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Beneath the Mask of Holiness
Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair That Set Him Free
By Mark Shaw
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Mark Shaw
All rights reserved.
"PERFECT FREEDOM EQUALS PERFECT LOVE"
A light rain shower on April 20, 1963, cleared the skies over the Abbey of Gethsemani, lodged in a wandering, holy valley 60-plus miles southeast of Louisville, Kentucky, near Bardstown. The abbey's common room had a humid, sticky feel to it as the short, balding monk sat before the young, wide-eyed students studying to become Trappist monks who had gathered to hear him speak.
There was little that was notable about the 47-year-old priest's appearance. He had a round face, bushy eyebrows, small hands and feet, and delicate ears fitting the mix; at times, he wore black horn-rimmed glasses. Perhaps his probing blue eyes had a bit of sparkle to them, but they were not revealing eyes. Instead, they appeared to be reflective, darting here and there as his distinctive voice spouted inspiring words often peppered with humor to curious minds thirsting for insight into his wisdom. When this gifted storyteller relaxed, a soft, gentle appearance filled his face as he smiled, or laughed, his best characteristic. To see Thomas Merton laugh was to know the image he wished to project, that of the congenial, learned, happy, and humble Catholic monk whose celebrity was widespread.
Fourteen years had passed since his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, became an international best-seller, catapulting him to instant fame. Since then, he had written numerous books, including New Seeds of Contemplation, The Wisdom of the Desert, and No Man Is an Island.
On this unseasonably cool morning, as the novices' hungry minds anticipated in silence Merton's inspiring message, he shuffled a pile of papers while monastery bells clanged in the background. An avid reader, he was currently completing early twentieth-century French Thomistic philosopher Etienne Gilson's The Unity of Philosophical Experience, a book he found compelling. Teaching was something Merton loved, and these lectures were important to him since they focused on two of his favorite topics: love and freedom. Today he would speak for more than an hour, but in the end, there would be three or four phrases that were more memorable than others.
Merton certainly had no idea that God would tempt him with forbidden love in future years, and he thus spoke with no knowledge that he would be put to the test regarding the subject he was about to discuss. His heartfelt message, focused around a letter of charity and love written by Saint Bernard and a letter Merton had received from a depressed Catholic layperson seeking his guidance, rang through the crowded room as the students leaned forward to hear every word.
Merton, his voice crisp and lively, first called the depressed man who had written the letter a baby, someone who was quite immature due to being self centered. After noting the man's need for love, Merton told the students that love was the only way to change a person's heart and, using the gender exclusive language of the day, that any man who loved based solely on desire was then dominated by desire—but "the man who loves for the sake of love only—he is completely free."
Continuing, Merton, sitting erect in a wooden chair and gesturing gently as he spoke, explained that Saint Bernard wrote of three forces in a person: fear, desire, and, most important, pure love. When he resumed the two-part lecture on May 4, Merton told the students that any man's life could be measured by how he loved. The problem with the man who wrote the letter, Merton explained, is that he loved himself.
Checking his notes, Merton explained that when love occurred, people had to take a risk, because if they simply took and never gave, they were "buffaloed [stymied]." Saint Bernard, Merton believed, sought a complete conversion of the soul. But any fear or desire impeded this goal, while charity and real love overcame all barriers.
Addressing what such a conversion meant, Merton, after covering his mouth to cough, told the eager students this required a "change of one's whole self ... one's whole life, you see." He noted that Saint Bernard called this "a revolution." Fear and desire may change one's direction, Merton added, but when partial love exists, so does partial hate, triggering the need for total love.
Merton, his voice bursting with enthusiasm, next suggested that any true conversion demanded significant changes in the depth of the soul. He agreed with Saint Bernard that one could never be totally free without true conversion, which was only possible through love. Total, perfect freedom, he decided, meant one desired nothing contrary to the will of God.
Interrupting Merton's thought pattern, a novice in the rear of the room raised his hand with the question: "Does this mean perfect freedom equals perfect love?" Without hesitation, the gifted wordsmith and teacher agreed. He then released the students to their manual labor for the day, none of them realizing he had spoken about his own personal struggles with love, something that would not be clear until his words were considered in the context of other events in his life.
As Merton picked up his papers, ready to return to monastic duties, little did he know that God would give him the chance to see if perfect freedom could indeed be discovered through perfect love. A surprise—a gift, really— was waiting for the famous monk, and in the unlikeliest of places.CHAPTER 2
It began with a sponge bath—a spiritual baptism of sorts.
