THOMAS MERTON (1915- 1968) CISTERCIAN MONK and AUTHOR
Thomas Merton arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemani to become a Trappist monk on the 10th of December 1941. As he explained later, prominent in his decision to seek God in a cloistered monastery, far removed from the world he had been formed in, was a rejection of the modern world whose violence repelled him and whose seductions had led to misery. This attitude of disappointment with a society that he had found to be unable to deliver the happiness it promised is evidenced in the way he told the story of his life and conversion. However, his entry into the cloister was felt as a deliverance not an evasion. The grace of Christ called him to a union with God that with time and experience grew stronger and purer. As the implications of this search became explicit in daily life he felt impelled by the same Spirit who had brought him to the monastery to share, in extended detail, in writings that were the fruit of experience. His earliest writings were concerned somewhat narrowly, with the inner development of his conversion and of his early years in the monastery.
When his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was translated into Japanese he spoke of his development some twenty years after he entered the community in words that reveal the turn taken by his inner life and the new emphasis on the social, political and interpersonal that replaced the more negative features of his earlier attitude toward the world, at the time of his decision to enter the monastery.
When I wrote this book, the fact uppermost in my mind was that I had seceded from the world of my time in all clarity and with total freedom. The break and the secession were, to me, matters of the greatest importance. Hence the somewhat negative tone of so many parts of this book.
Since that time, I have learned, I believe, to look back into that world with greater compassion, seeing those in it not as alien to myself, not as strangers, but as identified with myself…. But precisely because I am identified with them, I must refuse all the more definitively to make their delusions my own. (“Honorable Reader”: Reflections On My Work, 63)
Thomas Merton was as yet a layman and was but twenty-four years of age when he began to write his autobiography. He was in the Order less than seven years, still a student preparing for the priesthood, when he published this work which quickly caused him to become the most widely-known monk in the twentieth century- the first edition sold 600,000 copies. By the time of his death he was the most popular spiritual writer in America. It was not mere egotism that led him to write about his own life in extended detail and at such an early age; rather, he had a firm and enduring conviction that the most effective way to speak of God in the twentieth century was in the spontaneous language of personal experience. His writing is representative of what Fr. Jean Leclercq has called “monastic theology”. He eschewed technical, academic speech (except in The Ascent to Truth, a work he later judges with much severity). He maintained this conviction after entering the cloister, and became an indefatigable diarist, even though, as he realized well, such publication was seemingly in conflict with the ideal of the hidden life that had its own strong appeal for him.
He soon discovered that, though his own abbot supported and encouraged him, yet writing in such a personal style for the public was also in conflict with the practice of the Order at the time. The censors and the Abbot General raised this objection to the autobiography and to the monastic journal covering his early years in the abbey, The Sign of Jonas. Significantly, when the General at first expressed this objection in a verbal exchange, Merton was not shaken in his opinion. He accepted the decision but replied “I wish I had a journal of St. Bernard’s from the twelfth century.” Other influential persons agreed with Merton. Later, Dom Gabriel Sortais withdrew his refusal at the urgings of Jacques Maritain who, among other things, noted that it contained some of the finest writing of the century. Prior to publication Merton had recorded in his journal his conviction that his writings would have an impact on the spiritual lives of many and summarily gives his reasons for this conviction.
Since I belong to God and my life belongs to Him and my book is His and He is managing them all for His glory, I only have to take what comes and do the small part that is allotted to me… It seems to me there can be great possibilities in all this. God has woven my crazy existence, even my mistakes and my sins, into his plan for a new society…. Now I see what it is all leading up to: to the happiness and the peace and the salvation of many people I have never known. (“The Intimate Merton”, editors Brother Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, 55, 56).
Merton had many occasions to reflect on his work as a writer and its place in his life as a cloistered monk. Yet, he remained convinced that writing played a major role in his contemplative life and could be adjusted to the Cistercian way of life. Writing, he noted, came easily to him; he wrote very rapidly while instinctively giving attention to the requirements of art and style. Writing, he observed in his journal, was a way of clarifying his thought. The process assisted him to discern God’s will. It also responded to his social instincts, his strong urge to share with others. He noted some of his thoughts about [publishing his books, personal as they are, especially the journals.
