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Does Thomas Merton’s Affair Disqualify Him as a Spiritual Guide?



William Van Ornum - published on 04/28/15

A look at his weaknesses and our own
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It’s time to dig a little deeper into my 45-year relationship with Thomas Merton. Previously I wrote about the positive ways in which he enriched my spirituality.

Now it’s time to confront something I’ve been uncomfortable and wrestling with, not with the intensity of Job and God, but a decades long intellectual struggle. This concerns his relationship with “M,” the student nurse with whom he had a relationship in the mid 1960s.

Merton has been hagiographed (new verb) and his fans are everywhere, loyal to him as Chicago Cub fans are to their unique team. Cub fans forgive foibles, and so do Merton’s fans. But with Merton, it’s not a game if you’re using him as a spiritual mentor.

The events I’m referring to are detailed in Volume Six of Merton’s journals. Both in the introduction of the book, as well as in the opinion of many Merton commentators, his “relationship” with “M” gave him a full understanding of human love, insights impossible to have been learned within the structure of Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey.

Some of the details of this time are tawdry, such as his descriptions of himself and “M” being naked together. Other details of this time include sneaking out of his hermitage, finding his leather jacket along the way, being picked up on the highway by friends, and going out drinking at the local watering hole. There are at least several affectionate descriptions of alcohol. Need I say more?

As a clinical psychologist, it’s impossible to diagnose someone you’ve never met, especially when this person died over 45 years ago. Nevertheless, it’s also impossible to keep from one’s mind critical questions concerning this portion of Merton’s life.

So a few things come to mind. Perhaps this relationship with “M” might better be termed an infatuation, or in our vernacular a form of “friends with benefits,” even though apparently they never consummated the relationship. “M” was engaged. She was very young, being born perhaps thirty years after Merton. What’s admirable of all this?

I’ll leave it to readers to go back to Volume 6 of the journals and to be looking out for books coming out to honor, this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth, to make their own assessment.

If one views this time in his life as sinful (but beware, “Judge not, lest you be judged”), then what does this do the value of reading all his books and using him as a spiritual guide?

One way to look at this, as some do, is that disqualifies him from being a competent spiritual guide for others, especially in view of the “affair” and the yearnings for an Eastern spirituality. It even makes his earlier books, even The Seven Storey Mountain, suspect. What good was his spirituality if this is what it led to?

But there is another way: a prophetic caution for the Church, and each of us. It can be so easy to fall into particular sins, be they greed, anger, gluttony—or as in this case, lust.

It is God’s grace that keeps us on the right track.

An intense look at the life of the Church between 1915 and 1968, Merton’s years on Earth, will reveal more than a few scandals and behaviors against the letter of the law and the spirit of the law by the Church itself, and even it’s prominent leaders. Yet we remain loyal.

Perhaps when each one examines his or her own life, similar weaknesses, past or present, will be discovered. So Merton’s behaviors are no different from the life of the Church during those years, or our particular life.

I have no doubt (although I have no evidence, either) that Merton humbly read the 51st psalm, expressed contrition, and lived a life with some similarities to King David.

Despite David’s weaknesses, the bloodline continues from him to Jesus Christ. Somehow God made this crooked line straight. The same thing may be said of Thomas Merton.

St. Ignatius, almost fiercely, tells us to always assume goodness in the behaviors of other Christians. Let’s look at Merton’s entire life with this in mind.

He’s no different from King David, the Church, and ourselves.

On this Centenary of his birth, let us be inspired by the manner in which he continues to bring people to the Lord, but also recognize the need for God’s grace, which surpasses the power of even the best spiritual writers.

For me, this gives him greater stature, and reflecting on his entire life gives a stronger, and truly prophetic, message.

William Van Ornum is Professor at Marist College and Director of Research for American Mental Health Foundation in NYC:

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