Fifty-one-year-old Thomas Merton sat uncomfortably on the side of a narrow bed at St. Joseph's Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. He had just endured a painful back operation in late March 1966, when the raging war in Vietnam was an eyesore for the world at large. He had first spoken out in protest as early as late 1963, when he called the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem a "sickening affair," since he was the symbol of corrupt Catholic rulers "operating through a combination of Church power and American weaponry." This was an extension of his disgruntlement with church hierarchy, one boiling over the years through personal experiences of disillusionment and anger. Disgust with the escalation of the war was on Merton's mind as he gazed at the blank hospital ceiling, still groggy from the medication. His thoughts were of the writings of German theologian Meister Eckhart and focused on words he might use in a sermon about the theologian, philosopher, and mystic renowned during the Middle Ages.
A few days later, on the final day of the month, a student nurse, darkhaired Margie Smith, entered the small room to check Merton's status. She was in her mid-twenties, pretty, and sweet. Later, he would describe her as "small, shy, almost defiant, with her long black hair, her grey eyes, her white trench coat..." After the celebrity priest and the aspiring nurse chatted and shared jokes about the Snoopy cartoon character, the first order of business was a sponge bath and back rub to soothe Merton's aching body. With gentle touches, Margie electrified his senses as her fingers massaged a warm sponge into his nakedness. As he relaxed to enjoy the comfort, Merton could not take his eyes off of the young nurse's lovely face. She returned his stares, giggling as they shared more thoughts about Snoopy.
A few days later, Merton, resting in the infirmary at Gethsemani, believed the operation was a success. He had enjoyed his time with Margie, and her devotion to taking care of him. She had made the experience, he decided, livelier. Appreciative of her bedside manner, he was nonetheless concerned that perhaps they had been too friendly before she left on her Easter vacation. But her caring ways, raw and deliberate, had helped to make him feel better. Ruminating about the experience, he decided he felt "a deep emotional need for feminine companionship and love." But monastic rules forbade this, and he concluded that he must live without such things. This conclusion, he decided, "ended up tearing me up more than the operation itself."
Earlier, during the snowy month of January, when the thermometer neared zero, Merton, walking up "Heart Attack Hill" from the main abbey to the white rectangular stone-block hermitage where he lived, projected the happy, contented person others believed him to be. The famed bishop Fulton J. Sheen visited Merton at Gethsemani, as had several others, including his close friend Robert Lax, literary agent Naomi Burton Stone, and SSM publisher Robert Giroux. Ever the naturalist, Merton, wearing his robe underneath a jacket, loved the beauty he spied while walking through the dense woods where bushy-tailed red squirrels flocked. He enjoyed "tiny flashes of ice ... falling, a kind of mist of ice ... only a thin coat over the hard frozen snow of the other day." The white powder had been falling for several hours, and deer footprints were visible on the trails.
Despite the brave front, all was not well. For some time, Merton's health had been deteriorating, with back pain a daily killer. Dermatitis had affected his hands. On his 51st birthday, the final day of January, Merton lamented that he was growing old.
Experiencing a sense of loneliness in his solitude even though the day exhibited unexpected signs of spring on the horizon, Merton vented his frustrations in the direction of Gethsemani's abbot, Dom James, a constant target during times of unhappiness. He had taken over the reins at the abbey after Dom Frederic Dunne died, and was much more authoritarian than the previous abbot. Dom James worked hard to control Merton's image as the famous contemplative monk and poster boy for the Catholic Church. But Merton had no confidence in the man, believing he was neurotic. Worse, Merton felt as if he were a prisoner and helpless to change his status. He resented the "sadomasochism" Dom James introduced into everything Merton said and did, calling it "life-defeating, depressing, hopeless—no wonder so many [brother monks] leave."
Forced to endure tumbling temperatures in the hermitage, which was heated only by a fireplace, full of anger at Dom James, besieged by ill health and facing mortality for the first time, and exhibiting all of the earmarks of a mid-life crisis, Merton was bored while reading the recently edited manuscript of his new book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. It was only when he returned to nature and relaxed while watching deer through field glasses that he found peace. Five deer stood by the brush pile in silence trying to understand his presence, spreading their ears out at him. He gazed into their big, brown eyes and admired their black noses. He was mesmerized by the perfection of these beautiful creatures. Silence, his favorite sound, permeated the air.
Unfortunately, such moments of tranquility did not ease the pain Merton felt when he walked through the woods near his hermitage. He was confused about a life he did not fully understand, despite all of the glory and fame thrown his way from writing book after book after book. As the soggy, cold month of March appeared, Merton was distracted and obsessed with his plight, deciding that he was spending too much time thinking about the past and that he needed to return to what was occurring in the present. Despite this promise, he felt alone with failures leading to "confusions, weakness, hesitation, fear—and the way through to anguish and nightmares." As he cut firewood and carried it back to the hermitage, he decided that he had become too hostile, too mean, too desperate, and totally unjust.