Why would I write anything if not to be read? This journal is written for publication…. If a journal is written for publication, then you can tear out pages of it, emend it, correct it, and write with art. If it is a personal document, every emendation amounts to a crisis of conscience and a confession, not an artistic correction. If writing is a matter of conscience and not of art, there results an unpardonable confusion - an equivocation worthy of a Wordsworth. (op. cit., 21)
Merton was a talented author who had a gift for communicating personal experience of life in Christ as lived in the monastery. His manner created for many a sense that he understood their own experiences and aspirations. Those who met him in person were quick to feel he was sympathetic, quick of understanding and friendly so that many quickly came to feel he was a personal friend. The Dalai Lama, for one, remarked when Merton died that he felt he had lost a close friend, though they had met but a few times. Merton’s intent in publishing was not to achieve literary fame but to make known God’s mercy and grace. His story and the monastic experiences he chronicled in his journals brought to popular attention awareness of the existence of monasticism in the United States. It also encouraged many who lived outside the cloister to aspire to a more profoundly personal, even contemplative prayer. His appeal is not limited to his own language and culture. He has been translated into at least 27 different languages. The autobiography remains in print these fifty-five years. He has been for many the most influential religious figure of the Church of his time, “one of the great theologians of the twentieth century” (Anglican Fr. Donald Allchin), ”the best known monk since Luther” (New York Times). He is surely the most widely read monk of our Order since St. Bernard. Well over three million copies of his works have been published. The list of books written about Merton since his death includes hundreds of titles. There are a number of Merton Societies in various countries as well as an International Merton Society that regularly study his thought, applying his spirituality and perpetuating his memory. The Merton Annual has so far published 14 volumes of articles and reviews that treat of his thought, his social involvements and his spiritual legacy. The breadth of his influence is no less striking than the extent of his readership. Writings concerning his work include articles by Protestants, Anglicans, Tibetan Buddhists, Zen adherents, specialists in Islam and the Sufi tradition and scholars of the Orthodox mystical teachings. This is but a partial list of areas where he made a significant contribution.. Any number of persons have been and still are influenced by their reading of Merton to enter religious life, to live a more spiritual life, even to enter the Catholic Church.
What qualities of mind, heart and character and formation did Thomas Merton possess that enabled him to achieve such an impressive ascendancy? Fr. Jean Leclercq, the dean of monastic studies in the second half of the twentieth century, has spoken of some of Merton’s works as spiritual classics (New Seeds of Contemplation and The Sign of Jonas). He observed that Merton had a penetrating intelligence that carried him quickly to the heart of any issue he took up. He possessed a broad human culture in literature, the arts, theology and classical and modern languages all of which he carried with a modest ease that avoided any show of superiority.
Those who lived with him in the monastery and wrote about their impressions of Merton agree that he was a modest, friendly and humble brother, devoid of all airs of superiority. In private sessions he was invariably attentive, understanding and a good listener. All of us students appreciated his teaching and spiritual direction. He brought an enthusiasm to his classes that made the material come alive whether he spoke of the Early Cistercians or the theology of St. Paul’s epistles or of prayer. That Merton had a swift intelligence and a remarkably rapid apprehension of the relative importance of matters taken up in his class and in his reading would have been intimidating had he not taken pains to maintain a certain light and friendly tone. It seems to me he deliberately used humor as a way of eschewing all pomposity and in order to create a friendly and relaxed atmosphere favorable to establishing a good group spirit and fraternal relations among his students and novices.
