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The Public Private Life of Thomas Merton

IN OCTOBER 1968, the renowned Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton set out for Asia on what would be his final pilgrimage, desiring “to drink from [the] ancient sources of monastic vision and experience.” From his monastery in Kentucky, he had long dreamed of meeting with Buddhist teachers face to face, close to the sources of Eastern mysticism, and fulfilling what he believed to be the vocation of every Christian: to be an instrument of unity.

Three times during his journey Merton met with the young Dalai Lama, who would later say, “This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity. ... It was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.’”

After Merton’s sudden death in Bangkok on Dec. 10, 1968—the result of an accidental electrocution—his body was returned to the U.S. in a military transport plane that carried the bodies of soldiers killed in Vietnam, a war he had condemned forcefully. His body was laid in the earth on a hillside behind the monastery, overlooking the Kentucky woods where he lived as a hermit the last years of his life. Pilgrims from all over the world continue to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani and pray before the simple white cross that marks Merton’s grave. Why? One hundred years after his birth, the question is well worth asking. What particular magic draws seekers of every generation and of such remarkably diverse backgrounds to Thomas Merton?

SON OF A CENTURY

Merton’s appeal to postmodern sensibilities may be explained in part by his own renaissance background. Born in France in 1915 to an American mother and a New Zealand father, itinerant artists who had met in Paris, Merton spent much of his youth traveling between Europe and America. By the time he was 16, both of his parents were dead. He enrolled at Cambridge, but his raucous behavior there quickly prompted his godfather to send Merton back to the U.S., where he enrolled at Columbia University and soon thrived among an avant-garde group of friends.

More and more he found himself drawn to Catholic authors, devouring works by William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, and Jacques Maritain. As he later described this period, something deep “began to stir within me ... began to push me, to prompt me ... like a voice.” To the shock of his friends, Merton announced his desire to become a Roman Catholic and was baptized on Nov. 16, 1938, in New York. Two years later Merton began teaching English at St. Bonaventure. After spending Holy Week of 1941 on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the hills of rural western Kentucky, Merton decided to become a Trappist monk, part of a Catholic religious order of cloistered contemplatives who follow the 1,500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict.

It was the publication in 1948 of his autobiography,The Seven Storey Mountain, set against the shadow of World War II, that established Merton as a “famous” monk and a wholly unexpected literary phenomenon. In addition to publishing spiritual meditations, journals, and poetry, during the 1960s he published penetrating essays in both religious and secular venues on the most explosive social issues of the day, the religions of the East, monastic and church reform, and questions of belief and atheism.

As a model for Christian holiness, Merton was far from perfect. In fact he took pains to distance himself from his early, more pious writings, and insisted on his right not to be turned into a myth for Catholic school children. He was a restless monk, and often chafed against his vows of stability and obedience. In 1966, during a hospital stay in Louisville, Ky., he fell in love with a young student nurse, and for some six months they had a kind of clandestine affair. 

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The Power to Heal

Daniel Beaty in "Through the Night"

“I AM A storyteller,” says Daniel Beaty, “and my purpose in the world is to inspire people to transform pain to power.”

He was first inspired to share his stories when his third-grade teacher showed a videotape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Now as a writer, actor, singer, teacher, and motivational speaker, his storytelling is expressed in a dizzying array of different forms and outlets. The week in April that Sojourners’ editorial assistant Rebecca Kraybill interviewed him, Beaty was doing daily performances in Los Angeles of a one-person play he wrote on the life of performer and activist Paul Robeson, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” (in which he plays 40 characters and sings 14 songs) and, during the day, taping for a Ford Foundation-funded documentary on work he does with children of incarcerated parents.

This was just a fortnight after Beaty finished a six-week speaking tour in support of his memoir, Transforming Pain to Power: Unlock Your Unlimited Potential (Penguin-Random House). He’s also the author of a children’s book released in December 2013 by Little, Brown and Company, Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me, with graphics by award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier, which is an adaptation of a poem Beaty wrote about his experience growing up with an incarcerated father. “Knock knock down the doors that I could not” is one especially poignant line the father in the book writes to the son; it carries a call to healing and liberation that is found in all of Beaty’s work.

Kraybill talked with Beaty about the effects of mass incarceration on families, the power of a “theater sanctuary,” and how the arts call us toward “the capacity to do better.”

Rebecca Kraybill: Many people were first introduced to your work through a YouTube video of the Def Poetry Jam performance of your poem, “Knock Knock.” What inspired that poem?

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A Resurgence of the Real?

I’VE BEEN thinking a lot lately about technological obsolescence. This isn’t because I’m a classroom teacher and professional writer—two occupations widely expected to meet the fate of John Henry. My musings have mainly been prompted by the hours I just spent weeding through my family’s extensive collection of cassette tapes. From 1992 to about 2005, my wife, Polly, and I made a sizeable investment in that doomed medium, mostly in the form of children’s audiobooks and home-school educational programs that our kids (now ages 14 to 21) have outgrown. We still have three functioning cassette players in our house, but then we still have a 22-year-old tube television, too. I don’t expect that anyone who has young children today would be willing to take on our collection of cassettes. Even Goodwill may refuse them.

Some things, like the cassette tape, deserve to become obsolete. They were always an inferior product. But, all the logic of the market economy to the contrary, newer is not always, or even usually, better.

That’s why it’s been heartening to witness, in the past year or so, the beginning of a small backlash against our forced march toward a future that is all-digital, all the time. The first sign of a revolt was the return of the vinyl record. Of course, I held on to my vinyl through all the transitions of the past 30 years, and we’ve always had a functioning turntable in the house. But now it is my 21-year-old son who actually buys vinyl. Of course, my son also has an iPod and does most of his listening through headphones, like the rest of his peers. But he and thousands of other young music buffs have learned that vinyl delivers a better sound than any of the digital formats currently on the consumer market.

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New & Noteworthy

Faith and Reform
Writer and social reform Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought many people to the anti-slavery movement. In Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, biographer Nancy Koester illuminates the shifting role and expression of faith in Stowe’s personal and public life and work. Wm. B. Eerdmans

Falling into Love
A few years ago a young man named Rocky Braat left Pittsburgh to wander India; he’s ended up working for years in an orphanage for HIV-positive children there. His friend, filmmaker Steve Hoover, went to explore why. The result is a Sundance-award-winning documentary, Blood Brother. www.bloodbrotherfilm.com

A Way of Peace
In The Nonviolent Life, veteran peace activist John Dear offers a primer on what he sees as the three vital dimensions of living nonviolently: nonviolence toward ourselves, toward all others (and all creation), and joining the global grassroots movement for peace. Pace e Beene Press

Spirit of Respect
Introduction to First Nations Ministry, by Cheryl Bear-Barnetson (Nadleh Whut’en), presents a course on Indigenous values, world views, history, theology, and ministry. Created for Foursquare Church ministers, the content is helpful for anyone seeking to learn more about Indigenous Christianity. Cherohala Press

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The Beautiful Stupidity of Writing (Part 1)

Photo: Writer, © Sergey856 / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Writer, © Sergey856 / Shutterstock.com

I’ve been asked how I knew I was called to be a writer. For me, calling is fairly easy to recognize. If the thought of doing something fills you with equal parts joy and terror, it’s probably a calling. 

There’s more to it than that, I suppose, since the idea of buying a new Tesla sports car fills me with both feelings too, mostly because my wife, Amy, would kill me. There are other elements, like the conviction that our calling should feel something of an identifiable need in the world, and that it should call on gifts we have in a way that is life-giving not just to others, but joyful and life-affirming for us as well.

But the joy and terror thing is a pretty good sign you’re on the right track.

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