Rediscovering Thomas Merton

University Essays: Lesson 15, Reading 4

by Colman McCarthy

Who was Thomas Merton?

The commonplace answer, the one most of us would give, is that he was a man who renounced his worldly ways in the early 1940s and entered a Trappist monastery, there to serve God until he died in 1968.

How handily a life can be summed up! In Merton’s instance, it is even easier because, we assume, once a person commits himself to the intense spiritual life of Trappist monasteries, that’s it. What more can be said?

In 1941, when Merton entered Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance had been changeless for centuries. To take on its rigors was to become changeless yourself, the only growth being spiritual growth. Everything else went. To become a Trappist was to put a final paragraph on your life story.

None of that holds for Thomas Merton, and that is surely an understatement. The 54 years of his life —27 out of the monastery and 27 in — were an astonishing flurry of activity that produced an amazing outflow of changes and contradictions. In his later years, it was as though Merton sensed that he had become a symbol of stability to the millions of his readers. But he wanted no part of the symbolism because it meant he would have to become lifeless.

If people wanted to romanticize Father Louis (his Trappist name) as a holy monk on a mountaintop or as a professional prayer man who was undistracted by worldly pursuits, well, that was their choice. But for Merton, the image was phony. As he wrote in his journal, The Sign of Jonas: “People are starving to death and freezing and here I sit with a silver spoon in my mouth and write books and everybody sends me fan mail telling me how wonderful I am for giving up so much.”

The monk’s appreciation for the irony of things was a quality bound to be dominant in a person whose mind and heart were constantly bouncing off walls of contradiction.

A few of the obvious ones:

To many of the readers of his 50 books and 250 articles, Merton was the last word on authentic spirituality. Yet he wrote to ask for guidance from Rosemary Radford Ruether, the American theologian who currently teaches in Chicago: “Do you think you could help me once in a while? I do not intend to be very demanding on your time, but I would like to feel that I can resort to you for suggestions and advice. Not so much for my work, as just to help me think.”

Merton celebrated his turning from secular pleasures in his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, but in a well-hushed trip to New York City in 1964, he was not only overjoyed to be sprung from the monastery for a few days, but he discovered that the world wasn’t so wicked after all. “The people walking on Fifth Avenue were beautiful,” he wrote. New York “is a stately and grown up city, a true city, life-size, anything but soulless. New York is feminine. It is she, the city. I am faithful to her. I have not ceased to love her to the last gasp of this ball-point pen.”

Merton relished his solitude; he finally moved out of the community to live alone in a hermitage on a lonely part of the monastery property. But he was often as busy as a trainmaster routing visitors in and out of his life. Along with friends from the publishing world and Columbia University, where he had studied, he welcomed people as diverse as Jacques Maritain and Joan Baez, Daniel Berrigan, and John Howard Griffin. His correspondents were all over the globe: oriental mystics, South American poets, Henry Miller, Cardinal Montini, poets, pacifists, and strangers who wrote to him because he seemed to be a person who would understand their troubles.

Sometimes the strain of correspondence became too much, as he confessed in a letter to Henry Miller: “People going down for the third time think a letter will keep them afloat. But often what they are going in is itself an illusion. Sometimes I answer, sometimes I can’t, and I mean not to worry about it. There is a destiny involved there too. But there is no question that we spend our lives battling mountains of crap, and this is no mean exercise.”

If those quotes and correspondence suggest a “different” Merton, it is because some serious biographers lately have been digging out new material. The latest is Monica Furlong, a British writer who had access to Merton’s papers at Bellarmine College in Louisville and St. Bonaventure University in New York.

In Merton: A Biography, Furlong writes that much of Merton’s “struggle on the long road to becoming a contemplative had to do with the problem of identity. The hermit, or just the man who tries to explore solitude, finds himself no longer reassured by the affirmation of others, and may suffer deeply from the emptiness caused by loneliness, feeling that he has ceased to exist. On the far side of this emptiness, Merton believed, there is an identity scarcely dreamed, an identity to be found only in the religious search, and one that sets the contemplative free to love his or her fellow human beings.”

