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