Thomas Merton And The Monastic Visionby Lawrence S. Cunningham
Though the basic story of Thomas Merton's life may be well known, the details of his spiritual development are less familiar. Cunningham shows that Merton's prolific
Taking up where Merton's own Seven Storey Mountain ends, this penetrating biography by Lawrence Cunningham explores Merton's monastic life and his subsequent growth into a modern-day spiritual master.
Though the basic story of Thomas Merton's life may be well known, the details of his spiritual development are less familiar. Cunningham shows that Merton's prolific writings and his continuing influence can only be understood against the background of his contemplative experience as a Trappist monk. "If one does not understand Merton as a monk," writes Cunningham, "one does not understand Merton at all."
Merton emerges from this balanced and reliable account as an extraordinary Christian seeker and pioneer whose faith in the power of the contemplative life remains highly relevant today.
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Prologue (from page 1-18)
ONE MAY READ THE FIRST NINE BOOKS OF AUGUSTINE'S Confessions as the author's intense search for the solution to two intertwined spiritual problems, one intellectual and the other moral. After Augustine, as an adolescent, read Cicero's now lost treatise called the Hortensius, he decided to embrace philosophy which meant, in his day, not merely to study an academic subject but to adopt a way of life in search of the truth. That way of life led Augustine, through many a turn, to Christianity —largely under the twin influences of the person and preaching of bishop Ambrose of Milan and the writings of the Neoplatonists where, as he said famously in the Confessions, he found everything except the name of Christ. Nonetheless, despite this intellectual conversion, Augustine still had to confront the moral untidiness of his own personal life summarized in his famous prayer "Lord, make me chaste but not just yet!"
All Christian autobiography owes a certain debt to Augustine's Confessions. James D. Fernandez's study of Spanish religious autobiography (Apology to Apostrophe — 1992) notes four stages in the genre: (1) a description of the old unredeemed self; (2) a picture of the new, redeemed self; (3) address to an audience of human readers to edify or convert; (4) and, most crucially, an address to God who is seen as the Ideal Reader. What Fernandez writes in terms of Spain (think of Teresa of Avila's Mi Vida) holds for most other types of the genre including that produced by Thomas Merton.
If those twin trajectories of moral and intellectual searching can be seen as the threads that led Augustine to the Christian life, then it is almost plausible to accept the late Monsignor Fulton Sheen's somewhat florid judgment that Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain (1948) was a modern version of the Confessions. The superficial parallels are attractive. Both Augustine and Merton wrestled with the intellectual demons of their respective times and both had to put some framework of moral order into their personal lives. Both wrote about their spiritual journey in that most fictive of forms, the spiritual autobiography. After all, as some critics of the genre have maintained, autobiographies are a kind of imaginative reconstruction; that backward glance by which persons seek to find the dynamics to explain how and why they reached a certain point in their lives. Such glances, of course, are a selective filtering out as well as a gathering in of those moments that make up a life. Both Augustine and Merton, finally, would end their spiritual autobiographies just as they begin their lives as public churchmen.
The Augustine/Merton parallels, without exaggerating their exactitudes, do not stop there. Both had somewhat feckless fathers and both grieved the loss of powerful mothers, although Merton had his only as a pained childhood memory, since she died when he was only six. Both found, on reflection, that their intellectual formation was both a shaping and mis-shaping experience even though both found their vocations through books and returned the favor by producing prodigious amounts of writing. Both went to "good schools" and, along with their academic peers, sought a brilliant career through the mastery of language. Augustine saw himself as a public person in the role of rhetor while Merton envisioned a life in the professoriate after the model of his own teacher at Columbia, Mark Van Doren. Both, in the process of their education, were not immune from the fleshly temptations that make up so much of education away from home. For Augustine it was the steamy sinks of Carthage while for Merton it was the refined decadence of Cambridge University in England and the Depression culture of New York City in the 1930s.
When they turned from their original career path they did not abandon their fundamental trust in the power of language to persuade, illumine, and yes, convert. Both would look back on their writings and pass judgment on them, although Merton would be harsher than Augustine since the latter treated himself rather gingerly in the Retractiones and Merton, at one point in his life, would be brutal enough to judge some of his early writing as "trash." Finally, both had a strong mystical streak in their makeup, with their mysticism, at times, breaking forth into their writing.
