This is the condition of my copy of No Man is an Island.
If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn (New Seeds of Contemplation, 105).
I wanted to write about Merton at this time because December 10th is the anniversary of his death in 1968 in Bankok and the anniversary of his entry into the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, in 1941. This year is also the one hundredth anniversary of his birth in France during World War I “under the sign of the Water Bearer,” as he says in The Seven Storey Mountain (p. 3).
I am indebted to Merton for guiding me during the infancy of my new-found enthusiasm for the Catholic faith my senior year in college. The three big influences in that formative time were St. Bonaventure, Bl. John Henry Newman, and Merton. I am especially attracted to his writings on prayer, contemplation, and spirituality and to his early journals. I’m not so much interested in his poetry, his social commentary, or his exploration of eastern religions. With Bishop Barron I can say, “For many people of my generation, Merton opened the door to the wealth of the Catholic spiritual tradition” (Barron)
Merton was a spiritual writer, a monastic reformer, a social critic, a poet and novelist. He was a prolific writer, not only writing dozens of books, but volumes and volumes of letters and private and public journals, all of which have now been published. Merton was also a controversial figure for reasons that I will address further on. His best writing was in the form of journals and letters. He specialized in short, pithy reflections of one or two paragraphs, or even a page or two that are loosely ordered into topical chapters. His journals read like a blog, especially ones that are “topical,” like Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. His attempts at a full-length technical treatise on one subject, such as Ascent to Truth, or his history of the Cistercian Order (The Waters of Siloe) are less satisfying. Ascent was insightful, but it seems a bit strained and drawn out. He is better as a journalist in the root sense of the word. The avant-garde poetry stuff does nothing for me, but that’s my problem, not his.
One is impressed with the “enormous range of his reading and intellectual interests” (Barron). A quick scan of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander produces the following partial list of those he refers to or cites: Kabir, Traherne, Barth, St. John Perse, Mark Van Doren, Carrero Andrada, Ernesto Cardinal, Alfonso Reyes, Diodochus of Photike, Marcel, Ghandi, Chuang Tzu, Von Hūgel, Marx, Newman, Fénelon, A.K. Coomaraswamy, Gilson, Dalai Lama, Jean Giono, Mounier, St. John Chrysostom, Meister, Eckhart, Camus, Bonhoeffer, Brecht, Berdyaev, Einstein, A. Mirgeler, Auden, Aqinas, Lewis Mumford, Milosz, Satre, Malraux, Orwell, Julian Green, Louis Massignon, Vinoba Bhave, St. John of the Cross, Bernanos, Origen, Dawson, Confucius, Pieper, Ibn al’ Arabi, Tavard, Lanza del Vasto, Cassiodorus, John Wu, Heidegger, Rumi, Jacques Ellul, Maritain, Rose MacCauley, D.T. Suzuki, St. Hilary of Arles, Thoreau, Jung, Daniel Berrigan, Bl. John XXIII, Nicholas of Cusa, Hannah Arendt, Heisenberg, Guardini, J.A.T. Robinson, St. Anselm, Zoē Oldenbourg, A.M. Allchin, Paul Evdokimov,
He is deeply grounded in the Church Fathers and Doctors, especially Berrnard of Clairvaux and St. John of the Cross. His is a monastic, symbolic theology, rather than dialectic, which has much in common with that of, say, de Lubac and the other ressourcement writers. His writing was always grounded in orthodox Trinitarian theology, Chalcedon Christology, and solid Pneumatology:
Finally, mystical contemplation comes to us, like every other grace, through Christ. Contemplation is the fullness of the Christ-life in the soul, and it consists above all in the supernatural penetration of the mysteries of Christ. This work is performed in us by the Holy Ghost substantially Present in our soul by grace, along with the other two Divine Persons. The highest peak of contemplation is a mystical union with God in which the soul and its faculties are said to be “transformed” in God, and enter into a full conscious participation in the hidden life of the Trinity of Persons in Unity of Nature” (Ascent to Truth, 13).
His writing was often peppered with a “playful and ironic sense of humor” (Barron).
The Red Cross came for blood, and Brother C--—, one of the novices, was very happy because he was the one to give the ﬁrst pint. I was happy because he was happy. I don’t know what pint I gave, but I felt lighter after it. On the way in they told me, for the ﬁrst time, that I had high blood pressure and called the doctor (one of the monks) to check it. I forget the adverb he used for how high it was and was not. Anyway, not that high. And my pulse was fast, but not that fast. You know how high that is, and how fast that is (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 223).
