As will generations to come
Thomas Merton, better perhaps than any other writer of the 20th century, conveyed the romance of Christianity. If God can be known in this life, in a personal and transformative way, what other possibility could be as compelling? What other love affair as attractive?
Thomas Merton readers the world over are celebrating the centennial of his birth this January 31st (1915 – 2015). He’s been gone nearly as long as he lived, having died in 1968 by electric shock, due to the faulty wiring of a fan in his hotel bathroom in Bangkok, where he was attending an interfaith conference.
My generation met Thomas Merton through The Seven Storey Mountain, a spiritual autobiography that is often compared to Augustine’s Confessions. Merton crafted The Seven Storey Mountain as a portrait of his religious education, and like Augustine included commentary that is unabashedly evangelical, as Merton exults in the truth he’s found.
What a young man Merton was! He had an enormous appetite for life and its pleasures, both licit and illicit. This is the secret of The Seven Storey Mountain, as we meet a young man who lives out virtually the entire catalogue of youthful dreams. He’s someone we’d all like to be.
Merton loves women and drink and travel and jazz — and learning as well. He aspires to be a great writer. He sins disastrously, but he loves his family and proves fiercely loyal to his friends. Once he stumbles upon the truth of Christianity, he has the sense to recognize God’s invitation in Christ as the answer to the hell into which his wild and self-destructive pursuit of pleasure has led.
The canvas for his picaresque life stretches from France and Italy to England and the Eastern seaboard of the US. It includes Bermuda, where his father matured as a painter, the Long Island home of his maternal grandparents, a French lycée where he was bullied, English public schools, Cambridge University and Columbia. It’s as if Merton steps out of Brideshead Revisited into a latter-day Great Gatsby.
In the natural order of things, as Merton admits, he was a type of king, gifted in his intellect, his energy, and the means to pursue the best of educations. He was even blessed by his privations, as the early deaths of his parents caused him to have an itinerant childhood, one richer in experience for its tragedies.
Nothing compared to the possibility of knowing God, however. For that priceless pearl Merton gave away everything and became a Trappist Monk at The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, arriving on December 10, 1941.
He told the story, and it’s the story that convinces. His gift for personal narrative was unsurpassed; his prose marked by poetic descriptions of landscape, quick portraiture, an unerring eye for detail, and what could only have been a phenomenal visual memory.
He went on telling his story, taking us inside Gethsemani over the first ten years of his life as a monk in The Sign of Jonas — the best chronicle of monastic life I have ever read. In The Sign of Jonas we witness the rough and the smooth of Merton’s new life: from how unsuited the monk’s winter and summer habits were to the Kentucky weather to deeply satisfying moments of being immersed in the liturgy. We progress with Merton through his studies that lead to his ordination as a priest in 1949. He was known in religious life as Father Louis.
Merton’s life at Gethsemani gave him an outsider’s perspective on humankind’s ruthless lust for power and our acquisitive addiction; he found the world of spending and getting these produce a horror. In Jonas, as I recall, Merton visits Louisville after many months of being in residence at Gethsemani; the violent and cheap nature of contemporary life in the city nearly overwhelms him. Driven by unrestrained appetites, he realizes, the world has simply gone mad.
Merton longed to see an authentic culture arise that was capable of producing beauty and social harmony, not merely the mass production of goods and their conspicuous consumption.
His point-of-view resonated powerfully with my generation — the boomers.
We have been bashed as narcissists responsible for everything that’s wrong today, and we deserve this. After all, the ideals of the 1960s quickly gave way to mere hedonism followed by a consumerist holocaust.
Still, the impulse toward a more connected way of life, a greater realization of community, remains universal. We were not wrong to long for this, as people do as well today, but we failed utterly to connect that longing with anything like the monastic tradition that grounded Merton.
Merton’s engagement with Eastern religions also struck a chord. There are those who see this engagement as, in effect, a retraction of the Catholicism on view in The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton never deserted his devotion to Christ, however. What Merton committed himself to — from beginning to end — was the knowledge of God. He did not want to know “about God”: he wanted to encounter God. He felt that God had rewarded the spiritual striving of Eastern monks through the centuries with an immense understanding of the interior life and an experience of the divine. He realized that Buddhism, in some of its formulations, could be described as a “sublime atheism.” But when he saw Tibetan monks working their prayer wheels he recognized a sincere piety that he believed God honored. In this he was very much in accord with the inter-religious dialogue called for by Vatican II. Or, as my evangelical friends would say, he recognized that all truth is God’s truth.
Merton’s work connected my generation with the wellsprings of Catholic spirituality, especially the liturgy of the hours. He taught us much about the particular charisms (spiritual gifts) of various religious orders, and how we might, as lay people, live a contemplative life in the midst of the world. His work also provided a syllabus of the splendid intellectual tradition that buttresses Catholic teaching.
He was hardly perfect and is unlikely ever to be canonized. Late in his life, he fell in love with the student nurse, Margie Smith, who took care of him in a Louisville hospital after his back surgery. He ended this affair of the heart — which was probably never physically consummated — and recommitted himself to his monastic vows. For all his years of spiritual discipline, evidently, more than a little of the wild, young Tom Merton remained.
Merton still stands as a spiritual champion — a man who lived the ultimate adventure of loving God. His death came too soon, even if it delivered him into the fullness of what he had long sought, as it does all those who wait in expectation of Christ’s bright appearing.