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The always informative and challenging Austen Ivereigh has an interesting post on the America blog, concerning Archbishop Rembert Weakland's assessment of his fellow monk, Thomas Merton. Here is how he sums up Weakland's view:

In sum, Weakland is saying that Merton was arrogant, formulaic, not very Benedictine, and he wrote not very good theology -- and the speech he gave before he died was inappropriate and badly received. Phew.

I am not quite certain of the exegesis of "phew," but I confess to sharing some of Weakland's unease. Without gainsaying that many have found Merton's writings helpful, they often struck me as more "notional" than the fruit of a matured experience.But I would be interested in others' views, based on their reading of Merton.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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I haven't read Weakland's memoir, but Ivereigh's summary description seems a bit harsher than the bits he actually quotes from Weakland. Reading Merton played a big part in my own conversion. Re-reading him over the ensuing decades, I'll admits that some of it has not worn particularly well (for me, some of the "hippier" of the 60s writings are particularly painful, as Merton strove to show how groovy he was). At this point, I think some of it is very good (e.g. New Seeds of Contemplation), some of it is very bad, and much of it is OKish.

What F.C. said. Merton's religious background was a lot like my own. Nil. (Plus he was also proud of his Welsh heritage).And the story of how faith crept up on him in "The Seven Story Mountain" pushed me toward conversion, but only as far as Anglicanism. The Catholicism came later, after Merton sparked an interest in monasticism and the saints.I've seen Merton panned by several of our more orthodox friends on this blog. And now by Weakland. Perhaps he's going through a period of unpopularity, but I wouldn't discount his appeal to the unchurched and Protestants. Perhaps the larger question is whether he adequately represents the faith to outsiders who connect with him.

Bob, I'm curious: what criteria do you use to determine that someone's articulation of faith is merely notional rather than out of a mature experience?

It's been said that home is where they have to take you back. I see Merton as a displaced person, with some severe charach=ter weaknesses who in his early years searched for his home. The child of an Australian and an American, born in France, then shuttled off to England when they both died, then packed off to his American relatives after behaving very badly at Oxford, he was really rootless. But I think he found the home he longed for at his monastery, where he remained weak and also an adventurer, considering switching to another Benedictine group, and considering becoming a hermit in Alaska. Was this a Benedictine life? Well, there are a number of different sorts of Benedictines, and maybe he was just sui generis. When I compare his spiritual teachings with those of others I find that initiallly it was a search for a personal God, one to be found in isolation in the depths of one's soul, Still he retained a concern for this world and all the people outside the walls, which I think is very Benedictine. (My father's family were close to the Benedictines -- they lived next door to an abbey, and later I got to know some of them. So I have a bit of experience to draw on.). True,, other spiritual traditions have concern for those outside the walls, but I find the Ignatian tradition too focused on MY journey, as is the spirituality of Bernard of Clairvaux (a very different sort of Benedictine -- one willing to promote a war), To me they talk as if holiness can be measured in steps. Both those traditions can too easily produce a sort of smugness not found, I think, in Merton or in the great influence on Merton, St. John of the Cross. Like St. John his burning interest was to love God, and, in spite of all his weakness he tried mightily to do so. This is why I find him so helpful. He is for the chronically weak who know very well that love of God is not the same thing as the state of one's soul on some metaphorical trip. (I think of Teddy Kennedy here.) It seems to me what is most important about him is his interest in dialogue with the Asian traditions. Yes, I think he was attracted to the Asian sloughing off of personhood, and he at tolerated speaking as if the mystic is somehow identical with God, but he would pull back. Case in point: his mystical experience of the presence of God within nature which he describes in his Journals shortly before his death. Unlike all the other Western mystics I've read, except for a very few Protestant ones, he apparently became intimately aware of the immanence of God in nature. What he found specifically was God-as-Compassion present in this baleful world. Merton *saw* that God is actually here in physical creation, and he saw that He suffers with us. This, of course, links him to the Buddha and suggests to me that the Buddha was not the godless pagan he is often painted. Merton, an adventurer to the end, opened a door to the East, I think history will treat him very, very kindly.