Other biographers have said the same. In Man Before God, Frederic Kelly said that “no social commentator in modern times has combined such a deeply contemplative view of reality on such a broad range of topics over such a long period as has Thomas Merton.”

What the biographers are telling us is something that readers of Merton will understand for themselves soon after they get into his work: however creative and compassionate he was, he was still struggling to make sense out of the same problems that hound the rest of us. For someone who had radically changed the ways of his own life—from an oat-sowing student who fathered a child (later killed, with his mother, in a London air raid in World War II) to a recognized spiritual master — Merton overflowed with soft empathy for others who found the going rough.

In 1966, in a Christmas letter to friends, Merton counseled that the “heart can be filled with much pain even when things are exteriorly ‘all right.’ It becomes all the more difficult because today we are used to thinking that there are explanations for everything. But there is no explanation of most of what goes on in our own hearts, and we cannot account for it all. No use resorting to the kind of mental tranquilizers that even religious explanations sometimes offer. Faith must be deeper than that, rooted in the unknown and in the abyss of darkness that is the ground of our being. No use teasing the darkness to try to make answers grow out of it. But if we learn to have a deep inner patience, things solve themselves, or God solves them, if you prefer. But do not expect to see how. Just learn to wait, and do what you can to help other people, Often in helping someone else we find the best way to bear with our own trouble.”

This wasn’t a Holy Joe sermon. Merton himself had waited through years of hard pain, much of it coming from the superiors of his own order. His abbot, a wily and conservative character who guarded Merton’s image as shrewdly as he marketed the monastery’s cheese and fruitcake, kept him under special wraps. Dom James Fox took it as all but a holy cause to restrain Merton when in the mid-1950s he began seriously considering changing to another, more reclusive, order. He put out the word: good Father Louis is a bit neurotic and is having emotional problems.

A few years later, when Merton sought permission to attend outside conferences or to visit other monasteries (routine activities for others in the order), Dom James said no. It was already questionable enough that Merton was writing about civil rights, war and social justice, all of it prompting The National Catholic Reporter to call Merton “the public monk.” But how would it look if Merton were turned loose? Wouldn’t the public delight in following the city capers of the monk whose image was largely built on solitude and silence? And what, the abbot wondered, would become of holy Gethsemani and its reputation for piety? The prospects were frightening. It would take Merton about a week to write his first life-in the- city book, The Seven Storey Tenement, and another week for every Trappist to read it. The same crowd who piled in to Gethsemani on a Merton book would now be flocking out on a Merton book. And who would be left to bake the fruitcakes?

The subterfuge and snideness by which his abbot controlled Merton became unofficial penances. But however much he grumbled about the shabby treatment he received, he did not let the unfairness embitter him. Rather than withdraw, Merton followed his own advice. He expanded and became concerned with the suffering of others.

Part of that meant being available to the members of his own community. Among the fathers and brothers of Gethsemani, Merton was revered for the sharing of his gifts. A priest and psychiatrist at Gethsemani wrote that Merton “was a true brother. In our community, he was surely one of the best loved of people. His whole manner was open and outgoing and so constantly enthusiastic that he quickly formed community.”

Perhaps Merton formed community in another way, by writing Seven Storey Mountain and seeing the book become, for many people, a recruiting pamphlet for the Trappist life. Twenty years after it came out, when Merton was seasoned and well beyond the first fervor in which he wrote of his conversion, he told an interviewer: I left the book behind many years ago… It is a youthful book, too simple, in many ways, too crude. Everything is laid out in black and white … [it deals in] a clean-cut division between the natural and the supernatural, God and the world, sacred and secular, with boundary lines that were supposed to be quite evident. Since those days, I have acquired a little experience, I think, and have read a few things and tried to help other people with their problems. Life is not as simple as it once looked in Seven Storey Mountain. Unfortunately, the book was a best seller, and has become a kind of edifying legend or something. This is a dreadful fate. I am doing my best to live it down.”

