The Myth, the Monk, the Man

Reading & Rereading Thomas Merton
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When The Seven Storey Mountain was published in 1949 and became an instant classic, Thomas Merton was only thirty-four years old and had been a Trappist monk for just seven years. The book made him the most famous monk in the world, and he would remain both agent and symbol of the rapidly changing face of Catholicism in the twentieth century until his untimely death at the age of fifty-three. On the centenary of his birth, it is appropriate to celebrate the remarkable role he played and the influence he exerted in what was, by any measure, a short life, and to appreciate the complex psychological pressures and spiritual ambitions that made Merton’s life at once painful and creative. I know that others whose lives were touched by Merton will understand if this short essay is as much personal as it is analytic. One of Merton’s gifts as a writer was the ability to insinuate himself into the lives of people he had never met, and remain, even decades after his death, inexplicably a significant and deeply personal presence. That was certainly true for me. 

I was fourteen years old in 1958 when I read The Seven Storey Mountain, restricted to the seminary infirmary and slightly feverish with appendicitis. Orphaned at age eleven, I was just looking for a home that was safe and sane, and somehow found myself a seminarian for the Natchez-Jackson diocese at St. Joseph Seminary, with Benedictine monks as my teachers and surrogate fathers. Merton’s masterpiece was undoubtedly a key element in speeding my own decision to become a monk. Although I was already steeping myself in Belloc and Chesterton, those hardy Catholic apologists of an earlier generation, Merton introduced me to another sort of voice altogether. It captured me entirely.

How great this book then seemed, how glamorous! Here, it seemed to me, was the Augustine of the twentieth century, the intellectual and bohemian sinner who found his home in Catholicism. Part of the appeal of the book, as with Augustine’s Confessions, was its classic structure of sin and conversion. In this case, of course, sin was appealingly clothed in a worldly sophistication I had earlier met only in novels. Merton had been born into the world of art and literature, attended renowned universities, frequented plays and jazz clubs. Yet he fled from that charmed world and entered Gethsemane (the site of crucifixion!), forsaking all the wiles of Satan for the disciplines of the monastic life. This journey made him the perfect exemplification of pre–Vatican II piety and, for a reader twenty-eight years his junior, a mythic figure.

And such he remained for me and countless others, many of whom followed him into monasticism. I entered St. Joseph Abbey in 1963 and left in 1973. Merton was known to us then through his books on spirituality. For idealistic readers like me, The Sign of Jonas (1953) provided only glimpses of the inner struggles that would emerge so much more clearly when the full collection of Merton’s journals was published. It was The Sign of Jonas, I suspect, that sealed the deal for my entering monastic life. Why? Because it revealed just enough of the personal experience of monasticism to be enticing, and it was enticing precisely because of the difficulties that the life evidently entailed!

As a guide to the inner life, ascetical and contemplative, Thomas Merton served young monks of my generation as a steady, sane, and reliable master. Each new book—Seeds of Contemplation (1949), Ascent to Truth (1951), No Man Is an Island (1955), Thoughts in Solitude (1958)—was eagerly read and uncritically accepted as wise counsel for those of us trying to be monks. I remember, for example, how illuminating for a would-be young poet were his reflections on poetry and contemplation in the appendix to his early collection, Thirty Poems (1944). However, such books revealed little of Merton’s own struggles with cenobitism and his fascination with the eremitical life.

When Merton subsequently made his momentous turn to the world, thousands of his readers were willing to follow him in this direction as well. The turn was actually twofold: first, he expanded his already capacious appreciation for diverse paths of spirituality into a sustained conversation with Sufism, Buddhism, and, above all, the practice of Zen. In works like Mystics and Zen Masters (1967) and Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968), he introduced readers to a conversation that he had begun some time before, with religious traditions other than Catholic or even Christian. For his faithful admirers, he opened paths toward God that Catholicism had long regarded mostly with suspicion. Second, he began to explicitly address the major social issues of the day: capitalism and the distortions of consumerism; war (especially nuclear) and peace; civil rights. From his deep immersion in the traditions of contemplation, he joined with Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers to bring a Catholic voice to the social struggles of the 1960s. In books like Seeds of Destruction (1964), Faith and Violence (1965), Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966), and Raids on the Unspeakable (1966), Merton gave voice to a distinctive prophetic perspective on “the world” that he had once seemed determined to turn away from. Now he spoke about worldly concerns with a clear sense of urgency. His own turn matched Vatican II’s spirit of aggiornamento, but did so with a tone that was perhaps less expectant and more challenging. What made Merton’s social engagement so powerful, I think, was precisely that it emerged from the depths of Catholic and monastic spirituality.

After I left the monastery at the age of twenty-eight and tried to learn how to be a husband, father, and citizen, I thought of Merton as a figure from a former life, remembered mainly for what he once had meant to me and for some passages of his writing that had etched themselves in my brain. Only after many years had passed, when I was older than Merton himself was when he died, did I read all of his journals and many of his letters. In the process, I discovered him all over again. This time I did not see him as a mythic and infallible guide to a life I no longer lived, but as a living voice speaking beyond the specific and fascinating circumstances of his circumscribed vocation to my human condition as well. I discovered him anew as a difficult and attractive human being, who in turn charmed and infuriated me, but who always made his humanity palpably real and present on the page.

