What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. –Thomas Merton
I’m one of those people who believe that life should be approached with reverence, that the whole enterprise is a blessing and needs to be taken seriously in order for it to be significant and meaningful and purposeful. And I’m also a person who believes in irreverence, in not taking the whole edifice of civilization and its various discontents– the struggle for power and prestige, the accumulation of goods, battle of man against man or woman against woman for that matter– too seriously. I believe in the redemptive power of a good laugh, the challenge to settled convention, the liberation of the id so long as it doesn’t become an idol, itself, the idol of iconoclasm.
Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the writings of Thomas Merton, his essays, poems, book reviews and spiritual works and to learning more about his life.
Thomas Merton was born in the south of France in 1915, in a small village near the border with Spain, a place called Prades. His father was a New Zealander, his mother, an American of Scottish and Welsh heritage. Both were artists … bohemians, I guess you’d call them. Not quite the beginnings you’d expect for a Trappist monk who later was drawn to living as a hermit. He was a man full of contradictions, so a man I find interesting, bound as he was to the conventions of his time and bound to challenge them.
A few months after he was born, the family moved to the United States, eventually settling in Queens, a borough of New York City. His mother died when Thomas was only six years old, stomach cancer. His father traveled quite a bit after that, back and forth from Europe to the United States, even as far as Algeria.
As a teenager, Merton was enrolled in private schools, both in France and in England. In England, he attended Clare College, Cambridge, but he wasn’t a disciplined student by any means, and so was not very successful. In 1934, age 18, he returned to the U.S. to live with his grandparents in New York and to attend Columbia University. At age 18, he was already, in some sense, a “man of the world,” but with no clear direction, no coherent discipline, and no way to gain a focus to achieve either.
Columbia helped with that somewhat; at least, it disciplined his way of thinking while, at the same time, opening up what you might call his “interior landscape.” The short biography by Cornelia and Irving Sussman contains an interesting story. His first year at Columbia, Merton took a course with a teacher named Mark Van Doren, an orientation course called “Contemporary Civilization.” He expected it to be a superficial survey course, the kind of course he hated.
Instead, he found a professor who taught literature as literature rather than as politics or psychology or from any other academic perspective. Van Doren’s perspective was that “literature was the very generator of spiritual life, that all philosophy depended on literature.” This, Merton found very appealing. And Columbia, after Cambridge University… well, he put it this way, “Compared with Cambridge, this big, sooty factory was full of light and fresh air. There was a kind of intellectual vitality in the air.”
He was surprised and overjoyed to find out that he could take out as many books from the library in Columbia as he wanted. It felt like the library, the university, was made just for him. (I think you’ll find this true in any institution that allows for and promotes the free exploration of ideas– a Unitarian Universalist church, for instance. (And have you checked out our library? It‘s small, but a good one.))
He felt that the generous atmosphere “turned him on ‘like a pinball machine’.” So, he would come out of the library with his arms full of books– “Blake, Aquinas, Augustine, (Meister) Eckhart (the 13th century theologian and mystic), (Ananda) Coomaraswamy (the Ceylonese philosopher and metaphysician), (Gerard Manley) Hopkins, (Jacques) Maritain– even the French prophetic writer Leon Bloy.”
In other words, he was drawn to the mystics as well as the traditional Christian writers. He was drawn to what was lively, imaginative, thoughtful, challenging and committed to something larger than self-gratification. This was a change, a marked change, from what his life had been before Columbia.
He had entered Cambridge College in 1933, a confused young man and, at first, thought he had found what he was looking for in the academic environment; he expected it to provide a solid and definitive answer to his questions about life. When he was disappointed by the reality, he, like so many others, sought relief in a more or less dissipated lifestyle. “He started drinking excessively, hanging out in the local pubs… and bars rather than studying. He was also very free with his sexuality at this time.” “Some (of his) friends” went “so far as to call him a womanizer” (Wikipedia).
And “most of Merton’s biographers agree that he fathered a child with one of the women he encountered in Cambridge and there was some kind of legal action pending that was settled discreetly by (Tom) Bennett,” the man who became Merton’s guardian after the death of his father. Of such stuff saints are made.
No, Thomas Merton has not achieved sainthood in any orthodox sense, but he certainly has been viewed with love and respect by many, Catholic and non-Catholic, in the 47 years since his death. In his remarks while in the United States late last year, Pope Francis held up for our consideration four Americans “whose dreams (represent)… fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people… Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr…., Dorothy Day (the founder of the Catholic Worker), and Thomas Merton.” More on that later.
Let’s go back to Merton’s time in Columbia. In the fall of his junior year, he entered what he thought was a history class. He had been neglecting courses such as history and economics and sociology and political science and felt it was time to fill in those gaps. He was confused when he saw Professor Mark Van Doren entering the room. Turns out, it was Van Doren’s Shakespeare class. Merton picked up his load of books and made for the door.
“Then suddenly, he turned and came back. It was the most important choice of his college career,” say his biographers. He found where he belonged.” Students discussed ideas… literature, philosophy, and even (say the Sussmans) that most taboo of subjects, spiritual essences.” No platitudes, no cant, no labels.