Sometimes, however, he can slip into a more ascerbic, almost self-righteous tone.
Merton’s writings can be divided into two phases. The first phase was one in which he was primarily exploring the depth of the Catholic spiritual tradition. He embraced the contemptus mundi of the monastic tradition. He had a strong sense that he had made a radical change (or God had made a radical change in him) that set him apart and led him to reject much of what he saw in the world:
Most of the world is either asleep or dead. The religious people are, for the most part, asleep. The irreligious are dead. Those who are asleep are divided into two classes, like the Virgins in the parable, waiting for the Bridegroom’s coming. The wise have oil in their lamps. That is to say they are detached from themselves and from the cares of the world, and they are full of charity. They are indeed waiting for the Bridegroom, and they desire nothing else, but His coming, even though they may fall asleep while waiting for Him to appear. But the others are not only asleep: they are full of other dreams and other desires. Their lamps are empty because they have burned themselves out in the wisdom of the ﬂesh and in their own vanity. When He comes, it is too late for them to buy oil. They light their lamps only after He has gone. So they fall alseep again, with useless lamps, and when they wake up they trim them to investigate, once again, the matters of a dying World.” (No Man is an Island, 44)
The second phase was marked by a positive, but highly critical turn to the world and a turn to the Eastern Religions for dialogue. The turning point seems to have been an experience he had in 1958 during a visit to Louisville.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time” (Conjectures, 140).
This is a beautiful passage with deep spiritual insight. I can believe that it was liberating for him. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether the experience didn’t take him in the direction of a somewhat uncritical openness to the world, including a hermit life that borrowed more from the bohemians than from the desert fathers, that somewhat lost its moorings in the Catholic spiritual tradition. Nonetheless, I never saw any evidence that he lost his grounding in Dogmatic Catholicism, even if he would wax eloquently about Buddhism and use that vocabulary.
I favor the writing in the first period because his interests at that time more closely corresponded to mine. I’m not so interested in dialogue with Buddhism, since I find ample material for spiritual growth within the Catholic tradition, the depth which I have only begun to plumb. I find his social commentary to often be somewhat simplistic, such as when he tries to describe the difference between conservatives and progressives in American Politics:
The conservative position retains a certain element of traditional contemptum mundi. We keep up our cohesion and morale by fulminating against certain typical issues~—especially lax sexual morals, birth control, divorce, pornography, which are not only obvious but also typological—that embody in themselves all that we mean by “the world” and “sin.” (Here we tend to forget that they typify the “ﬂesh” rather than “the World.” The world, in the triad world-ﬂesh-devil, represents greed for wealth and prestige, and this is seldom attacked. As a matter of fact, it is precisely here that, having “satisﬁed” the Christian conscience by anathemas directed at the ﬂesh, we can come to terms with the world which, let us admit it, offers us a prestige which we believe to be essential for the dissemination of the Gospel. The message of the priest who drives an Oldsmobile is surely more credible than that of one who rides in the bus!)
The liberal attitude, on the other hand, makes a different choice of symbols. Less exercised on the problems of the ﬂesh, it concerns itself more with symbolic social issues, and having taken an edifying stand (somewhat late) in questions of civil rights (in the United States) or labor (Europe) it explicitly declares that the Church has much to learn from “the World” in these matters, and that the insights of the most modern and advanced social thought are more relevant to Christianity than the platitudes of a theology that has still not caught up with the twentieth century.
For the liberal, the message of the Church will become credible to the modern world if the priest is seen on the assembly line—or if he is arrested in a sit-in. There is no question that this position is somewhat more relevant to the times and implies a more real sense of man’s need than the position of those who reduce contemptus mundi to anti-Communism and the readiness to shower Russia with H-bombs in the name of Christ. But does the ancient, ascetic idea of renunciation of the world have no meaning at all in the present context? (Conjectures, 35-6)
I get and agree with the point, but I think he oversimplifies, for instance, the distinction between the flesh, the world, and the devil, which are often found intertwined with each other. I also don’t think people are as cut and dried in one camp or the other as he and many pundits seem to think. I know I’m not.