Augustine, after his conversion, led the life of an activist bishop who retreated into periods of contemplative retreat as befitting one who lived in a quasi-monastic community for which he had written a rule. The newly converted Merton, by contrast, chose the contemplative life but found himself inexorably drawn into the world of public affairs, even though for the best part of his mature life he remained within the cloister walls of his rural monastery in Kentucky. Like Augustine, Merton carried on a far-flung correspondence and writing program while remaining rooted in the quotidian rhythms of a daily life organized around the seven offices that constitute the celebration of the monastic liturgy.
One can only speculate what Augustine would have made over the fact that it was his Confessions that deeply touched Thomas Merton as he sought religious clarity. The good bishop of Hippo would have undoubtedly raised an eyebrow had he also known that Merton read The Confessions in the 1930s while at Columbia University at the suggestion of an odd little Hindu guru with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. Bramachari had suggested the saint's work (as well as the Imitation of Christ) when the young student of literature desired to learn something about mysticism after reading Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means. The guru wisely understood that one should begin the spiritual quest by knowing one's own tradition first.
Not overly much should be made of these suggested parallels between the lives reflected in The Confessions and The Seven Storey Mountain. Nor is it clear that Merton consciously modeled his autobiography on that of Augustine, although it is true that hardly any spiritual autobiography in the West has ever escaped its formative power. The closest stylistic parallel between the two works is that they are both cast largely in the form of a prayer —which is at least one of the meanings of the word "confession." The other sense of "confession" is, of course, admission of moral failure. Finally, a "confession" is a profession of faith. This polyvalent sense of the word should not be overlooked.
The literature of Christian conversion is littered with tales of young restless people who change their lives or have their lives changed as a result of the books they read, the crises they encountered, or the profound dissatisfactions they hoped to palliate. Christian conversion stories almost reflexively think back to the Confessions since it is the template of the genre. Not every conversion story is a dramatic epiphany experienced on the road to Damascus; but every conversion story, like every good spiritual autobiography, seems like a variation of the Confessions (the first of the genre, as Georg Misch has argued in his monumental history of autobiography in the West) in that a person goes back over his or her life to mark the unfolding moments which led up to the time when one is able to utter the words "I believe." In that sense, at least, a life's story seen in retrospect is almost always read as a life under the eye of providence.
The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) was such an account. Merton looked back on his life (he was in his early thirties when it was published) in order to detect the impulses that led him, first to Christian belief, and then, somewhat implausibly, to join the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, known more familiarly as the Trappists, as a monk in the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani outside the town of Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton lived as a monk at that monastery for twenty-seven years to the day when, again implausibly, he died of accidental electrocution (or a heart attack triggered by an electrical shock; for complicated legal reasons, his body was never autopsied) at a Red Cross guest house outside of Bangkok, Thailand. His body was returned to the monastery on a U.S. Air Force plane along with the bodies of young American soldiers who had lost their lives in the war in Vietnam — a war which he passionately resisted by his witness and through his pen. The Seven Storey Mountain attempts to account for the odd web of circumstances that led from his birth in Europe to a relatively obscure monastery nestled among the hills of Kentucky.
Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, on January 31, 1915, the son of Owen Merton (1887-1931), an expatriate painter from New Zealand, and Ruth Jenkins Merton (1887-1921), an American of Quaker background whose family lived on Long Island, New York. A second son, John Paul, was born in 1918 in New York while the family stayed with Ruth's family on Long Island. John Paul was to die in 1943, shot down over the English Channel while serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force. John Paul makes only cameo appearances in The Seven Storey Mountain, but those moments are touching in their affection —an affection tinged with a certain guilt at the way the elder brother neglected the younger in their childhood days. John Paul, ready to depart for service with the Royal Canadian Air Force, became a Catholic after brief instruction by one of the monks at Gethsemani. His death, an agonizing ordeal as he floated in the English Channel with a broken back, would find expression in one of Merton's most celebrated short poems, whose final stanza begins with an expression of deep sorrow and rocklike faith: "For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain /And Christ weeps in the ruin of my spring...."
