It is important, however, not to stop there in looking at Merton’s influence. He was also deeply interested in other religions and actively sought out people from many different traditions. A true contemplative, he was especially interested in approaches and practices that open people to deeper, more transcendent experiences. The fruit of this effort can be seen in his talks given to a group of nuns in Kentucky just a year or so before he died. The book, The Springs of Contemplation, is a transcription of these talks.
Merton begins the talks by emphasizing the importance of presence. “Presence is what counts,” he says. Here he is talking about the importance of being truly present to the nuns so that they can engage in meaningful conversation. Towards the end of the book he talks more specifically about being present and not getting caught up in everyday reality. “We need to treat passing things as non-definitive,” he writes. “They’re provisional. Everything that happens to go by is all right, it’s real, but it’s provisional reality. We deal with it in perfect freedom because we are in contact with something that we don’t know. And we don’t kid ourselves that we do know. This is fundamental for the contemplative life.” Many will recognize this as similar to the mindfulness approaches so popular today. Merton calls us to focus on that which is eternal in order to reach a deeper understanding of life. He also knows how hard this is in a society focused on anything but that. This against the stream spiritual perspective was central to his activism and contributed to the social and ethical insights that continue to be recognized today.