One reason he could live the monastic schedule and yet manage to write and publish such vast number of articles and books is that he could take in the sense of a page so rapidly. He also wrote with comparable swiftness. All of his classes were very well prepared; in fact, he inevitably had about three times as much material than he covered and would skim over his pages quickly choosing what points he would bring out while skipping over a good deal. Eventually those class notes would turn up in some publication or other. He gave the impression of being rather free of spirit, ebullient and even at times playful. But he regularly conveyed a seriousness of purpose at the same time, so that he always had the respect of the brothers. Nobody presumed to get overly free or unduly familiar with him, or to take up his time with trivialities. He was very disciplined in his use of time and knew how to cut things short when conversation became too long or not relevant to the purpose. To judge from his journals, Merton himself seems not to have been aware of the depth of the esteem and affection that he inspired and we willingly gave, in good part because we were reticent in expressing such personal attitudes. Nor did he encourage it.
Though he made it clear he was not an expert in any particular field, including theology, Merton read widely and with an intensity of purpose that facilitated his absorbing large amount of information. The range of his interests remained very broad throughout his monastic years. That he also read with penetration is attested by knowledgeable persons in fields as various as Orthodox theology, Sufism and Buddhism. The Dalai Lama remarked after his meetings with Merton in the weeks preceding his death that “I thought it quite fit, appropriate, to call him a Catholic Geshe. This means a ‘scholar”, or “learned one”. Also I could say he was a holy man.” (Merton: By Those Who Knew Him Best, Paul Wilkes, 147). Another feature of Merton’s personality was his uncommon ability to identify with so many different kinds of persons and so to communicate a personal concern for them. He made friends of a wide variety of persons he never met in person, in fact, and was very much aware of that. His writing communicated a personal encounter that caused numerous readers to feel that his experiences as described were very similar to his own. Many felt they knew him personally. That he was aware of this feature of his writing is evident from his Preface to the Japanese translation of his autobiography.
Therefore, most honorable reader, it is not as an author that I would speak to you, not as a story-teller, not as a philosopher, not as a friend only: I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self Who can tell what this may mean: I myself do not know. But if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me, but to One who lives and speaks in both.” (“Honorable Reader”, 67)“
This reference to “the One who speaks to both” raises a final point regarding Merton’s character and the reason for his large and continuing influence. At the beginning of this essay I mentioned that Thomas Merton came to the monastery to seek God. The disillusionment he felt with the world as he had experienced it was influential only in a secondary way; freed from pursuits that had resulted in frustrations and meaningless disappointments, he was led to seek beyond this world for his fulfillment, in God. The true subject of The Seven Storey Mountain and of the Journals is not Thomas Merton, but God himself: “the acting agent becomes the one acted upon” by God (cf. Francis Kline, “In the Company of Prophets?” The Merton Annual 12, 126). Hovering over all the events of his life God’s presence is felt, in a manner, to be active everywhere, preparing, guiding, supporting. Even sin and the confusion of error do not thwart his Providence and so our author did not fail to record his doubts and wavering, his failures and sins, though he realized he gave material to his critics. He was convinced that God’s truth would be better manifest as mercy by his making public confession. Merton becomes who he is because he has opened his heart to God; his seeking in so many different places and manners, is presented as a search for the knowledge and love of God.
Merton was an artist with words; but his art is so effective above all because he was a contemplative who learned how to allow God to shine forth in all his works. His writing is a form of the process of cleansing the mirror of the heart so that it reflects all in the light of Christ.
That luminous presence continues to shine out from many of his pages. While his writings on social justice, war and peace testify that a man of contemplative prayer may be more in tune with the spirit of the times than the activists, yet it is above all when he writes about the work of grace in his own soul that he continues to speak to a later generation. He does so because he speaks with a voice that invites the reader to join him in the search for holiness. By displaying his inner self in such extended, fastidious detail he allows us to discover that holiness has an eloquence that speaks to the heart of modern men and women as it has in all ages. Merton himself, I believe, would sum up his life in the words he used in his early monastic journal.
The Voice of God is heard in Paradise:
… What was fragile has become powerful. I loved what was most frail. I looked upon what was nothing. I touched what was without substance, and within what was not, I am.” (The Sign of Jonas, 362)
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger