Meeting the Rhinoceros

About this article

Fred Herron's article from Momentum offers practical suggestions for those who teach adolescents, whom he likens to rhinoceroses. The author also suggests that much can be learned from the spiritual journey of Thomas Merton, as evidenced in his personable and authentic stories. Understanding conversion as a lifelong and intensely spiritual journey is at the heart of Thomas Merton's life, which can serve as an example of wholeness for all Christians, especially our students!

Thomas Merton makes a valuable role model for the spiritual journey of the adolescent rhinoceros.

At times even the most optimistic teacher may despair of the possibility of ever communicating meaningfully with adolescents. The significant number of developmental tasks facing them, the social pressures imposed upon them by mass culture, and the need to perform and achieve in preparation for colleges and careers all combine to develop about adolescents a teflon-coated self-absorption. This rhinoceros-like skin can be almost impossible to penetrate.

William O'Malley, an expert on catechizing teenagers, has suggested that teachers need at least four special qualities in order to pierce the hide of the adolescent rhinoceros.1

  • The ability to present the gospel message in narrative form, like the stories and parables Jesus used
  • The skills to challenge adolescents to grapple with the tough questions of religious faith
  • An appreciation for the delicate psychology of the process of conversion
  • Leadership and conviction

A quarter century after his death, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who embodied all these qualities, serves as a valuable model for educators. Indeed, it was Merton who once wrote about the rhinoceros that all of humanity had become.2

Merton's works still sell briskly today and the constant supply of letters, journals and biography attests to a continuing hunger for the insight with which he illuminates our present situation. His wisdom on spiritual development, rooted in the tradition of the church and his own religious experience, offers us a variety of challenges to assist us in our ministry to the rhinoceros today.

Using stories

Jesus communicated the most profound elements of his self-understanding through story. These stories drew listeners in and disclosed a world of meaning to them.

John Shea has reminded us that our experience of the mystery of the self, of our families and friends, of the environment, of society and its institutions, and of the very universe may cause us to confront ultimate mystery.

Our stories evoke messages that reflect the transcendent in our own experience. Shea notes that "the experiences of contingency, dialogue, communion, moral ambiguity and disenchantment are a few of the paths which people travel to become aware of their relatedness to Mystery."3

Thomas Merton's world of stories reflects this gospel ability to disorient and thrill. With interests ranging from 6th century Irish monasticism to the music of the Grateful Dead, Merton clearly valued and demonstrated true attentiveness to others' stories as well as his own.

He believed that the Holy Spirit was active in his life, saying that we "can only discern and follow that mysterious life by the action of the same Holy Spirit living and acting in the depths of [our] own heart."4

His moving sensitivity to the presence of God both encourages us to similarly value our own stories and to recognize and point out that divine activity in the lives of our students.

Grappling with faith

Adolescents place a premium on experience, both their own and others'. So strong is its meaning for them that it "becomes, for adolescents, a mode for forming and shaping the self. It emerges as a tool for the adolescent discovery of 'who I am'."5

Merton became convinced of the priority of witness and experience over authority in leading others to Christ. He was greatly inspired, for example, by Dorothy Day and Catherine de Hueck Doherty.

While some of his early writing reads like a textbook in scholastic theology, Merton grew to reject that approach and to adopt the stance that he wanted to use "my own words to talk about my own soul."6 He cherished the writings of the fathers of the church for "their ability to rouse the affections so that we are moved to love and serve the Lord our God in all things."7

Ultimately, he believed, theology is "discourse about the 'experience' of God's presence, love, and right to praise. "8 He believed strongly that the living God ought to be found in Scripture. Theology should lead students to contemplation, love and union and ought not to be "a set of rules about how to wear your hat."9

Understanding conversion

Merton's struggles before his conversion, through his tempestuous youth, before entering the monastic community at Gethsemane, and during his lifetime in that community have been amply chronicled in Michael Mott's authorized biography The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton and in Merton's own published work.

