Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Savastano
“We owe an enormous debt to the Indians, and we should begin by recognizing the spiritual richness of the Indian religious genius. There is great hope for the world in the spiritual emancipation of the Indians.” –Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth. Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra, 1958
Thomas Merton believed that the essential values of Christianity, the embrace of the dignity of all men and of the Sacred, are also reflected in the wisdom traditions of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. Merton studied the richness of Native American culture and spirituality which illustrate how these peoples embrace the Sacred as the foundation of their lives and of the Earth, that the ecological conscience as well as the social conscience are the basis of justice and peace.
The essays included in this 7th volume of the Fons Vitae Merton Series, serve as spiritual exercises for exploring Merton’s globally inclusive religious imagination, helping us to drink from springs of ancient views and practices. They help us to not only recognize the damage of European colonization, but to taste indigenous American wisdom as a still-living sacrament for our collective salvation – Jonathan Montaldo, General Editor
A new translation of his “Preface for Latin American Readers” is a significant manifesto of Merton’s universality and “catholic” approach to the phenomenon of seeking God and the Sacred in all the world’s cultures. The essays included are replete with passages from Merton’s writings and transcriptions from his recovered weekly talks to the novices at the monastery of Gethsemani, where he lived until his untimely death in 1968. Merton and Indigenous Wisdom, gathers reflections that expose Merton’s appreciation for the spiritual and religious genius of American and Canadian indigenous peoples.
Introduction by Peter Savastano and Essays by Vine Deloria, Jr., Lewis Mehl-Madrona, Barbara Mainguy, Robert G. Toth, Donald P. St. John, William Torres, Kathleen W. Tarr, Allan M. Macmillan and Malgorzata Poks. Including a new translation of Merton’s Preface to Obras Completas I by Marcela Raggio
The Fons Vitae publishing project for the study of world religions through the lens of Thomas Merton’s life and writings brings Merton’s timeless vision of all persons united in a “hidden ground of Love” to a contemporary audience. The previous six volumes in our series – Merton and Sufism, Merton and Buddhism, Merton and Judaism, Merton and Taoism, Merton and the Protestant Tradition, Merton and Hesychasm – feature essays by international scholars that assess the value of Merton’s contributions to inter-religious dialogue.
This seventh volume in our series, Merton and Indigenous Wisdom, gathers reflections that expose Merton’s appreciation for the spiritual and religious genius of American and Canadian indigenous peoples. A new translation of his “Preface for Latin American Readers” is a significant manifesto of Merton’s universality and “catholic” approach to the phenomenon of seeking God and the Sacred in all the world’s cultures. The essays included are replete with passages from Merton’s writings and transcriptions from his recovered weekly talks to the novices at the monastery of Gethsemani, where he lived until his untimely death in 1968.
“We owe an enormous debt to the Indians, and we should begin by recognizing the spiritual richness of the Indian religious genius. There is great hope for the world in the spiritual emancipation of the Indians.”–Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth. Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra, 1958
“I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time. To emphasize and clarify the living content of spiritual traditions by entering deeply into their disciplines and experiences, not for myself only but for all my contemporaries. This for the restoration of man’s sanity and balance, that he may return to the ways of freedom and peace, if not in my time, at least some day soon.” –Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years.. The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 4, 1960-1963
Peter Savastano is an Episcopal Priest. He holds a BA in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Montclair State University and an M.Phil and PhD. in Religion and Society from Drew University. His areas of expertise are: the Anthropology of Religion with a focus on Christian (Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox) mysticism, vernacular devotional practices, and issues of sexuality and gender in relation to Anglicanism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; Islamic Mysticism (Sufism) and Western Esotericism; the Anthropology of Consciousness with a focus on trance, and other psi phenomena such as spontaneous healing, visionary experiences, NDEs and premonitional dreams; World Indigenous sacred ritual and healing traditions, most especially American Indian traditions and African Diasporic traditions. He has been studying the works of Thomas Merton since early adolescence and teaches a course entitled Thomas Merton, Religion and Culture. Peter Savastano is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
Jonathan Montaldo was the Director of Bethany Spring, the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living’s Retreat Center in New Haven, Kentucky. He has edited numerous volumes of Thomas Merton’s writing including The Intimate Merton, Dialogues with Silence, A Year With Thomas Merton, Choosing to Love the World: Thomas Merton on Contemplation, and Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton (nine volumes).
