Thomas Merton – Who Was He?

2 Jul

As some of you know I just returned from the 11th International Thomas Merton Society Conference in Rochester USA and the usual response when I say this is a blank look translated as “Who?”

I could say that 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, before I was introduced to him. I had just returned from the wilderness of alcoholism and began working at St Clements Anglican Church Stafford in Brisbane Australia. Somewhere in a conversation somebody suggested I might be interested in reading Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton. Coming from an evangelical background I had no idea who either were. I found Nouwen first and found him easy to read and very accessible.

I had some difficulty finding something on Thomas Merton, and when I did, the array of titles was so enormous as there are over 100 publications and some 4,500 letters, which probably qualifies him as the noisiest monk in history, I was unsure of where to start.

I picked up the first of his journals (there are 7 volumes) ‘Run to the Mountain” covering the years 1939-41. And I was hooked. I devoured all seven volumes and the man I found in there 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 real life in the raw, lived and experienced by a man who endured the century in which I was born and lived in for some 45 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 (met several at the conference who were previously just names in Merton’s books), he has been spared the ignominy of being written as a perfect saint. 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 with it, he could be both optimistic and pessimistic, he could be dogmatic and, almost at the same time, change his mind. He was very human yet obviously deeply in touch with Christ and the task of metanoia in both his own life and the life of the word.

It is his humanity and his spiritual journey that appealed to me. His spiritual journey began with him diving enthusiastically (a Merton trait it seems) into the Trappist life, which was followed by a period of a deepening of his own personal awareness through contemplation and solitude and then, beginning in the 1950’s and continuing until his death, a period of engagement with the world outside the monastery walls including social justice, anti-war, ecumenism, interfaith dialogue and his enthusiasm for Zen (much of his letter writing occurred in this period and included his dialogue with leaders and influential writers across a range of causes, religions and spiritualities).

William H Shannon, in his excellent publication An Introduction – Thomas Merton, recognises the qualities I discovered (and it seems many others do everyday as his popularity in both secular and religious bookshops, reading lists and universities has not decreased) and denotes them as ‘Merton’s themes’. While they are overt themes Merton dealt with in his writing they also identify the underlying quality of Thomas the person reflected in his writing, focus and appeal. Those themes are: his humanness, his ability to articulate the human condition, reverence for people, bursting the bonds of cultural limitation and spiritual director for the masses

For me these themes are the marks of the clown, the essence of the Holy Fool in Christian tradition and Merton, in all that he did and said, is situated within that tradition. The simple act of leaving a promising writing and academic career and the ‘good life’ (Conjectures of the Guilty Bystander 279) to disappear into the desert of the Monastic life follows in the steps of the Desert Fathers, the Russian yurodive and other Christian mystics who’s foolishness challenged the society they left behind.

His forays into writing and becoming a cloistered best selling author with his autobiography Seven Storey Mountain, his passion for solitude and contemplation that see him spend the last 3 years of his life as a hermit, and his dialogue with other religions at a time when ecumenism was not even a word of currency could be seen, and was by some at the time, as foolishness. His dialogue with Eastern and other religions and spiritualities was completely unconventional, particularly for a Trappist monk and hermit, and his involvement in the civil rights, peace and anti-war movements and his passion for non-violence set him apart. He reports that “I am told by a higher superior: ‘It is not your place to write about nuclear war:that is for the bishops'”. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander 296)

So how do we answer the question, ‘Who is Thomas Merton”? He 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 and showing us clearly that what divides us is not real, it is simply an illusion we have inhabited to fit in.

Merton never fitted in and 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.” Thomas Merton (Echoing Silence 183)

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