Nowhere are the psychology of conversion and the dimensions of the spiritual journey more clearly described. Merton was painfully open about his struggles and his desire to unmask the false selves that prevented him from seeing his true self.

Even if his particular challenges were different from their own, adolescents will be drawn to the model of integrity and courage which he offers.

Merton was unflinchingly honest, demanding much of himself and others. At the same time, he was ecstatically aware of the rustlings of the Holy Spirit in all of reality. He could rejoice in the sound of the quails because "it is the voice of the present moment. "10 In a letter to one teenage girl he simply notes: "The birds turn me on."11

Conversion for Merton meant discovering "the loving God in the depths of one's own being, as Jesus did."12 A year after his father's death, the young Merton was in Rome when he had a powerful experience of his father's presence. Merton was revolted by the awful state of his life and he wanted nothing more than to be free.

He recalled later that it was then that he began "praying out of the very roots of my life and my being."13 He experienced for himself a kind of capitulation to God's love for him.

Our students will emulate that kind of dedicated listening for God speaking to them through their own experience.

Sharing conviction

Teachers are most effective when they are moved by their own convictions. So are readers moved by Merton's obvious struggle with the essential elements of his faith.

When he puts his convictions aside, he is less than engaging. But when he grapples with those beliefs that had been passed down through the church's tradition in order to make them his own, Merton becomes an "icon of Christian wholeness."14

Clare Boothe Luce, reflecting on her own conversion, looked at Catholics: "You say you have the truth. Well, the truth should set you free, give you joy. Can I see your freedom? Can I feel your joy?"15

Thomas Merton in his writings answers a resounding "Yes." His joy in Christ and the freedom which this offered him led Merton to remind us that "the whole world runs by rhythms [we] have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer."16 He reminds us to listen carefully to the voice of the present moment as we celebrate its gratuity.

When we do, we may challenge young people to answer Mary Oliver's haunting questions:

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and previous life? "17

Mr. Herron is the spiritual director at Fontbonne Hall Academy, Brooklyn, and director of religious education at Our Lady Star of the Sea, Governors Island, New York. His book Rain for the Roots: A Guide to Building Loving Relationships was published by University Press of America in 1994.



1. William J. O'Malley, Becoming A Catechist: Ways To Outfox Teenage Skepticism, New York, Paulist Press, 1992.

2. Thomas Merton, "Rain and the Rhinoceros," Raids on the Unspeakable, New York, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1964, pp. 9–23.

3. John Shea, Stories of God, Chicago, IL, Thomas More Press, 1978, p. 36.

4. Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955, p. 7.

5. Charles M. Shelton, SJ, Adolescent Spirituality: Pastoral Ministry for High School and College Youth, Chicago, IL, Loyola University Press, 1983, p. 138.

6. Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953, p. 139.

7. Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI: The First Modern Pope, New York, Paulist Press, 1993, p. 237.

8. Lawrence Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, New York, Paulist Press, 1992, p. 30.

9. Letter to Robert Lax, November 27, 1949, in Robert Daggy, ed., Thomas Merton: The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends, New York, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989, p. 172.

10. "Rain and the Rhinoceros," op. cit p. 9.

11. The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends, op. cit., p. 309.

12. Walter Conn, Christian Conversion: A Developmental Interpretation of Autonomy and Surrender, New York, Paulist Press, 1984, p. 211.

13. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1948, p. 111.

14. Donald Grayston, Thomas Merton: The Development of a Spiritual Theologian, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1985, p. 182.

15. William J. O'Malley, op. cit., pp. 8–9.

16. "Rain and the Rhinoceros," op. cit p. 9.

17. Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day," New and Selected Poems, Boston, MA, Beacon Press, 1992, p. 94.


This article originally appeared in Momentum, the journal of the National Catholic Education Association. It is reprinted here by permission of the NCEA. For more information about the NCEA, go to their web site at

Published February 1, 1995.