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Christian Heroes with Chinks in their Armor

Christian Heroes with Chinks in their Armor Jim Forrest

Jim Forrest

William Van Ornum - published on 06/18/14

Lessons in humility and vigilance from some best-loved Christian writers.

Several months ago I wrote here that Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis offer us archetypes of progressive and conservative elements of Christianity. That article, as well as “Haunted by Thomas Merton,” discussed the many ways that these two writers have inspired me.

Looking back on what I wrote, I’m reminded of the term “hagiography,” meaning a whitewashed look at someone who might be a saint, that focuses on positive facts and traits while overlooking others that are less admirable. There is a darker side of these great Christians that I have always struggled to understand. I had no inkling of how I could find  deeper meaning in the struggles and faults of the man who lived in Gethsemani Monastery nor the fellow who dreamed of Aslan, the Great Lion in Narnia. Until now. A book I recently discovered, by Henri Nouwen, shows the way.

Although not a publishing event of the calibre of The Seven Storey Mountain’s emergence into the post-World War II anomie, the publication of seven volumes of Thomas Merton’s literary journals boosted Merton scholarship and brought aspects of his life into greater relief. Readers could learn more about his cavorting in Europe, his palette of deep friendships, his speaking-through-pursed-lips struggles with his abbot.

After these journals were published, another massive amount of material emerged, his carefully edited letters. In all, I would estimate that there are now 6,000 pages of primary source material newly available to explore Merton’s life, untouched by Trappist censors.

Many viewed volume six of the journals, Learning to Love, as the key to deciphering  the last several years of his life. It includes many details of his “love affair” with a young woman whom he called “M.” In her “Introduction,” editor Christine M. Bochen writes in an uplifting tone about the inspiring nature of Merton’s relationship with a woman half his age:

What sets him [Merton] apart, [writes Bochen] is the expansiveness of his spirit and his candor. Perhaps by telling his story, he invites us to reflect on our own stories. In learning to love, Merton was made to explore the very depths of solitude and freedom, and, perhaps, by sharing his explorations with us, he invites us to do the same.

Editors of the series of Merton’s journals highlight Merton’s “affair” as a spiritually uplifting process that allowed him to travel to “the other side of the mountain,” the final volume of the series.

There is an alternative, and critical, way of looking at what is described in Learning to Love. Here is a frustrated Merton, tired of the particular monastery in which he had vowed to spend his life, weary and bitter concerning America (especially the arms race),  living in a “hermitage,” but seeking outside friends who became more significant to him than his monastic brothers. Like many in their early 50s, his health was deteriorating, and he needed a back operation. Recovering from surgery in a Louisville hospital, he met a young nurse with whom he became instantly enamored. In his journal, an affair with her even seems to obtain Christ’s seal of approval:

And a letter came from M. I was glad to hear from her. Have to think–my way around the problem of this tenderness–but anyway, I will do the only thing possible, and risk loving with Christ’s love when there is so obviously a need for it. And not fear!

Details of this “love affair” are disconcerting: M. is half of Merton’s age, she is engaged, Merton sneaks out of his hermitage, goes under a fence, and walks down a Kentucky back road to call M. from a pay phone (You can’t make stuff like this up!), enlists his non-monastic friends to drive them places, and is refused when he asks a psychologist to borrow the clinical office for an assignation. They even lie down next to each other naked–but “keep this from being sinful by not having intercourse.” All of this sounds like the pre-Christian Merton, the one who danced across Europe, probably fathered a child, enjoyed Columbia and its ladies, and once checked into the Roosevelt Hotel across from Penn Station to sleep off his drunken stupor. Many who read these details might wonder, “Is this really the life of a holy fellow?”