With Virginia Gray Henry, the publisher, he is the co-general editor of the Fons Vitae Thomas Merton Series that examines Merton’s interests in Sufism, Hesychasm, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, the Protestant Tradition, Merton and the Indigenous World, We are Already One, and the forthcoming Merton and Hinduism.
REVIEW by Robert Toth
Merton & Indigenous Wisdom Edited by Peter Savastano
Robert G. Toth served as the executive director of the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living from 1998 to 2009, when he took the position of director of special initiatives for the institute.
Merton & Indigenous Wisdom is a long overdue examination of Thomas Merton’s interest in and concern for Indigenous peoples. Throughout the book the reader hears Merton’s historical voice, spiritual voice and prophetic voice educating us, stirring our conscience and calling us to action. The chapters co-authored by Lewis Mehl-Madrona and Barbara Mainguy review the extent to which Merton examined and understood Indigenous history, culture and spirituality and point to areas that require deeper exploration in the context of our current understanding of Indigenous peoples experience. Of particular importance is the example of how Merton’s concept of self and the Lakota lack of such a concept demonstrates that an Euro-American worldview and categories of thought that often do not correspond to Indigenous worldviews and categories.
Each of the other chapters primarily reference two of Merton’s works, Ishi Means Man, a collection of five essay/reviews of books on indigenous people and his poem The Geography of Lograire. They augment and offer contemporary insights on Merton’s perspectives, concerns, and exploration of indigenous spiritual practices.
In Indians of the Americas by John Collier, Merton would have read, “The deep cause of our world agony is that we have lost the passion and reverence for human personality, and for the web of life, and the earth which the American Indians have tended as central, sacred fire since before the Stone Age. Our long hope is to renew that sacred fire in us all.” Peter Savastano indicates Merton’s first step toward reigniting the sacred fire was “divesting his mind from the prison of his ethnocentric, imperialistic attitudes and beliefs, all of which he inherited from the European and Euro-American perspectives that had shaped his life and his education.”
The “long hope” is that we join Peter’s students who enthusiastically identified with Merton as a model of their need to be decolonized from the narratives and fictions they have learned as the true and only way the world operates.
Review of Thomas Merton and Indigenous Wisdom By Milan Špak
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Mat 25:40)
The Indian defensive war is not over, but instead of prairies, it takes place in the federal courts. There are new Warriors that have arisen from the ashes of their ancestors – Ancestors who were one with the sacred land, that was stolen from them, and betrayed over and over, sooner than the ink on the contract had dried up.
Now it is not doubted who is barbarian and who civilized. Who sees God Everywhere and who sees only the profit, who loves the neighbor and who loves profit. Now it can be seen clearly that this fight is the war between Tradition and Modernity (an ongoing example today, in a difficult phase, is Tibet- a last bastion of a traditional country).
The world blinded by “progress” hanging on the edge of global destruction, seems to have no hope and yet: “There is great hope for the world in the spiritual emancipation of Indians,” admitted Thomas Merton long ago and we must add – insofar as the smoke from the pipe will rise to the One, there is always a hope for both – the Natives and us.”Merton and Indigenous Wisdom” is a hand we can hold to. We can learn a great deal from indigenous wisdom in order to lead a better life in as many fields as we can imagine – social, ecological, self-sustaining living, education, farming, medicine, and above all – spiritual, that is the sap flowing in all of the above-mentioned fields. Life starts within. In Merton’s words: “We have an enormous debt to repay to the Indians, and we should begin by recognizing the spiritual richness of Indian genius… It was the spiritual richness of the various ways of transformation, the mystical death and rebirth and overcoming lower self by participating in Indian rituals and vision quest retreats, holistic thinking, that attracts Merton to Indigenous people.
All life is holy and Christians in the past knew it very well like St. Francis, St. Hildegard von Bingen and St. Bernard who stated that: ‘I learn more from the trees and brooks than from the books’; or with the Desert Fathers who perceived in every creature – manifested divinity-logoi; or the Sufis, to whom everything in Nature is Ayat, (signs of God). The “One thing needful”- to love God in our neighbors (the whole created world with all living beings) and not forgetting that “whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
This was one of the most important ideas, the spiritual axis that Merton´s life revolved around- the concept of “the other”. When “the other” no longer is “the other” but rather “the us”, peace will be planted and everyone will be responsible to foster it in the name of Lakota notion: Mitakuye Oyasin
Merton and Indigenous Wisdom, edited by Peter Savastano. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2019. PP. 304.