Ruth died in 1921 of cancer when Merton was only six. Owen Merton returned to France, after various wanderings in Bermuda and a painting expedition to Algeria. During their Bermuda sojourn Owen Merton had a love affair with the American novelist Evelyn Scott. Extant correspondence from that period proves that the young Tom was devastated by his mother's death. Evelyn Scott described the boy in a letter as "morbid and possessive," making Owen, the father, also "morbid about Tom through various things that happened in connection with Ruth." What those "various things" were is not clear, but one of them surely must have been his mother's decision not to see the boy when she was dying in the hospital, opting instead to send him a letter of farewell. Years later Merton would describe his childhood as one of pain and extreme loneliness. In The Seven Storey Mountain there is the poignant description of the six-year-old Tom standing in the shade of a backyard tree at his grandparents' home puzzling out his mother's final letter, leaving him, as he wrote, not with the tears of a child but with "something of the heavy complexity and gloom of adult grief and was, therefore, more of a burden...."
Young Tom, as an adolescent, was sent to live at a French Protestant boarding school, the Lycée Ingres in Montauban. Owen Merton's plans for building and maintaining a home in the village of St. Antonin in France did not work out, and he announced that the family would move to England. This news was greeted with immense relief by the young boy, who was miserably unhappy and as a foreigner was frequently bullied at his French boarding school, even though one side benefit was an increased facility in speaking French. Tom was promptly enrolled in an English preparatory school and then, in 1929, at Oakham, an English boarding school of a modestly solid reputation. At the time when Merton was a student at Oakham his father had already been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor which would kill him in 1931. At sixteen, then, Merton found himself an orphan. Merton recalled his father's death with the same sadness that attended his mother's death. He experienced, as he wrote, a sense of isolation as he realized after receiving a telephone call at school with the news that he was "without a home, without a country, without a father, apparently without any friends, without any interior peace or confidence or light or understanding." His only close relatives (his maternal grandparents) lived on the other side of the Atlantic in Long Island, New York. It would only be in the last decade of his life that Merton would make contact with his paternal relatives in New Zealand.
When Merton was eighteen he finished his studies at Oakham. The school archives still preserve the manuscript of his prize-winning literary essay, and his name appeared with some regularity at the end of articles he wrote for the Oakhamian. A further testimony to his considerable intelligence was his winning a scholarship by examination for Clare College at the University of Cambridge, where he was to study modern languages. His Cambridge experience was short-lived. His year at Cambridge seems to have been marked by inattention to study and zeal for life in the local pubs. Finally, Merton evidently got a young woman pregnant and, because he was either threatened by a paternity suit or unable to marry the woman (class differences?), his guardian and the administrator of Owen Merton's estate promptly dispatched him back to the United States to live with his maternal grandparents on Long Island. His American exile was a kind of relief, for, apart from reading Dante in depth, he found his Cambridge experience a terrible waste and, morally, a disaster.
The subsequent history of mother and child is unknown. What settlement young Merton's guardian made for them has never come to light. One rumor had both mother and child subsequently dying in the London blitz; but William Shannon, a careful Merton biographer, thinks that this is a "deus ex machina" explanation to erase the memory of these persons from Merton's biography. The only thing we know for sure is that in the will Merton wrote when he became a monk, he left a bequest that his guardian should pay to a person "mentioned in letters" if "that person can be found." Beyond that, we know nothing more about this sad episode in Merton's life or of the subsequent history of either mother or child.
After Merton arrived in New York he enrolled as a sophomore at Columbia University for the January term of 1935, with the intention of studying literature. Given the tenor of the times it does not surprise us that he joined, for a very brief period (in fact, he attended one meeting), the Young Communist League (under the somewhat risible party name of Frank Swift). But he also fed his enthusiasm for jazz, joined a fraternity, worked for both the campus newspaper and the humor magazine, drew mildly risqué cartoons and illustrations, and took a range of courses in languages and literature. His love for hanging out in bars with his friends had evidently not been slaked, despite his unhappy experiences in England. Photographs from the period show him nattily turned out in three-piece suits, acting very much the big man on campus.
If there was an economic depression in those years it did not seem to have any effect on Merton other than his short period of toying with leftist politics. His passion for Marxist politics may have been short-lived, but his interest in writing and literature and the music of the 52nd Street jazz clubs or the clubs in Harlem never waned. Years later, as a monk, he would find time, when in Louisville, to go to the public library and listen to jazz records. In his hermitage he even spent some time playing the bongo drums. He had a weakness, it seems, for the classic jazz of the Thirties as well as an interest in bebop.
