The Marginal Person
“Thomas Merton’s turn to address the Calcutta Spiritual Summit Conference came on October 23, 1968. Merton had prepared a talk on “Monastic Experience and the East-West Dialogue”. The notes for this presentation are published in “The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton” and in the conference proceedings, where it is described by the editors as “a working document giving a singularly lucid picture of one of the clearest of contemporary poetic minds at work.”
Merton uses the term “monastic” in a broad way to describe various forms and elements of contemplative life including:
• some level of detachment in relation to the secular concerns of the world;
• a deep appreciation for the inner life of faith and wisdom; and
• a “special concern with inner transformation, a deepening of consciousness toward an eventual breakthrough and discovery of a transcendental dimension of life beyond that of the ordinary empirical self and of ethical and pious observance.”
Instead of presenting his prepared talk Merton speaks extemporaneously on the question of “relevance”. He begins by describing the monk in America as a “marginal person” with much in common with the hippy and the poet.
“Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being. The marginal man accepts the basic irrelevance of the human condition, an irrelevance which is manifested above all by the fact of death. The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life. He struggles with the fact of death in himself, trying to seek something deeper than death; because there is something deeper than death, and the office of the monk or marginal person, the meditative person or the poet is to go beyond death even in this life, to go beyond the dichotomy of life and death and to be therefore, a witness to life.””