As a lonely dog howled in the distance, Merton set a glass of water from the rain barrel by the hearth to warm it so he could brush his teeth and stirred the fire to bring it to life with new wood. With the fragrance of the smoke to keep him company, he sat at his rectangular work table by the front window and addressed his pressing concern: pending back surgery on March 25. Despite enjoying the surroundings, there was little sign of the joyful Merton, the laughing Merton whose full-mouthed smile caused crows' feet to appear around his eyes and wrinkles to ease across his neck. In essence, he exemplified a schizophrenic persona, passive on the outside while pangs of anguish and fear patrolled within.
During a day when the thermometer dropped to 20 degrees, Merton, warming himself by rubbing his hands together as a tiny bird pecked away at breadcrumbs left on the windowsill, continued to flagellate himself for past indiscretions, both real and imagined. He believed even having the surgery was a defeat in itself, an admission that he had not lived a proper life, that he had been the prisoner of a very unreasonable culture. His believed it was too late to escape his predicament. Catching a glimmer of light during a period of darkness, perhaps a premonition of things to come, Merton wondered if he could salvage something positive from his life. When the operation was over, he hoped he could start fresh and get his life in order.
On the day before the operation, he took a hot bath at the abbey infirmary and then changed into secular clothes for the hour-plus trip to Louisville. Enjoyment of the eggs he had boiled for dinner the night before, and the coffee drunk to wash them down, was fresh in his mind.
After Merton had returned from surgery in Louisville, he rested in the infirmary but he could not get Margie Smith off his mind. Meeting her had changed everything. Like a schoolboy with a first crush on a girl with pigtails, Merton was smitten, his monastic world turned upside down. An outside force, a sensual, caring woman, had infiltrated his contemplative mind, which coveted solitude. Now the violins began to play as Merton turned his attention to a long-lost feeling, the capacity to love a woman. "One thing has suddenly hit me," he admitted, "that nothing counts except love and that a solitude that is not simply the wide-openness of love and freedom is nothing." Propped up on his infirmary bed, Merton decided love and solitude were the "one ground of true maturity and freedom." Additional details regarding the interaction between Merton and Margie during their first meeting, including the sponge bath she gave him, would emerge later, but there was no question that Margie had touched his heart and soul with feelings unknown for many years.
The hermitage, with his brick chimney poking up outside the flat roof that covered white cinderblock walls, was Merton's hideaway from any sense of both the real world and even the monastic realm. This was his private place on Earth. Permitted to occupy the cement-floored structure with only the bare essentials of simple living, he enjoyed rising at 2:30 A.M. to recite psalm centered offices of monastic prayer. This was followed by an hour of meditation and reading the Bible before he enjoyed a simple breakfast. At 9:00 A.M., Merton read psalms again before settling in at his desk, where his typewriter was positioned to the right of his chair, away from piles of paper, his pen, and a writing pad. Here he wrote letters to his many correspondents, some famous, some not. Then it was off to the monastery for Mass before he returned to the hermitage to read before saying psalms again. Meditation and another reading of psalms consumed the early to middle part of the afternoon before he enjoyed a light supper, perhaps some tea or soup with a sandwich. More mediation preceded his lying down to sleep around 7:30 P.M. on a cot positioned toward the back of the hermitage in the small bedroom around the corner from the main living quarters. Across the way was a tiny room he had turned into a chapel, where he prayed daily.
When Merton had time, he sat on the front porch in one of the old wooden rockers or ventured into the woods where the deer slept in the hollow behind the hermitage with their safety secured through the cover of brush and fallen trees. Upon return to the hermitage, he could rest easy on his cot, sit and read new books in the rocker by the hour, or sip coffee with a bit of honey to sweeten the taste. Even cleaning the cabin, sweeping the fireplace with a small broom, or washing dishes in the rain barrel provided peace and quiet away from a world infested with killing in Southeast Asia.
Before being permitted to return to the hermitage, Merton had rested his sore back in the abbey infirmary. His hands quivered as he opened an unauthorized letter from Margie delivered to his bed. As he scratched two-day old chin whiskers and whiffed the smell of linseed oil, he noted the tender nature of her words and admitted the obvious—he loved this woman even though he had just met her. Without hesitation, he decided to "risk loving with Christ's love when there is so obvious a need for it. And not fear!" Suddenly reflective, Merton, alive with spring as the dogwood blossoms began to appear outside the abbey, assessed his past conduct and conceded that concerning any questions of love, of loving a woman, he had to honestly admit that he had avoided them. That evening he decided he would face love as a man who could not only be dedicated to God but one who could care for a woman with "selfless, detached, free, completely open love."
Excerpted from Beneath the Mask of Holiness by Mark Shaw. Copyright © 2009 Mark Shaw. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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