His social doctrine, however, is not Pelagian. He is quite aware that no social progress can happen unless persons are interiorly transformed by grace:
If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity. It is closely allied to sanctity. You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have order without saints (Ascent to Truth, 8).
This is an early text, but he said much the same kind of thing in even his latest writings.
He frequently described life in the monastery, which at that time had a very archaic form, with lots of Latin and strange clothing and odd practices, such as “the discipline.” For a romantic like me these little snippets were like little bits of praline which I relished when I read them, making me long for that kind of life. This way life would be soon swept away, and to no little extent because of the influence of Merton. When I visited Gethsemane in the early 1980s I was deeply disappointed.
His spiritual reflections can be quite poetic:
God’s will is a profound and holy mystery, and the fact that we live our everyday lives engulfed in this mystery should not lead us to underestimate its holiness. We dwell in the will of God as in a sanctuary. His will is the cloud of darkness that surrounds His immediate presence. It is the mystery in which His divine life and our created life be- come “one spirit,” since, as St. Paul says, “Those who are joined to the Lord are one spirit” (I Corinthians 6:17). (No Man is an Island, 52)
He is clear that the authentic Christian life is not a matter of conformity to abstract principles, but to a Person:
If, in trying to do the will of God, we always seek the highest abstract standard of perfection, we show that there is still much we need to learn about the will of God. For God does not demand that every man attain to what is theoretically highest and best….The dying thief had, perhaps, disobeyed the will of God in many things: but in the most important event of his life He listened and obeyed. The Pharisees had kept the law to the letter and had spent their lives in the pursuit of a most scrupulous perfection. But they were so intent upon perfection as an abstraction that when God manifested His will and His perfection in a concrete and definite way they had no choice but to reject it. (No Man is an Island, 67)
Merton’s life is surrounded with controversy. People were so uneasy that the USCCB had to withdraw an essay about him in the United States Catechism for Adults that they produced in 2005. Two factors contribute to the unease some people have with him, his moral failings and his dialogue with the East.
First, late in his life he had a seemingly platonic love affair with a student nurse he met in Louisville. For many this was a clear sign that Merton’s grounding in the Catholic spiritual tradition may have been more intellectual than personal. Others, such as Bp. Barron and Ralph McInerny, were more willing to see the episode as a successfully negotiated temptation in a very confusing time in the Church. McInerny said:
Frankly I was shocked when I read of this faltering, but on reflection I have come to think that it is an essential element in Merton’s influence. We lay people are wont to place impossible demands on the clergy and religious, as if they were already in patria rather than in via with the rest of us. There is something pharisaical in our surprise that even those who have given their lives in the quest of perfection often fall short. (McInerny)
I’m not quite as sanguine as Bp. Barron and Dr. McInerny, but I have not found that the incident has interfered with my benefiting from Merton’s very profound spiritual teachings.
The other area of controversy is his dialogue with Eastern religions. Some seemed to think that he had begun to drift into syncretism or would have become a Buddhist had he not died while on a trip to the Far East. I didn’t see any evidence of this in even his later writings. His thought does not seem to have become as problematic as, say, that of Bede Griffiths, the Benedictine monk who started an ashram in India. It does not bother me, for instance, for a person to use vocabulary from Hinduism or Buddhism to help explain their own Catholic spiritual life, so long as it is done intelligently and cognizant of the real differences between the traditions. On the other hand, perhaps his dialogue was not as careful as it might have been. A friend of mine, who is an expert on Catholic-Buddhist dialogue, tells me that the Zen that Merton was in dialogue with, that of D.T. Suzuki, was an outlier. His particular emphasis on the non-rational and on emptiness is not necessarily a part of mainstream Zen.
The ultimate question for many, though, was whether he remained orthodox to the end. A good example of the critic can be found in Anthony Clark’s essay, “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?”
One of his most famous texts is a prayer that has sustained many. It bears a resemblance Lead Kindly Light of Bl. John Henry Newman:
My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thoughts in Solitude, 79)
—Robert Gotcher and his wife, Kathy, live in Milwaukee, where they've been raising their seven children, four of whom are "out of the house" more or less. He teaches writing and Latin at a seminary. He wrote his dissertation on de Lubac and Vatican II. He is originally from Oklahoma, but has lived in Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Innsbruck, Austria.