REVIEW BY Mr. SAMUEL BENDECK SOTILLOS, Practicing Psychotherapist.
There are all kinds of ways to God, and ours [Christianity] is only one of many. – Thomas Merton.
Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) is likely one of the most widely recognized and influential Christian monks of the twentieth century. The American Trappist monk’s life stood for what was most hopeful in the Catholic Church, especially given the advent of the Second Vatican Council of 1962 – 1965 and the crisis of faith that has ensued. He was avidly interested and involved in dialogue between the diverse religious and spiritual traditions of the world, while upholding the value and importance of living according to his own religion of the Christian tradition. Merton was a prolific writer, producing a massive corpus during his life, which adopted a “catholic” or universal approach to seeing the same underlying divine Reality in all the world’s religions. The essays contained within this seventh volume of the Fons Vitae Thomas Merton Series include an examination by international scholars of distinct disciplinary backg rounds of Merton’s interest in and concern for the First Peoples.
To embark on a survey of the First Peoples’ religion and lifeways requires a decolonization of the human psyche from the narratives and fictions that have been assimilated into the mind and taken to be true and real. In the Introduction to this work Peter Savastano, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at Seton Hall University, indicates that Merton’s initial step toward reclaiming the sacred, which is neither of the East nor West, or of the North or South, for that matter, is in “divesting his mind from the prison of his ethnocentric, imperialistic attitudes and beliefs, all of which he inherited from theEuropean and Euro-American perspectives that had shaped his life and his education.” (p. xvi) Merton speaks directly to the need for the “decolonization of the mind” (p. xvi) when he writes, “the greatest sin of the West is above all its unmitigated arrogance toward the rest of the human race.” (p. 135)
The depth to which Merton was involved in what he viewed as a spiritual renewal describes his life’s vocation:
I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time…. To emphasize [and] clarify the living content of spiritual traditions… by entering…deeply into their disciplines and experiences, not for myself only but for all my contemporaries…. This for the restoration of man’s sanity and balance, that he may return to the ways of freedom and of peace, if not in my time, at least someday soon.
When surveying the First Peoples, Merton writes cautiously, “We must not be too romantic about all this. There would be no point in merely idealizing primitive men and archaic culture.” (p. 79) He understood all too well that with the loss of the sense of the sacred in the contemporary world, it was easy to idealize the past, especially the indigenous peoples. Yet the First Peoples’ defensive against the genocide and brutality waged upon them has not come to an end; it continues into the present. Merton laments that “the Indian…is permitted to have a human identity only in so far as he conforms to ourselves and takes upon himself our identity.” (p. 108) It is in the divergence between the traditional world and that of modernism that the tension and conflict exist.
In a moving and revealing comment Merton writes, “I have not forgotten about the Indians” (p. 97), and adds in another correspondence, “I agree with what you say about the religious values of the Indians. You are right a thousand times over. The history of the conquest was tragic.” (p. 107) Merton goes to the extent of emphasizing an obligation to the First Peoples: “We have an enormous debt to repay to the Indians, and we should begin by recognizing the spiritual richness of the Indian genius.” (p. 113)
Through envisioning the Divine in all creation, seeing it as an emanation of the Holy, as have ecological saints of the Christian tradition, such as St. Benedict of Nursia (480 – 543), St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181 – 1226), St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) and St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179), is akin to the First Peoples seeing the created order as a theophany of the Great Spirit. It is this understanding that allows the human being to relate to the natural world and connect “with a different way of being…and its implications for how to live” (p. 89). Through this integral ecological consciousness, a sustainable way of living may be realized, a way beyond the “profound dehumanization and alienation of modern Western man” (p. 105) and its current ecological crisis.
Merton understood on an intrinsic level that abiding in God according to his own religion or in the Great Spirit of the First Peoples was the reality sought by all regardless of their religious or spiritual tradition. Regarding individuals seeking out mystical experiences or consciousness expansion as Merton witnessed during the counterculture 1960s or even in today’s New Age spirituality, it is important to note that due to his own monastic training he grew to distrust subjective experience. He denounced “taking of one’s subjective experiences so seriously that it becomes more important than truth, more important than God. Once spiritual experience becomes objectified, it turns into an idol.” (p. 151) After all none of the saints and sages of the world’s religions were seeking experiences in and of themselves or experiences for the sake of experiences; while experiences certainly occurred, they were not treated at face value but with utmost scrutiny and were more often than not given little importance. Merton valued spiritual direction as provided in the religions and how such experiences were contextualized and consequently interpreted by qualified guides on the path. He points out,
[T]he Indian was not left to deal with his vision person alone: the visions and indications required comment and approval from the more experienced men of the tribe, the elders, the medicine men and the chiefs. In other words, they had a better and more accurate knowledge of the language of vision. The young Indian might interpret his vision one way, and the elders might proceed to show him that he was quite wrong. He remained free to disobey them and follow his own interpretation, but if he did, he ran the risk of disaster. (p. 156)
It is from this perspective that Merton critically assesses the use of psychedelics or entheogens in the present day, especially when utilized outside a traditional context by non-indigenous peoples.