When he left the maternal home on Long Island where his grand-parents lived (they would both die before Merton entered the monastery) Merton moved, characteristically enough for someone of his bohemian leanings, to Perry Street in Greenwich Village. Through student publications at Columbia University he made some friends who would remain so until his death. These would include Robert Giroux, who would later be his editor and one of his literary executors; Bob Lax, his closest friend, who would go on to be a poet; Ed Rice, later a writer, magazine editor at Jubilee, the modish Catholic magazine that was a regular outlet for Merton's writings, and author of one of the first biographical studies of Merton; Ad Reinhardt, who gained future fame as an abstract expressionist painter of the New York School and who would later nurture Merton's interest in art by sending him papers, Chinese calligraphy brushes, and other art supplies. It is also worthy of note that Merton left Columbia University just a few years before the founding members of the Beats — Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac — would matriculate. Their paths would intersect indirectly later through the avant-garde poetry published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Press in San Francisco.
One of the most influential friendships he developed was with Mark Van Doren, a legendary professor of literature as well as a fine poet and critic at Columbia, who made an enormous impact on Merton's intellectual life and would go on to become a lifelong correspondent and sometime visitor to the monastery. It was Van Doren, singled out for elaborate praise in The Seven Storey Mountain, who brought the young student into intimate contact with the world of literature, guiding him through the classical tradition and encouraging his interest in writers like Donne, Blake (about whom Merton would later write an MA thesis), and Hopkins, and the modernist canon of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, etc. Van Doren, a meticulous reader of literature, taught his students that literary study was a way of life and, further, that this way of life had moral consequences.
Merton never lost his faith, partially learned from Van Doren, in the capacity of poetry to express moral and religious truth. In the last decade of his life he would turn to experimental poetic forms to express both his own sense of the contemplative life and to connect with the great social issues of the day, but those experiments had behind them the solid education he received at Columbia University. Merton and Van Doren exchanged letters after Merton became a monk, and when traveling, Van Doren would visit the monk in Kentucky. Merton always recorded the fundamental elements of their conversation, but it was always patent that Van Doren still remained the monk's teacher.
The very things Merton studied for his major led him to other areas of study. Years after Merton entered the monastery he wrote an essay reflecting on his university experience. In the essay, he declared that the greatest thing Columbia had done was turn him loose "in its library, its classrooms, and among its distinguished faculty." Merton goes on to say, "I ended by being turned on like a pinball machine by Blake, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Coomaraswamy, Traherne, Hopkins, Maritain, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church." Merton left Dante off that list, but it was, in fact, his close reading of The Divine Comedy which led to his interest in religious experience and to scholasticism.
One can map with some precision the literary journey that led Merton to find entry into the Catholic Church. A friend encouraged him to read Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means, with its argument that there is a spiritual substratum to the material changing world, a substratum that took the form of a philosophia perennis. This notion that there was a transcultural structure of transcendent experience hidden under all religious systems made a profound impact on him. The philosophia perennis accepted the historical limits of religious traditions but insisted that under all of them was a substratum of religious experience which was mystical, recoverable, and, ultimately, the bedrock of truth itself. Huxley, then, provided Merton with the notion that the religious search was an authentic and deeply human one.
Merton then encountered Etienne Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, which revolutionized Merton's thinking about the nature of God. Gilson's explication of the scholastic notion of God's aseitas— a scholastic neologism which refers to God as Being itself — stunned him with the force of a revelation. Merton saw this concept of God as putting everything in the cosmos into some kind of meaningful whole. Everything and everyone is contingent upon the Eternal One who is the reason of his own existence.
This intuition about God as self-subsistent being from which flows all other being, discovered in reading Gilson, is movingly described in The Seven Storey Mountain as a kind of intellectual and spiritual epiphany. He recounts how he bought Gilson's book at the Scribner bookstore on Fifth Avenue but was initially horrified when he discovered it bore the then customary "imprimatur" indicating that a theological censor found nothing antagonistic to Catholic faith in its pages. Despite that discovery, Merton read the book with care. In a letter to Gilson ten years after Merton entered the monastery, he thanked the French scholar for being, along with the writings but, especially, the friendship of Jacques Maritain and "a few others," the reason he became a Catholic.
