Monday Morning with Merton: Question Marks

“In Zen Buddhism, which is definitely not a religion of books, there is a mondo, a kind of basic existential question, that springs out of a dialog between master and disciple and which remains for the disciple to solve by personal struggle.  It goes like this:  the disciple goes to his Master and asks:  “Who is the Buddha?”  The Master replies:  “Who are you?” 

The fact is that a question of this sort is, and must be, fundamental to all authentic religious experience – as well as to any radical metaphysical intuition and to mystical contemplation.  In the first place it is itself an answer to a question.  In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question.  One’s questions are answered, not by clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions… 

The same is true of the Bible.  If we approach it with speculative questions, we are apt to find that it confronts us in turn with brutally practical questions.  If we ask it for information about the meaning of life, it answers by asking us when we intend to start living?  Not that it demands that we present suitable credentials, that we prove ourselves in earnest, but more than that:  we are to understand life not by analyzing it but by living it in such a way that we come to a full realization of our own identity.  And this of course means a full realization of our relatedness to those with whom life has brought us into an intimate and personal encounter.”

[Excerpt from:  Opening the Bible, Thomas Merton, pgs. 29-30] 


16 thoughts on “Monday Morning with Merton: Question Marks

  1. He always went so deep below the surface of people and beliefs, didn’t he? I really cannot think so deeply, or maybe I’m just too depressed right now and cling only to the most basic tenets, but I had to laugh because in all our adult religious ed discussion series’, we weren’t handed answers to muse in small and then large groups, but only questions to plumb. And I’ve often found that the Catholic way is to answer a question with a question — designed to make us think. That is what Jesus did, too, so often.

  2. Just the fact that Merton discussed and wrote about things Zen, started the change of this now Catholic Buddhist, from the old Buddhist Catholic I used to be, after my baptisim, communion, and confirmation. Ha!


  3. I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed that it was the Catholic way, Carol, I mean, in terms of the way Catholicism has been taught over the decades/centuries. It certainly wasn’t the way anyone taught me to go about getting deeper into my Catholic faith. Never, ever. But it is the way of the mystic, in all religions, and by the grace of God mystics will eventually find someone who can help them. This Merton passage reminded me very much of the video on my Mystics Page by Rabbi David Soloman – it’s very much the same message.

  4. Well, I surely didn’t mean to imply it had always been the Catholic way.. just that it had been for me, and I should clarify, only in latter years, and only because of VII, no doubt. Thanks be to that priest who ran the sharing series’ I speak of, because God knows, our questions of long ago were not met with smiles; we who are in our 50s have had to scrape ourselves off of priests’ and nuns’ and perhaps even family’s flyswatters now and then.

  5. Ha, ha! That’s for sure! (can I officially bring you into the black sheeps’ group?) Also, I meant to ask you, what can I do to cheer you up, oh depressed one? If I had a webcam, I would do a little tapdance routine or something. Or how about an early St. Patrick’s Day card? That would be easier on my joints. 🙂

    Sean, I’m firmly convinced that it’s the people with a real knowledge of other religions, and a deep respect for them, but who still remain Catholic and can tell you “why”, that are some of the most effective evangelizers anyone could find.

  6. Ha, I was handed a card in the library this evening right after my cell phone went off– I answered without thinking (had I thought about it, it would’ve been even worse, for I’d have been paranoid enough to fling the phone far from me, “Where’d that dang thing come from??”) because it was my daughter. So, you see I’m a card carrying black sheep already, but certainly, if the Association of Catholic Black Sheeps needs to officially up the numbers.. I qualify, and I accept. (Btw, the library card said, “Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. You don’t have to Go to Jail. THIS time.”)

    Well, the one thing that would undepress me would be to submerge me in a cool, shady pond water, even if with millions of flukes and parasites.. with an overhanging pine (and ONLY the pine) watching me swim underwater for as long as my breath holds out. That’d do it. That, or a banana split. But those don’t mail well, I hear.. 🙂 Thanks anyway. I’ll be alright.

    Your last paragraph there, to Sean, is very powerful food for thought.

  7. “…we are to understand life not by analyzing it but by living it in such a way that we come to a full realization of our own identity.” This is a tall order. I think I know “me” and then something happens to change that awareness. Sometimes this is a pleasant experience and sometimes not so pleasant. But I don’t find this out by “sitting and waiting for the answer.” I must actively live to grow into who I am. That is HARD work! I am at times lazy and my identity doesn’t seem that important…Well, that’s wrong! So again I must get busy! Have a grand day!!!

  8. Carol, I already chose and sent you a St. Patrick’s day card, but I ordered it to be “delivered” on the 17th.
    But, considering Gab’s offer to do a tap dance, I think I’ll send you another one, which I thought was pretty funny and is in line with her offer. I’m off to send it to you now, and then you’ll get the other one on s. P. Day, too.


  9. In reading this post today I was taken with the thought that we are a Body made up of individuals. So many times in my Catholicism I think of being ‘part of the herd’. But here I am reminded that those questions, that seeking, those answers received in the form of questions inviting me to question and investigate further are very very personal.
    But..investigating within the Master’s fold.
    I feel more comfortable and ‘safe’ as one of the herd with the Doctors and Saints as guide to my answers while within the sheepfold.
    Keeps me in the Truth.
    (now don’t ask the question ……) 🙂

  10. ((((Thank you, Pia)))) — I have a feeling that leprechaun would gladly dunk me in a pond, lol.

    Cathy, as best I can tell, I am a little bird come to roost on a crossbeam. My goal is to become one of Christ’s own freckles. Thankfully, the Lord has His own plan for me, which is even better than frecklehood, more like the velveteen rabbit’s “end.” And that hope which cannot possibly have come from me, came from the Entity in the Bible. How exciting it is to know we are known far better than we know ourselves.

  11. Great post, Gabrielle.
    With regard to Carol’s first comment – Kerry men are famous the world over for answering a question with a question, and coming in a close second? That would be my husband.

  12. I’m glad you enjoyed the little fellow, I just hope it’s not the same card I sent you, which you will receive a few days from now!

  13. If a man is all alone in a room, and he says something, and nobody hears him, is he still wrong? 🙂 The Sexist Zen Gab. (but I stole it.)

    teresa anawim, who are you? (I couldn’t resist). Gawd, I’m tired. Hello to everyone here, Italian leprechauns most especially, ’cause Ann gets to see them all the time. 😉 Well, that didn’t make a bit of sense, but I’m hoping you can follow my stream of semi-consciousness. Hi, Cathy. Did JustMe ever show you her leprechaun webcam?

    P.S.  I promise (God-willing) to visit everybody on the weekend, unless we get another six feet of snow.  We are basically just in survival-mode here.   

  14. Hi, Gabrielle. It seems to me that Merton can be both abstruse and clear as day. I think this is one of his clear moments as a thinker.

    I thought I owe you an explanation, just in case you are wondering why The Marvelous is gone. I was beginning to be disturbed by some comments — certainly not by yours. And the best I could think of was to go away. But I will read your blog from time to time.

  15. Gene, I’m very sorry to hear that. I apologize for not having been able to visit recently, mainly because of my work right now, and also because most free moments lately were spent in reading/research for my Mary site.

    I know you are a serious, thoughtful, sincere person, and sometimes comments can be very upsetting and unsettling, emotionally and physically. I appreciated the beauty and peace of your blog whenever I visited, and the depth of the material you were presenting. I also appreciate you letting me know about your decision – sometimes sites just disappear and you never know why. I’ll look forward to your comments here whenever you drop in, and I wish you many blessings for the remainder of Lent, especially His Peace.

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