Remembering Thomas Merton and Karl Barth Fifty Years Later

By Patricia Anders, Editorial Director

Not too long ago, I was surprised to discover that two of my favorite theologians died on exactly the same day: December 10, 1968. Thomas Merton (1915–1968) died at the age of 53 near Bangkok, Thailand, and Karl Barth (1886–1968) died at 82 in Basel, Switzerland. Since it is the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of both of these renowned (or to some, infamous!) men, there are various commemorations going on around the world on December 10. I thought I would do my share with this brief article.

While Barth died (as they say) full of years, Merton’s death is considered tragic and even suspicious. Merton was attending a monastic conference at Sawang Kaniwat (a Red Cross retreat center) near Bangkok and had given a talk earlier that morning. In the afternoon, he was found dead on the floor in his room. Since an electric fan was found near him, it was concluded that he had died of heart failure due to electric shock. In recent years, claims have been made that Merton was actually assassinated, but we may never know the truth of what really happened. There was no autopsy done and his body was shipped home to be buried at his Trappist Monastery, Gethsemani Abbey, in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Wars and Rumors of Wars: 1968 and 2018

This year—2018—has marked multiple fiftieth anniversary occasions to remember the many turbulent events of 1968: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and so on (see my blog post from earlier this year, “‘The Beloved Community’: The Quest of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. for ‘True Humanity’”).

Unfortunately, fifty years later, the world doesn’t seem to have quieted down and is in even more turmoil today. As we are now in the time of Advent and Christmas, when we keenly long for peace on earth and good will toward humanity, we need to have the perspective that Barth had at the very end of his life.

Karl Barth died on December 10, 1968, in his house on Bruderholz Lane in Basel. On the prior evening, he had cheered up his lifelong friend Eduard Thurneysen in a final phone conversation by saying, “Just don’t be so down in the mouth, now! Not ever! For things are ruled, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but things are ruled—even here on earth—entirely from above, from heaven above.”

(http://barth.ptsem.edu/karl-barth/biography)

Barth had his eyes fixed most decidedly on God as he revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and Thomas Merton was just as steadfast in his faith. Merton wrote during some highly anxious times in the 1960s, but his words ring just as true now as they did fifty years ago. As a Trappist monk, much of Merton’s writing focused on finding solitude and contemplation in our crazy modern world. Fifty years later, we still desperately need to hear what he had to say. Our anxiety has not ceased—perhaps it has even increased—and more than ever, we are frantically searching for some stillness in our souls.

Finding Solitude and Contemplation Today

In 2015, I wrote a Bible study as part of the Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life series by Hendrickson Publishers. It is titled Solitude and Contemplation and features many quotes by Merton (of course!). In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of his death—and the fiftieth anniversary of even 1968 itself—I thought it would be fitting to share a few of those quotes here (which are excerpts from either Thoughts in Solitude or New Seeds of Contemplation).

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

In our age everything has to be a “problem.” Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves.

Our minds are like crows. They pick up everything that glitters, no matter how uncomfortable our nests get with all that metal in them.

It would seem that television should be used with extreme care and discrimination by anyone who might hope to take interior life seriously.

As long as there is an “I” that is the definite subject of a contemplative experience . . . then we have not yet “gone out of Egypt.”

The desert used to be a place that no man wanted, and now everywhere is a desert.

Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love.

When it comes to times of darkness . . . then we find out whether or not we live by faith.

True faith must be able to go on when everything else is taken away from us.

In spite of all your misgivings you realize that you are going somewhere and that your journey is guided and directed and that you can feel safe.

If you want to live a spiritual life you must unify your life. A life is either spiritual or not spiritual at all. No [one] can serve two masters.

Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul. . . . Humility is the surest sign of strength.

Contemplation is the highest expression of [one’s] intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. . . . Contemplation is the awareness and realization, even in some sense experience, of what each Christian obscurely believes: “It is now no longer I that live but Christ lives in me.”

What happens [in the contemplative life] is that the separate entity that is you apparently disappears and nothing seems to be left but a pure freedom indistinguishable from infinite Freedom, love identified with Love. Not two loves, one waiting for the other, striving for the other, seeking for the other, but Love Loving in Freedom. . . . No despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

This Christmas, may we find that longed-for peace in the gift God has given us in Jesus Christ. May we truly know what “Love Loving in Freedom” means, forget “ourselves on purpose,” cast our “awful solemnity to the winds,” and join in that “cosmic dance”!


Patricia Anders is editorial director of Hendrickson Publishers. She also serves as the managing editor of Modern Reformation magazine and is the author of A Winter’s Blooming (HNN Press, 2012).


Karl BarthSolitude & Contemplation: Spiritual Practices for Everyday LifeFor more information about Karl Barth, check out this book! You can also find more information about Solitude and Contemplation on our website.

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