Thomas Merton Society Meeting: An Unlikely Figure Facilitates Ecumenical and Inter-Faith Dialogue in NI? – Guest Post by Scott Peddie

imageThe new Northern Ireland branch of the Thomas Merton Society is scheduled to meet tomorrow, Saturday 4 December, at  Bethlehem Abbey in Portglenone from 11.00am-1.00pm to discuss Merton’s approach to contemplative prayer. 

Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie, one of the founders of the branch, has written a guest post about Merton and his contributions to inter-faith dialogue. All are welcome, but due to the wintery weather conditions you may wish to confirm that the event is going ahead before travelling to Portglenone. Peddie’s contact details are available here.

Can an Unlikely Figure Facilitate Ecumenical and Inter-faith Dialogue in Northern Ireland? – Guest Post by Scott Peddie

An unlikely figure is helping to facilitate ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue and understanding in Northern Ireland. I say unlikely, because he’s an American Trappist (Cistercian) monk, born in France to an American mother and an artist father from New Zealand, educated in France, England and the US, and who died prematurely due to accidental electrocution in 1968! An intriguing figure indeed. So whom might I be talking about?

To some, the name of Thomas Merton conjures up a vague memory of someone they’ve certainly heard of, but perhaps can’t quite place. To others he’s a spiritual giant of the 20th Century to rival the likes of Bonhoeffer, King, Nouwen and a plethora of other popular religious writers and activists.

During his career, Merton penned in excess of sixty books and hundreds of articles and poems on subjects as diverse as contemplative prayer, monastic spirituality, civil rights, social justice, non-violence and nuclear weapons. In addition, he is perhaps most famous for his remarkably candid autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which has been translated into almost thirty languages and has sold in excess of one million copies.

Merton was at home conversing with Buddhists, Jews, Hindus and Muslims and was a prodigious letter writer. His natural spiritual curiosity and ability to see past deeply ensconced stereotypes resulted in many personal friendships, and through his published work, enabled the wider world to see points of contact between seemingly irreconcilable and divergent faith systems. All of this of course was underpinned by a deep love of contemplative prayer through which his grasp of the Divine flourished and grew to maturity.

Merton’s firm grounding in the contemplative tradition enabled him reflect more fully on the nature of Christ, and through this his interest in ecumenical dialogue and understanding grew. As an early convert to Catholicism, he exuded an exclusivist confidence that was replaced in maturity by a deeper appreciation not only of his own faith, but also that of the wider Christian family.

It is against this backdrop of mutual journeying that Merton is perhaps of most relevance to Northern Ireland.

That’s at least one of the reasons why the newly formed NI Chapter of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland has generated much interest from diverse quarters. With an informal membership of Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and Moravians the Christian interest is vibrant, and perhaps not surprisingly given Merton’s affinity with Buddhism, there is also a very welcome input from this faith community also. Discussions, talks, book reviews and retreats all form part of the Merton experience in the NI Chapter, so why not consider joining us?

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