“All that year we were, in fact, talking about the deepest springs of human desire and hope and fear; we were considering all the most important realities.” And, you know, that’s what I hope we do here at our church.
I mentioned earlier that Merton was bailed out of a legal predicament in England by Tom Moore, his guardian. In 1926, when Merton was eleven years old, his father enrolled him in a boarding school. He had lost his mother when just a small child. His father, who traveled often, following the promptings of his artistic temperament, often seemed distant. Merton felt lonely and isolated due to the absence of both parents, but he loved his dad and yearned for his company. He felt abandoned, Wikipedia tells us.
In 1929, while Merton was living with his great-aunt and -uncle, he got the news that his father had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He visited him in the hospital and was relieved to see that the elder Merton, Owen, seemed to be recovering. A relief, to be sure. He spent most of the following summer, the summer of 1930, visiting his father in hospital. His father had become so ill that he was no longer able to speak. And in January of 1931, just as the school term was ending, Owen Merton died.
Thomas Merton was 16 years old and an orphan. Tom Moore had been Owen’s physician and former classmate in New Zealand. He more or less adopted Thomas, serving as his legal guardian. Thomas, who had briefly investigated Catholicism as a spiritual home, became agnostic.
The following year, Merton embarked on a walking tour of Germany. More European travel followed. He made his way to Rome where he felt, “mysteriously,” it is said, drawn to the churches. He visited one after another till finally, at a church called Santi Cosma e Domiano, he found what he did not know he was looking for.
“In the apse of the church, he saw a great mosaic of Jesus Christ coming in judgment in a dark blue sky and was transfixed. (Merton) had a hard time leaving the place, though he was unsure why” (W). He had found Byzantine Christian Rome. He visited the other churches and basilicas in the city. He purchased a copy of a Latin Bible (the Vulgate) and read through the New Testament, all of it.
Then, one night in his pensione, he felt the presence of his father in the room for just a few moments. He felt it to be a mystical experience and it led him to see the emptiness in his own life. And he prayed. One might say that he submitted himself to prayer. He asked God to deliver him from his darkness. Soon after, he visited a Trappist monastery in Rome, Tre Fontane.
He felt at ease in the church, but when he entered the monastery, he felt full of anxiety. But that afternoon, when he was alone, he found himself saying to himself, “I should like to become a Trappist monk.” An outspoken and generally cheerful man, he felt himself drawn to a life of quiet.
He returned to the United States in 1933, still drawn to reading the Bible in Latin, but still full of doubts about Catholicism (even “antipathy,” one source says). By mid-summer, he’d lost most of the interest that he’d had in the church and returned to England to take up his studies in Cambridge.
Born in France, brought up in New York till age ten, then taken back to France by his father where he stayed at a boarding school for two years, then back to England to a boarding school in Surrey. A summer in Scotland, then another boarding school in England, this time in Rutland. Then, his father died. Tours through Europe, then a return to New York in 1933, a young man of 18 now, without parents, but with grandparents close enough to visit. Then, back to Cambridge for two years, then back to New York and Columbia University.
His sense of “home” must have been very disjointed and insecure. His lack of a spiritual home must have deepened the sense of isolation and even abandonment. Is it any wonder that his search for meaning and purpose was so diffuse and yet so pressing?
He graduated from Columbia in 1938, with a B.A. in English. After graduation, he continued on in the same university’s master’s degree program, also in English. Then, age 23, he was introduced to a Hindu monk visiting from Chicago, by the name of Mahanambrata Brahmachari. Merton recognized him as someone who seemed to be “centered in God.” He expected that there would be some attempt to convert him. Instead, the monk recommended that he reconnect to his own traditions and read St. Augustine’s Confessions and The Imitation of Christ.
Merton read them. He started a prayer practice again. The more he read, the more he found himself drawn to Catholicism. He did his graduate thesis on William Blake and began to feel Blake’s religious symbolism in ways new to him. While reading a book about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ conversion to Catholicism, he suddenly felt “seized” to become a priest.
So seized, in fact, that he grabbed his coat and hat and ran to the rectory of the Corpus Christi Church where he met with a priest, Father George Barry Ford, to express his desire to become a Catholic. Yes, he was seized with a desire to become a priest before even officially entering the church. He spent several weeks studying the catechism before getting re-baptized in November of 1938, 23 years old. The following February, he received his M.A. from Columbia and decided to go on with the Ph.D. program there.
Merton had heard good things from friends about a part-time teacher on campus named Daniel Walsh and decided to take a course with him to study the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. Walsh and Merton became lifelong friends and Merton received his confirmation as a Catholic in May of 1939.
But, you know, the road is rarely smooth, and the human personality is complex, Thomas Merton’s more than most. In October of 1939, Merton invited friends to sleep overnight at his apartment after a night listening to jazz. Jazz, Thomas? Jazz as in prayer, contemplation and ascetic discipline? Ecce homo. Behold the man. He told his friends of his decision to become a priest.