We have already referred to the Hindu guru, Doctor Bramachari, who insisted that Merton read the literature of his own tradition before tackling the Upanishads and other texts that had so influenced Aldous Huxley. Bramachari was enough of a scholar and disciplined enough in Indian mystical thought to know that a promiscuous and random study of an alien tradition would not bring instant religious enlightenment. He wisely saw that one should begin with one's own inherited tradition. He recommended that the young student read Augustine's Confessions and the classic late medieval devotional work of Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. When Merton got to Calcutta in 1968 he made an attempt to connect with Bramachari, who had an ashram near the city, but he failed to do so. He remembered him with both affection and gratitude as an authentic religious person and as an occasion for his own religious conversion. The brief encounter with Bramachari on the Columbia campus would be the first of many sympathetic contacts he would have with representatives of Eastern wisdom, but he would still be grateful to him, mainly, for the guru's insistence that he learn his own tradition before plunging into the tradition(s) of others.
Merton graduated from Columbia in 1938 and immediately enrolled for MA studies at the university with the intention of writing a thesis on the poetry of William Blake. He submitted his MA thesis in 1939 on the topic "Art and Nature in William Blake," which, characteristically enough, "read" Blake's theory of art through the lens of the aesthetics of Saint Thomas Aquinas as mediated through the writings of Jacques Maritain.
It was also in this year that he began to pray and occasionally hear Mass at the red-doored Catholic Church of Corpus Christi, which was on the northern edge of Columbia's campus around the corner from the Jewish Theological Seminary and across the street from Union Seminary. He was to write later that what most powerfully struck him about going to church was that there always seemed to be people of various kinds there deeply in prayer. In the fall of that year he began to receive instructions from one of the parish priests, Father George Ford. They would meet regularly at the parish for catechetical instruction, and on November 16th he was received into the church.
While it is easy to map his intellectual progress towards the church, it is more difficult to understand his interior life. Nor does Merton himself help much towards that understanding. Almost everything he would later write had an autobiographical edge, but he was, paradoxically, rather reticent about his personal interior life. Born and christened into a nominal Anglican family, he tells us that his first serious religious impulses came during a vacation in Italy, in the summer between finishing his public school education at Oakham and entering Cambridge. In Rome he was terribly moved by the Byzantine mosaics of Christ that he saw in the Roman churches, mosaics like those found in the apses of Santa Prassede, Saints Cosmas and Damien, and in the other Roman basilicas. It was then, he would later write, that he first came to know this person called Christ. It is noteworthy but little remarked on that Merton's first encounter with Christ, through the tradition of Byzantine mosaics, showed Christ as he was understood by the theology of the high christology characteristic of the Byzantine world: Christ as the Word through whom both creation and recreation occurs. It was a christology that would remain with Merton during his entire adult life. In order to find the biblical sources of his understanding of Christ, one would do well first to examine the prologue of Saint John's Gospel. It was this figure of Christ who is both Word and Wisdom, through whom the world is created and sustained, that gave him a fundamental contemplative principle both for his life of prayer and his conviction about the spiritual unity of humanity. It was this Christ, of course, that stands behind the Byzantinepantocrater figure that fundamentally moved Merton. However stirred he was by the image of Christ at that time, though, that mood certainly fell away by the time he matriculated to Cambridge, only to be reawakened in his maturity.
Merton's more explicit attraction to Catholic Christianity developed from a number of different roots. Partially, it was a matter of aesthetics. In poets like the nineteenth-century British Jesuit (and convert) Gerard Manley Hopkins he saw a fusion of deep love for beauty with an intense awareness of the presence of God in the world. Hopkins taught him to see the presence of God and the creative Word which is Christ in the world of nature closely observed. The influence of Hopkins ran deep in Merton; he paid both explicit and implicit tribute to the Jesuit's poetic vision both in his own poetry and in his writings on aesthetics. For Merton, a major part of the conversion process was intellectual.
