, in Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story, pp. 182-192.
4

Mertons reviews were included in a twopart series entitled Moines et Spirituels Non-Chrestins (Non-Christian Monks and Spirituals) and were published in issue #27, 1965, and issue #29, 1967, of the Collectanea Cisterciensia. These book reviews, in English, are included in Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story, Appendix B., pp. 306-318.
5

These tapes can be purchased from Credence Communications in Kansas City or Thomas Merton Books in Bardstown, Kentucky.
6

Bernadette Dieker, Mertons Sufi Lectures to Cistercian Novices, 1966-68, in Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story, pp. 130-162.
7

The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1977).
8

Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, ed. William H. Shannon (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985).
2

Erlinda Paguio, Islamic Themes in Mertons Poetry, in Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story, pp. 89-100.
9

Learning to Love: The Journals of Thomas Merton, volume 6, ed. Christine Bochen (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p. 9.
10

Parts of Abdul Azizs letters to Merton are cited in As one Spiritual Man to Another: The Merton-Abdul Aziz Correspondence, by Sidney H. Griffith, in Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story, ed. Rob Baker and Gary Henry (Louisville, Kentucky:
3

Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton in Alaska: Prelude to the Asian Journal (New York: New Direction, 1989), pp. 153-154.
11

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Preface: What Attracted Merton to Sufism, in Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story, pp. 9-13.
12

32 | V6 N4 October2008