Thomas Merton: Something of a Rebel

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In this September 1997 article from St. Anthony Messenger, William Shannon explores the reasons that Thomas Merton's writings were read widely in his lifetime and are still attracting many readers today. Thomas Merton was a genuine human being whose strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities are evident in his writings. Merton had a gift for being able to describe the human condition clearly and wisely. Perhaps this is one reason that his writings appeal to diverse people across cultures. Thomas Merton reverenced people and celebrated their uniqueness. The article suggests that Merton has become a "spiritual director for the masses" through his writings, which chronicle his own faith journey.

One of the world’s leading Merton experts takes another look at the monk who changed the course of American spirituality from his monastery cell.

ON A RECENT VISIT to a secondhand bookstore in a Midwestern city, I found an exceptionally large number of books in the areas of philosophy and religion. I asked the proprietor, “Of all the books you sell in so many different areas, who are the authors most asked for?” He answered, “C. S. Lewis, Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Merton.” An interesting trio, wouldn’t you say?

Thomas Merton was a unique monk. One would have to go all the way back to the 12th century—to Saint Bernard—to find a monk whose writings were as influential as Merton’s have been. Merton had a wide readership in his lifetime, and it was not primarily monastic.

In fact, I would venture the perhaps surprising opinion that laypeople took to his writings more than monks did. There were monks who were skeptical about the things he said or even about the areas in which he chose to write. A lot of layfolk, on the other hand, chose to forget that he was a monk and felt that he was addressing them in their own circumstances of life. Figuratively, they took him out of the monastery and made him one of their own.

The remarkable fact is that, even though close to 30 years have passed since Merton’s death, his readership has grown steadily. His writings continue to spark interest. Reprinted year after year, translated into many different languages, they are read by countless numbers of people in many parts of the world. It’s as if there is a kind of magic about the name of Thomas Merton that brings together people of many diverse backgrounds.

New Merton materials are continually bursting into publication. Between 1985 and 1994 five hefty volumes of Merton’s letters were published. Once the publication of the letters was completed, there appeared, in 1995, the first of a projected series of seven volumes of Merton journals.

The publication of the letters and the journals has added and will continue to add immeasurably more to our knowledge of Merton than we could learn about him from his published works. I say this because in both the letters and the journals one finds an intimacy and a sense of freedom that are not always so clearly evident in his published writings. The reason is obvious: In these more personalized writings, he did not have to write with one eye to censors looking over his shoulder.

With the published works it was quite different: He had more than his share of bouts with the censors who all too frequently questioned the truth or the propriety of what he wrote. The latter was especially a problem for them. They tried to keep this sometimes recalcitrant monk from writing anything that, in their estimation, would disedify readers or bring criticism on the Order.

In June 1997 the International Thomas Merton Society celebrated its 10th anniversary with its fifth general meeting in Mobile, Alabama. There are some 25 chapters of the International Thomas Merton Society. They meet on a regular basis and exist throughout the United States, as well as in Belgium and England.

Why are Merton and his writings attracting so many people today? What do they find in him that is so contemporary?

So Much Like Us

What I would want to say first is that Merton was so genuinely human. He was real. He detested phoniness and pretense. He said what he thought and tried to mean what he said. In him we find an earnest, genuine, no-holds-barred human being struggling, like the rest of us, to find meaning, seeking to confront the absurdity that life so often appears to be. He knew loneliness, homelessness and alienation.

To one of his correspondents he wrote that some people think that going into a monastery is the same as going into nirvana. Not so, he says; there is work to be done, there are decisions to be made and many questions yet to be answered.

He was human in his strengths, but also in his weaknesses. His clay feet are there for us to see. Like ourselves, he had attachments he had to rid himself of and illusions he had to unmask. He was vulnerable in his humanness: a reality he never tried to hide or deny. Deeply committed to his monastic vocation, he often lamented the petty infidelities that seemed to belie that commitment. So much of him was so much like what we all are.

Describing Our Human Condition

One of the precious human gifts Merton had, which most of us lack and which makes him different from us, was the ability to articulate the human situation and the struggles of mortals to deal with the ambiguities, the contradictions, the inequities which life often thrusts upon us. This gift of communicating clearly and wisely makes it possible for so many diverse people (not just in one country, but in many) to identify with him. They read his story and they see something of their own story in it. They read his reflections on life, and what he says so often strikes responsive chords in their lives.

Merton gives voice to thoughts and intuitions that were in their minds and hearts, but which they did not know were there till he gave them expression. He speaks not just to us, but oftentimes for us. He was able to see the real issues at stake before others even began to look for them.