Furthermore, he encountered Thomism at a time when it was undergoing a vigorous revival thanks to the labors of mainly French scholars like Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. The scholastic emphasis on reason in relationship to faith, its doctrine of natural law, its coherent theory of aesthetics in general and a theory of beauty in particular, and its vigorous resistance to the givens of the Enlightenment were a powerful allure for a whole generation of intellectuals who despaired of meaning and order in a world which, famously, came to be called a waste land. This thomistic synthesis, especially as articulated by sophisticated thinkers like Maritain, provided a holistic framework for understanding faith in relation to culture. This kind of thomistic thinking, to borrow a phrase from Maritain, could construct an "integral humanism." This integral humanism was promoted as a bulwark against the worst excesses of the Enlightenment. Maritain, after all, contrary to the conventional wisdom, did not see Descartes as the beginning of modern philosophy; he saw him as the decay of authentic philosophy.
Finally, Merton had instincts that were instinctively mystical, if one can judge from those writers who most nourished his mind and heart during these days. It is not accidental that he wrote his thesis on the prophetic visionary, William Blake, and intended to do his dissertation on the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. We catch glimpses of that mystical temperament in some of the entries he made at this time in his journals. In 1940, while visiting Cuba shortly after his conversion to Christianity, for example, Merton listened as a group of children in a church cried out the opening words of the creed "Yo creo ...Ibelieve." At that moment something went off inside of Merton "like a thunderclap," and without any change in his senses: "I knew with the most absolute and unquestionable certainty that before me, between me and the altar, somewhere in the center of the church, up in the air (or any other place because in no place)... was at the same time God in all His essence, all His power, God in the flesh and God in himself, and God surrounded by the radiant faces of the thousand million uncountable saints contemplating His glory ...to say that this was the experience of some kind of certainty is to place it, as it were, in the order of knowledge but at the same time ...as much an experience of loving as of knowing something and in it knowledge and love are completely inseparable." Lines like those and the many prayer fragments one finds in his journals are clear indications that his religious conversion was not only intellectual and moral but deeply experiential.
With his MA in hand in 1939 and talk of war in the air, Merton, like many of the young, had to decide what to do with his life. Merton thought seriously enough about the priesthood to make application to join the Franciscan Order and was initially accepted to join the next novitiate class. In the interim he taught English at the Franciscan-sponsored Saint Bonaventure's College (now University) in the upstate town of Olean, New York, which was, incidentally, the home town of his closest friend, Bob Lax. That happy coincidence permitted the two (and some of their friends) to spend vacation periods using a cottage in Olean where they would read, write, and enjoy the pleasures of the countryside.
His application to join the Franciscans, at first tentatively accepted, was then rejected after he had a conference with a friar in New York. The news devastated Merton. Did Merton confess about his child in Great Britain? The only clue we have is that in a letter to his abbot in 1942 he says that he and his Franciscan advisor decided that he should not enter the Order because of something that had happened in his past life. Evidently, the Franciscans were cautious about accepting a novice in their order who might well turn out to have parental responsibilities for which the community might have to respond to, since the Franciscans, like all religious communities, vowed their individual members to poverty.
In the summer of 1941 he spent some time as a volunteer at a Catholic settlement known as Friendship House in Harlem, and seriously considered living there permanently as a volunteer serving the needs of the Harlem community as a lay Christian in a life of poverty and service. Friendship House had been founded by an expatriate member of the Russian nobility, the Baroness de Hueck, who, herself a convert to Catholicism, would become a lifelong friend. It was clear that wherever his future rested it would somehow involve his newfound Christian faith. At Saint Bonaventure's University he had begun to read regularly the canonical hours of the breviary, spent time in mental prayer each day, and attended daily Mass. He read seriously in theological literature and, as his now published journals indicate, took copious notes on some of the Latin treatises of the Franciscan Saint Bonaventure and Duns Scotus (both had influenced Gerard Manley Hopkins) as well as, prophetically, a treatise on the love of God (De Diligendo Deo) written by the Cistercian saint, Bernard of Clairvaux.
What finally focused Merton's vocational choice, however, was a Holy Week retreat he made at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in the spring of 1941. He got the idea for making this retreat from a teacher of scholastic philosophy, Dan Walsh, who taught part time at Columbia. It was Walsh who guided his study of medieval philosophy, which Merton undertook as part of his general education in literature. Years later, Walsh would move to Kentucky and be ordained a diocesan priest. He is buried in the "secular" cemetery on the abbey grounds. What the young convert saw at the monastery captured his imagination. "This," he wrote melodramatically in his journal, "is the center of America....This is the only real city in America — in a desert."