The sad events endured by C.S. Lewis are more than most of us could bear. Early in life he lost his mother. His withdrawn and strict father sent him to boarding schools (in one of which there is suggestion he may have been “buggered,” i.e., sexually abused). His father died when Lewis was a young adult. After being in a live war zone (whose emotional after-effects he jokes about), Lewis took on the responsibility of caring for a 45-year-old woman: keeping a vow he made to a friend who was killed in the war. During the next thirty years or so, Lewis lived with this woman, took care of home and hearth while being an Oxford don. Finally, he was her full-time caretaker when his companion became demented. Every Lewis biographer is bewildered: Did Lewis sleep with this woman? And each concludes, “probably, but we have no evidence.”

When Lewis was approximately the same age as Merton, his literary output had decreased, his house was deteriorating from lack of repair, he owed extensive amounts of money in taxes on his books because he simply wrote royalty checks over to charities while not keeping out taxes. His brother’s alcoholism had increased, and Lewis himself was smoking like a chimney and going to the pubs. (Publishers and others trying to find a photo of Lewis from the 1950s can find only ones in which Lewis had a cigarette in his mouth, a beer in his hand, or both.) He was demoralized after losing a highly publicized debate with Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. Biographer Ian Wilson, the most critical of all C.S. Lewis’ biographers, suggested that Lewis had succumbed to the “carapace of middle age” and had lost most of his personal and literary vitality.

In this period of doldrums, a woman of (formerly) high means inserted herself into Lewis’ life. She began by writing to Lewis, and knew he would respond. He perceived her as a tremendously gifted poet, and was beguiled by her. He invited her to England. They develop a relationship. (Ian Wilson sees her as a “gold digger,” but other biographers point out her intelligence and social graces.) Lewis said he was happy, maybe for the first time in his life. He became very angry with the Anglican Church when he was not allowed to be married in the church. He found a sympathetic pastor and married. The marriage was brief. His bride died of cancer. Lewis, devastated by grief, withdraws emotionally, deteriorates physically, and dies a lonely man.

By any account, throughout their lives Merton and Lewis loved God, dedicated themselves totally to their Church and faith, practiced the sacraments, took on a visible and difficult role by writing apologetics and other genres. I suspect each would have suffered martyrdom if directly confronted. These writers, who donated all their royalties and were pressed for time, returned lengthy letters to anyone from anywhere in the world, regardless of whether that person would ever be “of use” to them. They read the Bible, attended Mass faithfully, read the Hours, prayed for the world. Yet in their golden years they suffered spiritual doubts, probable depression and overuse of alcohol, and were overcome by romantic and spiritual urges not readily understood by friends who thought these affairs were destructive. They were acting as they did when they were much younger, guided by problems of the flesh rather than by spiritual discipline.

Is this what happens to those who love God and seek him faithfully? Whatever happened to “Seek [holiness] and ye shall find?”

In a third beloved spiritual person, Henri Nouwen, we find that ten years of discipline had not eliminated certain unattractive and core elements of his personality. In his review of Nouwen’s book The Road to Daybreak, Harold Fickett wrote that he was, at first, astonished that after ten years of seeking God, Nouwen still displayed the troublesome personality traits he had tried to overcome beginning ten years earlier, while on a retreat at Genesee Abbey: unreturned love, disappointed friendships, crabbiness and oversensitivity.

It’s disappointing [wrote Fickett] in exactly the same way it’s disappointing to be ourselves–the same person with the same problems, who learns and then must relearn again and again the basic lessons of religious faith. Nouwen does not spare himself or us the embarrassment of this perennial truth.

Similarly, Merton and C.S. Lewis discover that troublesome parts from years ago, even though confronted and fought with powerful spiritual disciplines, returned to challenge and haunt them again in their later years. When we faithfully embrace the Magisterium, participate in Mass and receive the sacraments regularly, when we guard our eyes and give what we have to the poor, aren’t we allowed some kind of earthly return on our great investment? The lives of these, our spiritual heroes and guides, remind us that our spiritual progress is always precarious. If they suffered and backslid and were not perfect at the end, what of us?

Well, it’s not really about us, is it? King David and the woman at the well understood this. So did Jesus, when he welcomed us (probably smiling) and said, “I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in me shall never die.” This is one lesson from our faith that is good to relearn.

William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.

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