by Parker J. Palmer, from We Are Already One: Thomas Merton‘s Message of Hope, a new collection of essays to celebrate the Centenary of Thomas Merton’s birth.
…I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept.
—Thomas Merton 
I met Thomas Merton a year after he died. I met him through his writing and through the communion that lies “beyond words,” met him in the seamless way good friends meet again after a long time apart. Without Merton’s friendship and the hope it has given me over the past forty-five years, I’m not sure I could have kept faith with my vocation, even as imperfectly as I have.
My vocational journey to what Merton calls “the margin of society”—at least, the margin of my known world—began in 1969 when I was completing my doctoral work at Berkeley. As the 1960s unfolded, the academic calling that brought me to graduate school had become less and less audible. Vietnam, a spate of assassinations, race riots and “the fire next time” in several major American cities—all of this had me hearing an insistent inner voice saying, “Your vocation is in the community, not the classroom.”
I turned down several opportunities to become a professor, and in July of 1969 moved with my wife and two children to Washington, D.C., to begin work as a community organizer. No one could understand what I was doing, beyond committing professional suicide. In truth, I could not explain it to myself, except to say that it was something I “couldn’t not do”—despite the clear odds against success.
I had no training or experience as a community organizer; much of the work had to be funded by grants I had no experience raising; and I was an idealistic and thin-skinned young man temperamentally unsuited for the hard-nosed world of community organizing. Compared to accepting a salaried and secure faculty post, as such posts were back in the day, I was stepping off the edge into “a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk.” Companions would have been comforting, but few are to be found when you go over the cliff.
After five months in D.C.—when the thrill of my free-fall had been replaced by the predictable bruises, cuts and broken bones—I walked into a used book store near Dupont Circle. A friend had recommended that I read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It was not on the shelf, but in the place where it would have been was another book I knew nothing about: The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. I remember thinking, “It’s about a mountain and the author’s surname begins with M. Close enough…” So I bought it.
That was early in December, 1969. Merton, I soon learned, had died almost exactly one year earlier. But he came alive as I read his autobiography, as he had for millions before me. I never felt that I had merely discovered a new author worth reading. Instead, I knew I had met a kindred spirit who understood me better than anyone alive, better than I understood myself, a fellow traveler who could accompany me on the strange path I had chosen—or had it chosen me?
Wanting to learn more about my new friend, I set out to read everything he wrote. As Merton devotees know, this turned into a lifetime project. The man published at least sixty books, and that counts only those published while he was alive: I’ve lost count of how many more have been published since his death. Merton’s posthumous literary output is, I believe, the first documented case of “perish and publish.”
A few years after I began reading Merton, I learned about his correspondence with Louis Massignon, a French scholar who introduced Western readers to the life and work of al-Hallaj, a ninth century Muslim mystic. Massignon felt that his relation to al-Hallaj was not so much that of a scholar to his subject as it was “a friendship, a love, a rescue.”  He did not mean that he had rescued al-Hallaj from historical obscurity, but that the Muslim mystic had reached out across time to rescue him.
That’s what Merton did for me as I read and re-read The Seven Storey Mountain. Forty years later, I’m still reading him, still finding friendship, love, and rescue—essential elements in serving as a “messenger of hope.” Imparting hope to others has nothing to do with exhorting or cheering them on. It has everything to do with relationships that honor the soul, encourage the heart, inspire the mind, quicken the step, and heal the wounds we suffer along the way. Merton has companioned me on my journey and illumined my path, offering life-giving ways to look at where I’ve been, where I am right now, and where I’m headed. I want to say a few words about four of those ways. Read more …