Years later Merton would chide himself for such baroque spiritual posturing, but at the age of twenty-six, tortured by his own guilt, passionate in his newly found faith, prompted by the zeal of the convert, and convinced that the Cistercian round of silence, work, penance, and prayer would center what he saw as his tattered life, he seriously entertained the thought of joining the community of monks permanently. With war looming on the horizon he did not have the luxury of leisurely meditations about his future. The draft was a real possibility; a possibility that deeply disturbed a young man whose inclinations were pacifist.
Over the summer and fall, events moved quickly. He was declared eligible for the draft after a first round deferment because of some minor health issues. He found encouragement from the Cistercians in his correspondence with them when he wrote about another visit. In their answers back they said that they would take him as a postulant when he came to make his Christmas retreat at their guest house. He decided that a life as a volunteer in Harlem, strongly urged by the Baroness, was not for him even though the experiences there touched him deeply. Years after the summer Merton spent in Harlem, the late Eldridge Cleaver in his own autobiographical memoir Soul on Ice remarked that no white person ever wrote as deeply about Harlem as Merton did in The Seven Storey Mountain. By that fall Merton destroyed or gave to friends his unpublished novels, distributed his books and possessions to his friends, bid farewell to his brother John Paul who had dropped out of Cornell University to join the Canadian Air Force, and in early December he took the train for Kentucky.
In 1969 one novel written in the period before he entered monastic life would be published under the title My Argument with the Gestapo while two novel fragments are also known; they bear the titles: The Labyrinth and The Man in the Sycamore Tree. Merton's friend Ed Rice would borrow that latter title as the one he used when he wrote a biographical memoir of his deceased friend.
Merton entered the guest house of Gethsemani as a guest postulant on December 10, 1941, three days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and twenty-seven years to the day of his death in Thailand. This writer remembers vividly seeing the news of Merton's death in the papers on the same day that there was an announcement of the death of a theologian Merton admired mightily, Karl Barth. Merton passed from the guest house into the cloister as a postulant on December 13th —the feast of the martyr, Saint Lucy. Merton, always sensitive to symbolism, saw the celebration of that feast as a sign; Lucy's name meant "light" and, according to the legend attached to her name, gave her earthly sight in martyrdom for the sight of God. That her feast day coincided with the December gloom of winter would lead Merton later to praise her in a poem in which he petitions: "Show us some light, who seem forsaken by the sky: / We who have so dwelt in darkness that our eyes are screened and dim / and all but blinded by the weakest ray ..."("An Invocation to Saint Lucy"). The point, of course, is that it was on her feast and through her intercession that Merton, in fact, always felt that he received his sight.
What I have described in these few hurried pages makes up the bulk of Merton's spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. He ends his book as he enters the life of Gethsemani. Like Augustine, who finished the autobiographical part of the Confessions as he was ready to leave Rome's port of Ostia for the great adventure of his Christian life in North Africa, Merton ends with what would prove to be almost exactly the first half of his life. He spent roughly twenty-six years "in the world" while he would spend the next twenty-seven in the monastery. The epilogue to The Seven Storey Mountain sketches very briefly Merton's first years in the monastery, but it ends rather abruptly with the Latin epigram sit finis libri, non finis quaerendi — "here the book ends but not the search."
The standard biographies of Merton treat these early years in some detail while probing the nuances of those early experiences, searching for keys to explain his later life and spirituality. What was the impact of the loss of his mother at the age of six? What scars did he suffer as a lonely child in an austere French Protestant boarding school abandoned by a frequently absent father who himself would die during Merton's adolescence? What did it mean to be completely orphaned as an adolescent? What significance rests on his lack of a stable home either in terms of culture or domesticity? Did his somewhat rootless upbringing add to his desire for monastic stability? How did his misadventures in Cambridge affect him in his later life? Was his desire to enter a penitential order connected to those events? What were the precise characteristics of those deep spiritual experiences that he had in Rome and in Cuba? Did his near hysterical collapse when the Franciscans rejected his application provide a symptom of the inner guilt he felt? Does his rootlessness as a young person shape his personality and contribute to the restlessness he often experienced in the monastery? Who was this expatriate whose life was shaped by France, England, and the United States? Did a partially Quaker background from his mother's side of the family lead him to value social justice and the stance of pacifism? Did his interest in Gandhi — about whom he wrote, as a teenager, an admiring essay, and who visited England when Merton was a schoolboy at Oakham — add impetus to his instinctive pacifism? Was his conversion part of the pattern of many converts of the period, who sought in the seeming stability of the Catholic Church a bulwark against the chaos of a world racked by economic depression and political instability? Did Merton seek a God in place of the god(s) that had failed?
