The Common Good
November-December 2000

An Unexpected Merton

by Jim Forest | November-December 2000

The Trappist's voice continues to resound.

It comes as a surprise to discover that in the Orthodox Church only three saints are called theologians: St. John the Theologian, author of the fourth gospel; St. Gregory Nazianzus the Theologian, and St. Simeon the New Theologian. While this does not mean there are no other theologians in the calendar of saints—in fact there are many—the sparing use of the term reminds us that a theologian is far more than a scholar. A theologian is someone able to express in words the actual knowledge and experience of God. A theologian is not merely an expert but a disciple.

It is in the non-scholastic sense of the word that Lawrence Cunningham recognizes Thomas Merton as a theologian—not "a professional thinker in the service of ideas and not a person of systematic theological reflection, but someone who knows how to speak about God authentically."

Cunningham, professor of theology at Notre Dame and author of Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision, finds that what has drawn so many to Merton's books is that Merton "wrote everything out of a deeply centered life of faith expressed in prayer," writing not with an "idea" of God but an experience of God that "shines through his writing." His books are not simply about God but bear witness to God.

One might add that there is something of the same quality in Cunningham's book. Of the many people who have written studies of Merton, few have understood Merton so well or been better able to describe his work with such economy and insight. For those who have begun reading Merton and who know the outlines of his life story, Monastic Vision takes the reader to a deeper level of understanding and appreciation. I found it hard to put down.

It happens that Cunningham's book was published shortly after The Intimate Merton, by Brother Patrick Hart, OCSO, and Jonathan Montaldo, came off the press. In a sense this is Merton's second autobiography, the first—The Seven Storey Mountain—having been written when he was a young monk, more than two decades before his death.

The Seven Storey Mountain is still the book to read to meet the young Merton: a boy raised on both sides of the Atlantic, an orphan in his teens, a lonely and self-destructive student at Cambridge, dismissed by his British guardian to live in America, beginning to get his bearings while studying at Columbia, finding his way into the Catholic Church as a young adult, teaching for a time at a Franciscan college, working as a volunteer at Friendship House in Harlem, and, finally—in the shadow of World War II—becoming a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, a 20th-century outpost of medieval culture in which monks communicated with each other chiefly by sign language, going to bed at sunset and starting their day with Latin chant at the dark hour of 2 a.m.

In The Intimate Merton, a selection of the best and most important entries from the seven volumes of journals published over the past few years, we not only get the rest of the story but in an unpasteurized form. "When I reveal most, I hide most," Merton noted in a journal entry the year before he died. While this was often true of writings he prepared for publication, his hidden self takes center stage in The Intimate Merton.

Often it's an unexpected Merton the reader encounters through his journals: a man often wracked with doubts about his choices, his community, and his double vocation as writer and monk.

MANY OF THE journals' confessional pages have to do with being a writer in an age "smothered in language." Merton the Writer was permanently at odds with his archenemy, Merton the Monk, who was called to solitude and silence. No one is more aware than Merton of the irony of a supposedly silent Trappist being a loud voice in the world. In October 1961, Merton noted that it was clear he was "a writer who has arrived" but wonders what that actually means. "Arrived where? Void. Has there ever been anything else in my life but the construction of this immense illusion?" He accused himself of being nothing more than a "publicist of emptiness." Merton suffered from wanting to be noticed and to matter in the world, to aspire through the printed word to be a someone rather than a nobody. At other times he realized that writing was the door God had given him to a deeper spiritual and even mystical life. It also cleared his mind. "I often do not know what I think," he notes, "until it is set down before me in black and white." He kept writing—and kept vowing to write less.

He suffered agonizing doubts about remaining at Gethsemani, to which he committed himself by the traditional Benedictine vow of stability when he was professed in 1947. During his first visit to Gethsemani in 1940, the abbey had seemed to him to be the secret place whose Christ-centered purity held the country together and even "kept the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart...the axle around which the whole country blindly turns." He had found himself in "the court of the Queen of Heaven" and wanted nothing so much as to live there for the rest of his life.

Later in life he was often more aware of the community's faults than its virtues, filling many journal pages with ideas about better places to pursue the contemplative life where he wouldn't feel "like a duck in a chicken coop." The journals bring home how often and desperately Merton's eyes rested on what he imagined to be finer, greener monastic pastures. At the same time the journals underline the astonishing fact that he remained a monk at Gethsemani until his dying day.

THERE IS ALSO the record of his study of Zen and other schools of Buddhism, of mystic movements in Islam, the writing of the sage Chuang Tzu, and on and on. In these activities, Merton seems like a cat exploring every crawlspace of a mansion with many wings—even though his explorations had to be carried on through reading and correspondence rather than direct experience. He never participated in the Liturgy in an Orthodox Church, and only at the end of his life did he briefly encounter Buddhism as it is lived rather than written about.

For all his absorption in non-Christian religious traditions, the journals give witness to the Christ-centered life Merton lived to the very end, saying Mass daily in Asia just as he had in Kentucky, praying the rosary, traveling with his Trappist breviary, keeping the monastic offices, and at night setting a small Greek icon of the Mother of God with Christ in her arms next to his bed.

It is in his journals more than any other book that his own hidden religious life is made visible, with the liturgy at its center, something so basic, so ordinary, so daily that while it is often mentioned, it's mainly in passing. Notably, the final paragraph in his journals, written in Bangkok on December 8 (two days before he died), is this: "Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a little while I leave the hotel. I'm going to say Mass at St. Louis Church, have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, and then to go on to the Red Cross place [for the monastic conference] this afternoon."

Late in his life, Merton noted in his journal, "I live a flawed and inconsequential life, believing in God's love." It is finally a sense of God's love and mercy that pervades the journals and marks the life of this remarkable monk who writings have touched so many lives.

JIM FOREST is the author of a biography of Thomas Merton, Living With Wisdom. His most recent books are The Ladder of the Beatitudes and Praying With Icons. With his wife, Nancy, he edits In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (www.incommunion.org).

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