Part of that living down drew Merton into social issues, helping him to fulfill “my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against, the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny.” In a searing essay, which took as a departure the fact that a psychiatrist had examined Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi mass killer, and pronounced him sane, Merton wrote that “the sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous . . . Those who have invented and developed atomic bombs, thermonuclear bombs, missiles; who have planned the strategy for the next war, who have evaluated the various possibilities of using bacterial and chemical agents; these are not the crazy people, they are the sane people. The ones who coolly estimate how many millions of victims can be considered expendable in a nuclear way, I presume they do all right with the Rorschach ink blots too. On the other hand, you will probably find that the pacifists and the ban-the-bomb people are, quite seriously, just as we read in Time magazine, a little crazy.”

During the 1950s and 1960s, when the power of Merton’s writing was a trusted force, one of the intellectual comforts was in believing that not only was this gentle and knowledgeable man on the scene but that he would probably be with us for a long time. Living in a rural monastery, where he sometimes chopped wood and spread manure over the fields for physical exercise, Merton was one person in whom the blows and crashes of modern life would bring on no mid-life coronary. He seemed as safe for old age as the prophets. For decades to come, he would be talking to us — exhorting, stirring and blessing—like a patriarch seeking a covenant.

If we knew better the way things go in this world, Merton’s death at 53 would have been less a disquieting event. The manner of his dying was beyond imagining: by electrocution in a Bangkok hotel room after touching the faulty wiring of a fan. He had gone to Asia to visit some authorities on Oriental mysticism with whom he had been corresponding for years. The trip was no lark; Merton had spent several years, for example, meditating on the sayings and parables of Chuang Tzu, the Taoist sage who lived in Plato’s time. Merton’s interest in Zen was not the coffeehouse mysticism fashionable in America in the late 1960s (and lingering well into the 1970s). For a start, he understood that the spiritual discipline of Zen is impossible without a matching of moral discipline.

It may well have been that Merton’s trip to the East was a moment of rejuvenation, after a stroke of good luck that saw his old abbot resign and be replaced by a man more sympathetic to Merton’s travel requests. But it is impossible to read The Asian Journal without sensing that his understanding of the East was that of someone looking for what Merton called “a new language of prayer.” He wrote as a visitor who was intent on taking something home with him that would be lasting: “I think we have now reached a state of long overdue religious maturity at which it may be possible to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment, and yet learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline and experience. I believe that some of us need to do this to improve the quality of our own monastic life and even to help in the task of monastic renewal which has been undertaken within the Western church.”

As with many persons who did most things well, time is still needed on judgments on what Merton did best. He was a spiritual seeker who, in the tradition of St. John of the Cross and Ruysbroek, elevated religion well beyond the merely pious. He could write strong poetry, as Mark Van Doren said, in which “all the senses work together to one end, the letting of things declare themselves.” His social criticism was grounded in pacifism. He suspected the idea that a return to paradise is imminent if only the world would get out of America’s way.

However the judgments turn out, evidence exists that Merton saw himself as fragmented by having several vocations within a vocation. A self existed and a God existed, and the point of living is to increase the closeness of the two.

In an essay, “Is the Contemplative Life Finished?” Merton wrote that what must happen in the monasteries is much the same that must happen everywhere else, in our homes, schools and worksites: “What each of us has to do and what I have to do is to buckle down and really start investigating new possibilities in our own life; and if new possibilities mean radical changes, all right. Maybe we need radical changes for which we have to struggle and sweat some blood. . . But on the other hand, let these be real changes and not just neurotic upheaval.”

Thomas Merton currently has two of kinds of readers. One group has been with him all along, friends and followers who put up with the mediocrity of many of his books — the little ground-out devotionals—but who cherish such fecund works as Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and The Behavior of Titans. The other group includes those for whom Merton is a new voice recently discovered, perhaps having heard him for the first time in school or in early adulthood when the need for authenticity and guidance runs deep.

Merton, whatever his role in an individual’s life, was not a man apart. He saw himself simply, as a “self-questioning human person who, like all his brothers, struggles to cope with a turbulent, mysterious, demanding, frustrating, confused existence.”

That is the starting point for everyone— and the ending point, too. The quality of the movement in between measures the worthiness of the struggle.

from The Washington Post

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537-.372.

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