These are all questions that have been debated, analyzed, and written about at great length elsewhere. Excessive preoccupation with one or other of these elements seems to result in the worst kind of psychological reductionism. Although this writer has felt no need to rehearse these issues in any detail, when such circumstances might shed light on a specific issue later in life they will be brought to the fore. My intention is to begin my study of Merton where his major autobiography ends off, i.e., with his entrance into, and full embrace of, the monastic life. My story begins there because of a deep personal conviction, stated in more than one place, that if one does not understand Merton as a monk, one does not understand Merton at all.
This approach may seem somewhat narrow at first glance, but monasticism in general and the culture of monasticism in particular is a complex phenomenon in Catholic Christianity —a phenomenon that has been mediated to the larger Christian (and non-Christian!) world in our time most effectively by Merton himself. My desire, in short, is to show that the prolific works which flowed from Merton's pen and the impact that those writings and his person had and continue to have can only be understood against the background of his contemplative experience as a Trappist monk. Indeed, if this book can be said to have a thesis, it is that one simply cannot understand Thomas Merton if one does not understand him as a monk.
Getting to that monastic reality means that one must cut through the clichés and stereotypes of monastic life (hoods, cloisters, silence, chant, and all the other epiphenomena emphasized in popular culture) to reflect more deeply on the reality of monasticism. Monasticism is a living tradition, not a museum of past observance. Here we might recall the wittily wise words of a contemporary European Cistercian, Dom Andre Louf:
What is a monk?
A monk is someone who every day asks:
"What is a monk?"
Louf's question is the leitmotif that will run through these pages for the very simple reason that no monk but Merton ever asked that question so persistently, a question that involved not only his own sense of identity but his identity in relationship to the larger world about him. As his understanding of how to respond to the question "what is a monk?" changed, so did the direction of his writing, the interests he took up, and the styles he pursued. This is not to say, as some have alleged, that there were abrupt and definitive transitions in his life. Reading the whole corpus of his now published journals or working through a volume of his letters in chronological fashion reveals a person who deeply imbibed monastic ideas, refined them through experience, and saw their application in a changing society. Merton began to study the classical monastic sources as a novice in 1941 and he was still reading them in the year of his death in 1968. The question of his identity as a monk, the monastic formation he received, and the works that he wrote exist in a symbiotic relationship. It is sketching out and following the development and the nature of that relationship which provides whatever unity this present study may possess.
Many books, dissertations, and essays have been written about Thomas Merton. My only consolation in adding to the already mountainous literature is the one offered by Saint Augustine as he began the De Trinitate. Many books on the same subject, Augustine wrote, may help in illuminating an aspect of a subject hitherto studied. My intention is to focus on Merton as a monk not in the abstract but against the cultural background of the American experience, and in the midst of the vast upheavals of the Roman Catholic Church.
One of the reasons why Merton is such an intriguing figure is that he lived and wrote while participating in the life and culture of one of the most ancient and traditional institutions of the West: Roman Catholic monasticism. What strikes me as most pertinent about Merton's life is that he was like the good householder Jesus described in the gospel: one who was able to bring forth both old things and new. There is a delicious paradox operating here: a person becomes deeply involved in the cultural struggles of his day while having made a conscious decision to flee from the life of that culture. The paradox becomes less stern when it is recalled that fleeing from culture is in itself a kind of judgment on the culture, as figures as diverse as Socrates and Henry David Thoreau have shown.
This work will follow the trajectory of Merton's life from his entrance into the monastery until his death twenty-seven years later. No attempt will be made to follow every event in his crowded life; such information is easily attainable in either the published biographies or by a careful reading of the now published private journals. My intention is far more modest: to see the development of his life against the background of his monastic education and the events of the times as they impinged on that education. To say it another way: my intention is to scrutinize the "signs of the times" through the lens of Merton the contemplative monk. Readers who wish to find more detailed biographical information can consult the bibliographical essay that serves as the final chapter of this book.
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