Merton was very influential to me as well.I find his insights rich and personal and agree with Ann's view.I think he resonated with the apophatic tradition of mysticism (e.g. John of the Cross and to a lesser degree Meister Eckhart).This affective or emotional sympathy with the apophatic mystics combined with a strongly embedded Western philosophical formation (he seemed to be drawn to the neo-Thomism) left him conflicted, I think.Toward the end of his life he was drawn, not surprisingly, to the Eastern forms of spirituality. Say what you will of Buddhism and its relationship with the body, but Buddhists seem to be a VERY stong force in terms of engaging with humanity from a spiritual and compassionate point of view. Merton was drawn to political engagement of his day but, engaging, in that way probably wasn't his vocation. He had to sort it out in the monastery.Personally, I have found him a good teacher and although I need to return to my contemplative and meditative practice WAY more, i know that when I do I find a wise guide in Merton who makes spirituality accessible.There are many others too but Merton I do like nothwithstanding a kind of Western bias in his exposition of spirituality.

PSAs for the degree of :conversion of life", I will leave that to his fellow monks to discern.If that is the judgement that he needed more - then that is probably true. He might have been much to active himself (writing) for a monk. One criticism i heard was that Thomas Merton wanted to be a hermit with a bright neon sign pointing to him saying HERMIT.LOL. Maybe so but we all have or indiosyncracies

You'd be surprised how influential the Seven Storey Mountain still is among religious seekers who turn up at RCIA. If he had no other legacy than to make people think about Catholicism with keen interest, that would be enough, in my book, although I tend to agree with Ann about the dialogue with Buddhism.

Who has not been influenced by Merton? Orthodx and liberal claim him as their own. He paralells Augustine in that both were affected by changes in their life and the wars of their times. Augustine by the invasion of the "barbarians" and Merton by the Vietnam war. Both were affected by the times in which they lived. What is notable about both of them is that we know a lot about their storied lives. Neither are Catholics of the Council of Trent although Merton was early on. They had flaws like every saint or Christian. It has always been a mistake to paint saints in a perfect light which was and is preposterous. We are a sinful people working to appreciate the mercy of God and to let our light shine before others. When that light does not shine as desired we pick ourselves up and go at it again. To be suprised at a person or saint's flaws is truly immature. Merton may have been unfair to Weakland and one wonders if this is not payback.

Mereton's writings have always epitomized this to me:"To see what is in front of ones nose needs a constant struggle." (G. Orwell)Of course, to understand what one sees is even a greater, more constant struggle.

Merton: I read the Seven Story Mountain with enthusiasm. But never found the same energy or interest in his later works. Weakland on Merton...I believe he found Merton's grasp of liturgical life and practice thin.Elsewhere in Weakland's memoir is a surprisingly sympathetic account of his friendhsip with Paul VI. Weakland was then Abbot Primate of the Benedictines. Perhaps in contrast to Merton (though he doesn't say so), Weakland found Paul very much in tune with the Benedictine tradition.

One characteristic of Merton's writing is its collections of "good" and "bad" words. Good words include solitude, contemplation, and for the later Merton, existential. Bad words include phony and noisy.A large community is going to have phoniness and noisiness, and these will be at odds with one's solitary experiences. What is the resolution? For Merton, it did seem to be escape.

I spent quite a bit of time at Gethsemani after graduating from college. I was shocked to find after chatting with some monks who lived with Merton, several were dismissive of his piety, his theology, etc, etc....I inquired about these less than stellar impressions with one of Merton's novices, Fr. Matthew Kealty (whose book, Sermons in a Monastery: Chapter Talks, is stellar). He ruminated that among his contemporaries, Fr. Louis had cultivated some jealously and their opinions of him were stained. I wonder if Fr. Weakland's glasses are tinted in the same way? Even at that time (97') there were quite a few novices and junior monks who thanked Merton for their vocations. While I agree that some of his writings are dated, his theology unorthodox, and his journals paint him as a human with failings (thank God) his mark on American Catholicism is difficult to overstate.

