[This article was first published in the October 17, 1969 issue of Commonweal]
Himmler, October 4, 1943, in a speech to S.S. Generals: “‘Most of you must know what it means when 100 corpses are lying ride by side, or 500, or 1,000. To have stuck it out and at the same time––apart from exceptions due to human weakness––to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.”
“Pardon, Herr General,” wrote Thomas Merton, “I cannot refrain from writing it.”
Merton had complained bitterly about his writing from the beginning of his monastic life in the Kentucky hills at Gethsemani in 1941, but he wrote prolifically for the next 27 years of his life, until he died in Thailand in December, 1968, 27 years to the day that he had knocked on Gethsemani’s doors. He was ordered to by his abbots, but also, it seems reasonably clear, he could not refrain, partly because he was an artist but also because he was increasingly concerned with being in meaningful contact with the “world” which, in his youth, he had been rather finicky about.
Nevertheless, from the beginning Merton wrote and wrote, though Seven Storey Mountain and The Sign of Jonas are filled with complaints and self-recriminations about both his orders to and his desire to write. Not only did he write more than three dozen books of poems, meditations, history and spiritual investigation, but, he carried on a voluminous correspondence with people all over the world. His publishing career is not over at his death: an early novel, My Agreement With the Gestapo, written before he entered the Trappists, was published by Doubleday in the summer of 1969; and a mosaic of poems and dreams has just been published by New Directions, called The Geography of Lograire.
And I have no doubt that his career is far from over now, or that what is to come will show us more about where this extraordinary man, this extraordinarily gifted writer, was going, or thinking of going. He had in later life become interested in Buddhism and had written a book called Mystics and Zen Masters and other items on Eastern mysticism. He had, also, he told us in his autobiographical best-seller Seven Storey Mountain, ransacked the shelves of Columbia University library in 1937 and 1938 for books on the spirituality of the East. In a number of ways he seems to come full circle, and in others one can see a straightforward and exciting line. He was of a number of minds about a lot of things. I thought him annoying when I had the impression that he was elitist and condescending toward the world outside the monastery’s walls. Well, he made no bones, he was frequently at odds with the world inside the monastery, too.
His attitude with regard his writing points to the nature of Merton’s temptations toward a spectrum of dualisms. He tells us in Seven Storey Mountain of his earliest misgivings about a writing career. When he first got ideas about writing (Merton was, after all, already a writer on entering the monastery; aside from the just published novel, he had destroyed three-and-a-half works of fiction, but preserved his poetry), he spoke about them to his abbot, who was not slow in taking the hint.
It was a time of great activity, since somewhat lessened, for Gethsemani. The monastery was attracting many candidates, establishing numerous daughter houses, getting a lot of attention from the lay world, and being asked a lot of advice. So the pamphlet racks at Gethsemani guest house began to fill up with booklets called, “A Trappist says…,” “A Trappist declares…,” “A Trappist implores…,” “A Trappist asserts…,” –– occasionally, Merton remarks ironically, even something about the contemplative life. As for himself, his first book, Thirty Poems, was published at the end of 1944. Then Merton, the publishable monk poet and writer, becomes Merton the exploitable asset, and is ordered to write; now Merton the writer (because writing is not contemplation, and writing is what the old Merton, the worldly Merton, had wanted to do) becomes Merton the enemy.
“So it is not hard to see,” he writes in Mountain, “that this is a situation in which my double, my shadow, my enemy, Thomas Merton, the old man of the sea, has things in his favor. If he suggests books about the Order, his suggestions are heard. If he thinks up poems to be printed and published, his thoughts are listened to. There seems to be no reason why he should not write for magazines…”
In his own heart, he did not think it was God’s will. But Father Abbot had said, “I want you to go on writing poems,” and further exhorted him to write something “to make people love the spiritual life.” So he continued writing; the record is public, except for thousands of letters in recipients’ possession the world over. With the publication of Seven Storey Mountain, he became an international celebrity, the most popularly read spiritual writer of his time. After the book was clearly on its way, he complains: “I caught myself thinking, ‘If they make it into a movie, will Gary Cooper be the hero?’“