 

READING THE JOURNALS and letters enabled me to consider again the reasons why Merton remains vividly alive and pertinent to so many today, when other theological voices of the twentieth century seem locked in the past. There is in the first place, I think, his fluid style of writing, which is everywhere light and slightly jazzy, everywhere accessible and easy to read, everywhere at once revealing and camouflaging an impressive level of erudition. The man read and assimilated an astonishing amount, and his vast learning informs everything he wrote, without intruding through footnotes or technical jargon. In fact, when Merton was most explicitly didactic, he was least effective. His writing was most compelling when it was most personal, when his eyes and ears and sensitive sense of things were immediately present in his prose.

The directness of his style is in part due to his process of composition. He used his journals to think through what he had read and experienced in the preparation of lessons for younger monks. Consequently, there was a seamless transition from communicating with himself and his brothers to communicating with readers outside the monastery. Merton always wrote directly out of his personal experience, whether that was the experience of the liturgy or of manual labor, or  the experience of reading Scripture or Bernard of Clairvaux, or Meister Eckhart. In each instance, his words took on the distinctive character of personal witness. In this regard, he anticipated and doubtless influenced such later spiritual writers as Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, and Roberta Bondi.

Part of the excitement in reading Merton early and late was sharing his sense of engagement with whatever engaged him. Merton’s readers explored new things as Merton explored them. We think of the twentieth-century theologians before Vatican II as involved in ressourcement, the recovery of sources. It is easy to forget how much of the Christian tradition Merton learned as an ebullient amateur and then taught—with joy and enthusiasm—to others. He made the monastic mode of reading Scripture available to others (Bread in the Wilderness [1953], The Living Bread [1956], Praying the Psalms [1956]). He studied and celebrated the patristic and monastic riches of Clement of Alexandria, John Cassian, and the great teachers within the Cistercian and Carthusian traditions. He took thinkers within Orthodoxy seriously. He sought connections between the classics of Christian spirituality and those of other religions. In short, he educated several generations of Catholics in a Catholicism that transcended the narrow bounds of scholasticism and the rigid formalism of modern clerical culture. Merton’s “turn to the world” was, in this sense, a logical development of a Catholicism that was, and had always been, larger and more embracing than many of his contemporaries were able to see.

It was this catholic sensibility that made his engagement with the world of politics and culture so convincing. When he first entered Gethsemane he imagined that religious commitment required separation and detachment. His course of reading and reflection—and the wide-ranging conversations that his publications and fame brought to him—eventually led him to understand that a religious vocation is not a thing apart. Monks, too, were called to be responsible citizens of the world. Ascending to the truth through a life of prayer and contemplation did not have as its end the perfection or satisfaction of the monk. Rather, its proper end was to speak the truth in love to a world desperately in need of the reality disclosed by the monastic life of prayer and contemplation. In the end, Thomas Merton was what we now call a “public theologian” precisely because he grounded himself in a specific and private place.

 

HE JOURNALS, MORE THAN any of the works published during his lifetime, also show us a psychologically complex Merton, who can fairly be called “a thoroughly modern monk.” He was a man who, although deliberately and deeply steeped in traditions from antiquity, embodied contradictions that seem to be distinctively modern. No one can miss, for example, a trace of narcissism—a constant care for the self—that runs through his life and of which he was at least partially aware. Indeed, he tried to combat that failing through the disciplines of charity and a deep concern for friends and strangers alike. Perhaps it is because of the nature of a personal journal, but we find in it very little about the states of mind of others, or the health of the monastic community. The journals suggest that the most famous monk of the twentieth century was not really a monk, in this most basic sense: at the heart of the monastic life is the refusal to see oneself as an exception or as exceptional; obedience to the rule and the abbot do not apply only to others, they apply above all to oneself. But such a sense of being special everywhere pervades Merton’s journals. This explains, it seems to me, his struggle concerning the cenobite life and his hankering to be a Carthusian or Camaldolese, thus the quest to live as a hermit; to be fully alone is to be fully special.

Closely connected to such self-preoccupation is Merton’s struggle with celebrity. On one side, there was his desire to be a solitary; on the other side was the prodigious production of books that constantly fueled his fame, stimulated a flood of correspondence and a steady stream of visitors to the monastery door. Such attention—and much of it from those of great worldly status—must have titillated Merton, even as it drove him deeper into the Kentucky woods. He had made Gethsemane a tourist spot but was deeply ambivalent about being its main attraction. Think of what his life would have been like today in the age of electronic communication. Merton would have found it hard to resist being on Twitter, and would have been miserable inside his self-constructed maze of media.

I compared Thomas Merton to Augustine of Hippo. Those who know Augustine well will recognize some of Merton’s foibles in the ancient saint. Augustine too was more than a little self-preoccupied, was also the victim of a fame that was largely self-generated, was also a man with a restless heart that longed for the rest that could be found only in God. Merton’s journals show us a man who is, in Nietszche’s phrase, “human, all too human.” For readers like me, the posthumously published journals were essential in helping to make a once mythic figure and monastic icon more accessible and attractive. Discovering the warts and wrinkles, the psychic quirks and limitations, does not detract from but rather enhances appreciation of Merton’s stupendous accomplishments, and of his remarkable loyalty to a way of life for which he was perhaps temperamentally not perfectly fitted. We can see all the more clearly now that Thomas Merton bore witness to God with a passion that never wavered, and with a freshness that does not grow stale.

Published in the September 11, 2015 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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