J. K. Rowling was inspired by visions of St. John the Baptist as the saga of Harry Potter and friends percolated in her mind. He became the archetype for Professor Dumbledore – a wanderer in worlds earthly and spiritual – as well as a tutor, guide, and friend of Harry Potter.
I am haunted by Thomas Merton. I started reading his book, Seven Story Mountain, a few months after he died. I was in a public high school, and his love of God, the Church, and many things spiritual opened a new dimension in my life. The writing was beautiful. I can still remember the line in one poem, “Dear brother, if I do not sleep, my tears are flowers for your tomb,” written in memory of his brother, who had been killed in World War II.
This started a backward journey of sorts into Merton’s life. He wrote about his early days in the monastery in The Sign of Jonas with great sweetness and joy. Initially, Merton may have thought that he signed up for this journey, but he quickly discovered he had experienced a divine intervention similar to the kind that freed Jonas, who was trapped at the bottom of the sea.
I grew more socially aware as I read some of Martin’s other books. One in particular was Confessions of a Guilty Bystander. Many of his thoughts on nuclear war and civil rights – discordant with the spirituality of many Catholics and their prelates – were argued thoughtfully and reasonably. World War II was still part of the contemporary cloud, and in his prophetic way he warned us toward backsliding toward this kind of evil. After this, he was ordered by the censors in the Trappist order to stop writing about nuclear war. Instead he started to publish on peace!
He wrote back and forth with Boris Pasternak, recent winner of a Nobel Prize, but imprisoned in the political machinery of the Soviet Union.
There were both tragedy and beauty in Merton’s poetry, whether he was writing of the girls who were burned and killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham Alabama, or of weak reeds that bend with the wind until they finally break.
Nearly two decades later, I moved to New York. Without re-reading any of his books, his life appeared to me as I walked through Manhattan. On Fifth Avenue, there was the Scribner’s bookstore where he once picked up a volume by Hemingway. Then there was Madison Avenue – the center of materialism and consumerism which he inveighed so eloquently against. Of special note was 31st Street and the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. I thought of him praying in this church, maybe near where I was sitting at 6:15 in the morning. I felt close to him.
Another day, I walked up Broadway on the West Side. This called to mind his raucous but embryonic gestation at Columbia University, where William Blake opened doors to the spiritual realms that Madison Avenue was unaware of.
There were even some funny moments: walking by the Hotel Pennsylvania on Sixth Avenue, where an inebriated Merton checked in and dried out.
His thoughts have led me to visit three Trappist monasteries. There are few things more beautiful than getting up at 2 AM to pray with the monks and remaining there with a few of them until sunrise, when the amber glow from candles frames bright reds and blues in the stained glass windows at sunrise.
I frequently wonder what Thomas Merton would think about or say about contemporary events. He was a true progressive: one of the first to stand up and courageously confront the nuclear arms race and the racism in our United States. He even held retreats where people like Robert Kennedy and Robert Coles became inspired and then set out on their own pilgrimages.
Yet he was traditional, and conservative in the best meaning of the word. Just as environmentalists want to conserve clean streams and virgin forests, Merton wanted to keep the best aspects of the Catholic Church alive. Many emphasize his dialogue with the contemporary world, but another of his great achievements was to find inspiration and hope by going backwards in time in the Church – even if it meant reading long-gone Christians of antiquity who were martyred eighteen centuries ago.
Before Marty McFly, he traveled back to the future. He was a conjecturer, a paradox, and an iconoclast. Most importantly he was “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedek.”
In browsing through Disputed Questions, I found these words – was he thinking of 2013 when he wrote them?
The problem of the person and the social organization is certainly one of the most important, if not the most important problem of our century. Every ethical problem of our day – especially the problem of war – is to be traced back to this root question.”
Along with Merton, Pope Francis affirms the crucial importance of the person, a higher good than even the organization and dogma of the Catholic Church. C. S. Lewis, another writer of Merton’s era, put this somewhat differently. He said that the human person and the Eucharist were the most precious things on earth, because in each of these, we encounter immortality.
Thomas Merton lives on here in his writing, but as one of his many biographers concluded, it is good to know that “…his light still shines brightly in some other place.”
William Van Ornum is Professor at Marist College and Director of Research for American Mental Health Foundation in NYC: www.americanmentalhealthfoundation.org. This article was first published in Aleteia on October 3, 2013, and is published here to introduce a new series of articles on Thomas Merton by Dr. Van Ornum.