Whether Merton's work was "notional" or "mature", his influence was and is extensive and tremendously positive.That does not mitigate some of Weakland's critique, though he too had his weaknesses in judgement.Ah complexity - it seems to sit at the heart of gaining " mature jdgement" a rather large phrase - but one that can see the values in a variety of views. And, the difficulty of bringing them together.Over at NCR, there's an editorial stating that "mature Christians" can' tabide the investigation of our religious women. Is that the case and what does one do about it?

A number of Commonweal readers have commented upon Merton's impact on their own lives. I blogged last month about a very interesting Australian Broadcasting interview that I found online about why Merton's Seven Story Mountain spoke so powerfully to the anxieties of an earlier, post-World War II, generation and helped foster the dramatic rise in ecclesial vocations between the war and the Council. No one expected sales of 600,000."Opinion polls of young people around that time show that often the majority of young people did not expect to live a normal, full life, they were convinced that they would die in war, atomic holocaust or something like that.So it was a time when the modern world seemed to have little appeal. In the midst of this I think the appeal was not so much to some future vision, because the future seemed pretty bleak indeed to those who thought about it, but rather looking back at the past. Was there a civilisation in the past that seemed to work better? And were there institutions in the world that preserved the values of that past, despite everything the world had been through. And in this context I think the Roman Catholic church and its vision, however idealised it may have been, of the Middle Ages, came out very well."

Among my classmates during formation, both husbands and wives, "The Seven Story Mountain" was very popular. Conversion stories are extremely important to Christian believers, even those of us who come from liturgical/formal churches. In today's world, I'd think there aren't many ardent Christian adults who didn't arrive at wherever they are in their faith journey without the boost of at least one conversion experience.

Sharing my views on Merton would take more time than I have right now. However, I'm not sure that Weakland's 4-5 lines on Merton really rise to the level of a critique. They come in a chapter that captures a wide range of recollections from Weakland's travels around the world as Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Order. Weakland is basically telling the story of his brief encounter with Merton at the conference where Merton died, and provides some context that reflects tensions between the more "active" Benedictines (the monastery where Weakland professed vows ran both parishes and schools) and the stricter Trappists. Given his academic bent, there were aspects of Merton's conversion that probably do come across as "notional" (how many other people have had conversion experiences as a result of reading Etienne Gilson's "The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy?"). But his biography suggests his conversion also had deeply personal and affective elements. I suspect the combination may be what makes Merton so appealing. I do sometimes wonder whether Merton's mysticism leaned more toward the unitarian than the trinitarian, although our Eastern brethren might say that about Western mysticism in general...:-)

It read to me, as the disgraced archbishop himself notes, like a classic black monk v. white monk controversy--with its origins all the way back in the 12th century.

Merton's mysticism appears to lean more towards Unatarian_Universalism: you have The Trinity and add Buddha: then have a quadinity, add Zen, you have a quininity, and so on-Which is why it is important to understand the Filioque, and why The Holy Spirit is The Love Between the Father and The Son to begin with.

Would echo Mr. Nixon's comments. When you posted this, I had just reached that section of his autobiography.Also, the quotes, in a way, take the full comments by Weakland out of context; set the reader up to get a negative view. Re-read the roughly 3 pages and the material not quoted in this post.In fact, Weakland does have some reservations about Merton's writings and his talk at that conference (seemed to be off point) but he ends this section on Merton by positively stating that Merton contributed and accomplished much especially in terms of spirituality between East and West preparing a new door of understanding in terms of ecumenism - focus on spirituality rather than on dogma, etc.

Nancy -That Wikipedia article was obviously written by more than one person. He was a very complex man, and his writings aren't always consistent. But neither are the writings of St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. And he sometimes changed his opinions.According to his secretary, one of the monks, at the very end of Merton'slife he had considered liiving as a hermit in Alaska, but he decided to stick with the monks at Gethsemanie. And he never rejected Church teachings as far as I know. But interpreting them is often often a problem. Correction of my first post: Merton attended Cambridge, not Oxford, and his father was from NewZraland, not Australia.

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