Dan Walsh provided Merton with guidance. After considering various options (including the Jesuits and the Cistercians), Merton felt called to pursue the order of the Franciscans, honoring his attraction to the teachings and life of St. Francis. He met with a father Edmund Murphy (all these Irishmen!) who, after the interview, gave him an application to become a Franciscan Friar, but told him that he’d have to wait till the following August to enter as a novice– that was the only month during which novices were welcomed. He was disappointed to have to wait another year, but, of course, agreed.
Then, he examined his conscience. He felt that he had not been completely honest, that he had not revealed everything. (One thinks of the child he sired in England and the legal arrangements that followed, but we don’t know for certain what the concerns were.) So, he sought another audience with Father Murphy, who listened respectfully, seemed sympathetic, and asked him to return the next day.
Who knows what happened that night, what wheels of bureaucracy turned, but when Merton came back for his meeting with Father Murphy the next day, Murphy told him that he no longer felt Merton was suitable for life as a friar and that, after all, the next year’s roster of novices was full. Imagine his dismay. He believed that his calling was finished.
He returned to New York to stay with friends. He felt desolate. Through friends, he found out about an opening at St. Bonaventure University. He met with the president and was hired on the spot. He still held on to his desire to be a friar. If he couldn’t be one, then at least he could live among them (W).
He spent only a year there, as it turns out. But, it was a pivotal year. The teaching deepened his piety, his prayer life, his dedication. He stopped drinking almost completely and gave up smoking and even stopped going to movies. He became more selective in his reading (W). And in 1941, he went for a retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky.
He felt pulled to the place, and Wikipedia says that he felt his spirits rise during his stay. Beginning on December 10th of that year, he spent three days in the guest house at Gethsemani, during which he was put to work scrubbing floors. On the fourth day, he was accepted as a postulant.
Twenty-seven years to the day after his entrance to the monastery, Thomas Merton died. He was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan after stepping out of a bath in a hotel room in Bangkok. He was there attending an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Catholic monks.
Merton is best known for a bestselling book that he wrote while in his first few years in the monastery. It’s called The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography named after that mountain in Dante’s Purgatory. He felt that his spiritual journey had been such a pilgrimage through Purgatory. Perhaps he was right. That book was completed in 1946, when he was 31 years old, five years after entering the monastery, and published in 1948. By May of 1949, 100,000 copies were in print. The original hardcover edition eventually sold 600,000 copies. By the end of 1984, paperback sales exceeded 3 million. It has never been out of print.
He wrote over 60 other books as well as hundreds of essays. By my count, twenty-nine of those books, including several volumes of journals, were published after Merton’s death. The Seven Storey Mountain has been translated into over fifteen languages. It’s listed as one of the National Review’s 100 best non-fiction books of the century.
Yet, later in life, Merton pretty much disavowed it. He continued to grow spiritually, as I hope we all do and will. By the time he wrote The Sign of Jonas, which was published five years later, he said “The Seven Storey Mountain is the work of a man I have never even heard of” (W: SSM). In his introduction to the Japanese edition published in 1966, he says, “Perhaps if I were to attempt this book today, it would be written differently. Who knows? But it was written when I was still quite young, and that is the way it remains. The story no longer belongs to me.”
Was Merton’s individuality lost in the monastery, then? Hardly. He petitioned his superiors to allow him to become a hermit on the campus. After some deliberation (there is always deliberation), they agreed and built him a hermitage on the property. Yet, this hermit still yearned to travel. That’s what brought him to Bangkok. His boundaries were ever expanding, in the interior world as well as in this physical world we share.
Merton was fascinated by exploration of spiritual possibilities. Though he was committed to Christianity, he could see the value in other traditions and, in fact, could find ways to reconcile one with another without violating any of the tenets that keep them as separate traditions.
He became fascinated with Zen Buddhism and met and formed a friendship with the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He met and talked with the Dalai Lama who declared that Merton understood Buddhism better than anyone else from the West whom he had met. He wrote a series of articles on Native American spirituality for the Catholic Worker.
When Pope Francis spoke to a joint meeting of the United States Congress on September 15 of the year just passed, he offered this tribute, “Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
That may be the most significant part of his legacy. To embrace and foster dialogue, to promote peace between peoples and religions. May we go and do likewise.
In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for “finding himself.” If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence. –Thomas Merton
- A Thomas Merton Reader. Thomas P. McDonnell, editor. Doubleday. NY, NY. 1974.
- The Seven Storey Mountain. Thomas Merton. Harcourt, Brace, and Co. NY, NY. 1948.
- Thomas Merton. Cornelia and Irving Sussman. Image Books. 1980.
- Biography.com: Thomas Merton.
- Wikipedia: “Thomas Merton;” “The Seven Storey Mountain;” “Mark Van Doren.”
- www.npr.org: “Pope Gives Nods to Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day In Speech at Congress”
- Merton.org: The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University: “Thomas Merton’s Life and Work
Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on January 3, 2016.