At the recent 11th International Thomas Merton Society Conference in Rochester USA a pair of Red Shoes from Down Under made a lot of noise and played, as all clowns do when they get the chance. And the conference was an ideal place to do that.
When the Red Shoes returned home they are often asked where they went and, when told ‘A conference on Thomas Merton’, the usual response is a blank look and, “Who?”
Red Shoes could say he was an American Trappist Monk who was born in Prades France in 1915 to Owen (a Kiwi artist) and Ruth (an American) Merton, that he entered Gethsemani Abbey in 1941 and died in Bangkok in 1968. I could, but that would be of little use to the reader who would still ask, “so who is he?”
It’s a question I would have asked up until about 7 years ago al. I had just returned from the wilderness of alcoholism and begun working at St Clements Stafford. Somewhere somebody suggested I ought to read Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton. Coming from an evangelical background I had no idea who either were. I discovered Nouwen first.
I had some difficulty finding something of Mertons, and when I did, the array of titles was so enormous with over 100 publications and some 4,500 letters, probably qualifying him as the noisiest monk in history, I was unsure of where to start. I picked up the first of his journals (7 volumes) ‘Run to the Mountain” covering the years 1939-41. And I was hooked. I devoured all seven volumes and the man I encountered was one whose faith and human experience I identified with.
Here was the clown, the Holy Fool I was looking for, someone who embodied in my lifetime the radical revolution who was Christ. This was no safe Gospel, no easy ride, no simple steps to salvation. This was life in the raw, lived and experienced by a man who endured the century into which I was born and lived in for some 13 years of my life. Not only was Merton real to me, he was real to the world in which I lived.
Because Merton lived in my lifetime and people who knew him are still alive, he has been spared the ignominy of being portrayed as asaint. He wasn’t. He was cheeky, cantankerous, compassionate, playful, petulant and so much more. He was human. He could be deeply insightful and sometimes superficial, full of charity towards the human spirit and frustrated by it, obedient to the Trappist and Catholic leadership and angry at it, he could be both optimistic and pessimistic, he could be dogmatic and, almost at the same time, change his mind. Yet he was obviously deeply in touch with Christ and the task of metanoia in both his own life and the life of the word.
His humanity attracted me. His spiritual journey began with him diving enthusiastically (a Merton trait) into the Trappist life, followed by a period in which his own personal awareness deepened through contemplation and solitude. In the 1950’s, and continuing until his death, he engaged with the world outside the monastery walls on issues such as social justice, anti-war, ecumenism and interfaith dialogue.
His forays into writing, becoming a cloistered best selling author with his autobiography Seven Storey Mountain, his passion for solitude and contemplation that saw him spend the last 3 years of his life as a hermit, and his dialogue with Eastern and other religions at a time when ecumenism and interfaith dialogue was rare could be seen, and was, as foolishness.
So ‘who was Thomas Merton”? He was and is a Twentieth Century clown, a Holy Fool, someone who steps into the space-in-between and connects the extremes we all experience in life. Like Charlie Chaplin he exposes the absurdity in our sane and reasonable world, making nonsense out of our sense, showing us clearly that what divides us is not real, it is simply an illusion.
Merton challenges us to find the space-in-between where we can inhabit our own absurdity.
‘If there is hope anywhere, it lies somewhere in the middle between the two extremes (which in reality meet). The extremes are closer together than the “middle” which seems to be between them.”