Merton was human in his strengths, but also in his weaknesses. His clay feet are there for us to see.

He wrote with wit, but also with wisdom. He was able to see and articulate the real deep-down issues of life which we need to deal with and struggle with. At the same time, he was a happy person and a man of hope. Joy ran deep in him. Life and faith and love were wondrous gifts never to be taken for granted.

Reverencing People

People were precious to Merton: He respected their uniqueness. One need only read his many letters to see how he makes every effort to identify with others and find common ground on which they can comfortably meet. He was convinced that the ultimate ground in which we all meet is that “Hidden Ground of Love” we call God. God can be named in many ways, yet God always remains mystery that no words of ours can ever grasp. To Merton the name of preference was Mercy. “God,” he wrote, “is like a calm sea of mercy” (Seasons of Celebration, p. 120). In the wonderful conclusion of The Sign of Jonas, he has God speak: “I have always overshadowed Jonas with My mercy....Have you had sight of Me, Jonas My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy” (p. 362). For many people, brought up with the notion of a God who is judge, rewarding and punishing almost unfeelingly, approaching the divine as mystery of mercy can be a source of light and joy.

Not only does he seek common ground with those to whom he relates, but he also responds to people in their uniqueness. Thus, his letters to Dorothy Day, for instance, have quite a different tone from those he wrote to Daniel Berrigan. He was at once strong and gentle in his relationships. John Stier, an American government official who was his host in Sri Lanka, said that Merton made a tremendous impression on him. As they discussed Buddhism, Stier soon learned that Merton was much better informed about this religious tradition than he was. Merton disagreed with him when he expressed the opinion that Buddhism was a negative approach to life.

But, Stier says of him, “He was surprisingly gentle in disagreement. He had a wonderful way about him”—a shrewd observation with which hundreds of his correspondents would express wholehearted agreement.

Breaking the Bonds of Cultural Limitation

Merton was a person of cosmopolitan tastes and interests. He was very much at home in the American Catholic tradition (which, in many ways, he helped to form). But, unlike so many other writers in the field of spirituality, he was not fenced in by that tradition. He was very much in touch with broader elements of American culture. He read widely the literature of the day. Friends outside the monastery kept him informed of the political, social and economic aspects of that culture.

Do you know of any other monk who wrote about William Blake, James Joyce, Boris Pasternak, William Faulkner, Louis Zukofsky, Flannery O’Connor; or one who was so fascinated by French existentialism that he would write seven essays on Albert Camus? And the range of his correspondents is nothing short of amazing. Here are a few of the names: Jacques Maritain, Erich Fromm, Ernesto Cardenal, Dorothy Day, Catherine Doherty, Aldous Huxley, Bernard Häring, Henry Miller, Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Paul Tillich, Rosemary Radford Ruether, D. T. Suzuki, Rachel Carson, Louis Massignon, Mark Van Doren, and on and on.

It is my conviction that many of Merton’s writings have a quality of insight into the human condition that transcends his own life and his own generation, a wisdom that sees beyond the ephemeral and the superficial to perennial human values. These are reasons why his words are able to speak to today’s generation and, I expect, to generations yet to come.

Merton belonged to his own age. He wrote in his own time in history, yet so much of what he wrote seemed to reach beyond the culture of his own time. He was supra-cultural, yet not ahistorical. By that I mean he was alive to the historical circumstances in which he lived, yet not so hemmed in by cultural restraints that he could not break through them.

Indeed, breaking through cultural restraints and seeing what can be is the role of the prophet. Merton was, I believe, a prophet who had the insight and the wisdom to see the concerns and the questions that really mattered in human life. He never claimed to have all the answers. He did have a clear insight into the issues that needed attention.

Spiritual Director for the Masses

Thomas Merton has become for many people the person whose writings they turn to for spiritual direction. This is something he did not intend and did not want. He once wrote to a correspondent that he had no disciples. He wanted no disciples. He thought he could be of no help to disciples. Become, he suggested to this correspondent, a disciple of Christ.

Yet, whether he wanted it or not, Thomas Merton, through his many writings, has directed the spiritual journey of so many people whose names we shall never know: people who are in communion with institutional forms of religion and, perhaps most astounding of all, people whose only link with spirituality is the monk who lived in Nelson County, Kentucky, in the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani.

William H. Shannon is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, as well as a professor, retreat director and chaplain. He has written and edited other works by and about Thomas Merton. He is the author of Exploring the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Saint Anthony Messenger Press).


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Published September 1, 1997.