Merton recognized that it was through “submitting oneself to God” (p. 68) that traditional spiritual healing occurred, which was in essence the same approach of the First Peoples through the Great Spirit. For many in the contemporary world who no longer identify with a faith tradition that they were born into or with any religion, for that matter, they often describe nature to be sacred and healing, reminiscent of the First Peoples reverence, which Merton addresses: “The silence of the woods whispered, to the man who listened, a message of sanity and healing.” (p. 103)
Merton and Indigenous Wisdom is a noteworthy collection of essays by scholars from diverse disciplines illustrating Merton’s most substantive attempts to “see from within” the First Peoples’ ways of seeing. To do this, he aims to expose “the dark lining of the ‘civilized’ Western mind” (p. 239) that reduces the First Peoples to an exotic object of fascination, an anonymous, dehumanized “homogeneous mass” (p. 240). Merton’s words are encouraging: “There is great hope for the world in the spiritual emancipation of the Indians.” (p. 117) For Merton, the notion of the “other” needed to be integrated into oneself, as he viewed all of life and human beings to be interconnected in the Divine. His universal or “catholic” approach to all things sacred is apparent: “To me, Catholicism is not confined within the boundaries of a culture, a nation, a period of time, a race” (p. 263). Furthermore, as is indicated in the Christian tradition: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) It is in recognition of human diversity in the mirror of religious pluralism, which certainly includes the First Peoples, that we pronounce the Lakota prayer Mitakuye Oyasin, “We are all related.”
Mr. SAMUEL BENDECK SOTILLOS, Practicing Psychotherapist.
I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time. To emphasize and clarify the living content of spiritual traditions by entering deeply into their disciplines and experiences, not for myself only but for all my contemporaries. This for the restoration of man’s sanity and balance, that he may return to the ways of freedom and peace, if not in my time, at least some day soon.
America is still an undiscovered continent. My vocation is American—to see and understand and to have in myself the life, the roots, the belief, the destiny, and the orientation of the whole hemisphere—
as an expression of something of God, of Christ, that the world has not yet found out—something that is only now, after hundreds of years, coming to maturity.
Merton & Indigenous Wisdom is a long overdue examination of Thomas Merton’s interest in and concern for Indigenous peoples. Throughout the book the reader hears Merton’s historical voice, spiritual voice and prophetic voice educating us, stirring our conscience and calling us to action.
Merton & Indigenous Wisdom, like the other volumes in the Fons Vitae Thomas Merton Series, once more demonstrates the incisive, boundless enthusiasm of Merton for the divine fullness of our human condition in all its glorious manifestations. Merton’s breathtaking openness to other cultures and traditions, so evident in this volume, along with his all-embracing universal vision and wisdom, encourages us all to be, like him, builders of bridges, not walls.
This is a book that opens Merton’s thought in provocative ways. The essays in Merton and Indigenous Wisdom present a penetrating overview of Merton’s encounters with the spiritual lifeways of Indigenous peoples. It is a significant exploration of Thomas Merton’s insights into the social, political, and ecological catastrophes visited by settler colonialism on First Nations especially in North America. Merton’s life and thought provide a personal history of inquiry regarding this integration of social and ecological justice. It details Merton’s efforts to understand traditional Indigenous contemplative visions as well as the resilience of these diverse societies as resistance to assimilation into dominant consumer societies. Readers will benefit from encountering Merton’s critique of extractive societies that ravaged the sacred sites of Native Peoples; as well as his prophetic-moral awareness of Indigenous cultures as providing visions of mutually enhancing human-Earth interactions. As one essay quotes Merton saying, “The ecological conscience is essentially a peace-making conscience.” (Preview of the Asian Journey, 107) A major accomplishment of this book, then, connects Merton’s sense of religious ecology with his awareness of the spiritual depth of dispossessed peoples.