January 27, 2021

iMonk Classic: The Monk Who Wouldn’t Go Away

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer

Note from CM: As I prepare to spend a few days at The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, I am catching up on my Thomas Merton. Merton, as you will read below, was Michael Spencer’s hero. I am not nearly as acquainted with the monk as Michael was, but I hope to know him much, much better in the next few weeks. I hope you will too, as we run posts about him in the days to come. We will start today with one of the iMonk’s classic posts, giving tribute to and expressing personal appreciation for Thomas Merton.

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The Monk Who Wouldn’t Go Away

One of the joys of having a hero is sharing him/her with someone else. If you know me very long, you’ll hear about my hero, Thomas Merton: monk, writer, poet, activist, Christian, enigma, good looking bald man. Merton (1915-1968) is one of the most significant religious writers of the twentieth century and a lasting influence on untold numbers of Christians (and non-Christians) from every tradition and culture. For those of us in the Bluegrass state, he also holds the distinction of being perhaps the most significant religious figure to reside in Kentucky, being a monk at Our Lady of Gesthemeni monastery near Bardstown for twenty-seven years. He is buried there today.

Merton is a strange kind of hero for me. I am a conservative Reformed Protestant. He was a liberal Roman Catholic who could easily have become a Buddhist. Merton was a former communist sympathizer turned Democrat who found Gene McCarthy too tame. I am a libertarian-Republican who wishes Pat Buchanan’s brain could be surgically altered and put in George W’s body. Merton befriended and praised the sixty’s liberal pantheon; wrote poems about them, wrote letters for them. I think those people- Baez, Berrigan, etc- were alternately amusing and frightening. Merton hated systematic theology and loved modern literature. I hate modern literature and love systematic theology. Merton choose monasticism over marriage. I think that was a crying shame. Merton thought a good time was walking barefoot in a cornfield reading Muslim mystics. I’d prefer a Dave Mathews show. He loved jazz. I love bluegrass and rock. Merton died by touching a faulty electrical fan after taking a shower, thus becoming the patron saint of all clumsy people. I haven’t yet decided how I’m going to go, but it could possible involve all the White Castles I can eat.

So how did I ever pick this guy to be my hero? Certain qualities have such an innate attraction, that when you encounter them in anyone, no matter how different from you they might be, they draw you into admiration. Tom Merton made an unforgettable impression on everyone who met him. No one ever nominated him for perfection. He could be selfish, manipulative and vain, often putting his friends through absurd abuses to get him out of the monastery and into the city. He gossiped, and often whined. He seldom paused to be content, and often enjoyed being an irritant. He sometimes drank too much and could hold a grudge for years. Yet, the unanimous verdict of those who knew him in life and those who know him through his voluminous literary output is that Merton was an authentic human being of the rarest sort and master of the things of the spirit. Words like genuine, self-knowledgeable and deeply spiritual occur again and again in descriptions of Merton. People sought him out from all over the world because of what they sensed in his writing. I’m no different. If he were around today I’d be throwing rocks at his window like the rest of the gawkers. “Come down, Tom, and put on some Coltrane.”

It is Merton’s honest humanity and thorough Christianity that won my admiration. In my particular evangelical suburb, Christian piety takes some bizarre turns, focusing on all varieties of robotic behavior, enforced personality traits, phony religious experiences and outright lies. Merton was the first modern Christian writer I encountered that was completely and totally himself and at home in his own skin. As much as I admire C.S. Lewis, Lewis never had the insight into his own perplexities and contradictions that Merton records. Only in The Screwtape Letters and A Grief Observed can you see the kind of human experience that lurked under Lewis’s scholarly persona. Even in his early, more traditionally pious writings, Merton showed remarkable and brave integrity in recording the terrain of his soul. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, will always be a classic of conversion biography, but the editors had to mark out tracts of Merton’s honesty deemed too controversial for the Christian reader. He never broke the habit of engaging the real self with the God of Jesus Christ. While his interest in Eastern religions might seem to open the door to a denial of the self, Merton always affirmed that it was the self, as made and loved by God, that we must accept in total honesty.

I have found the most appealing Merton in his journals and letters. Seven volumes of the journals have been published, along with several collections of letters. (And of course many books and articles.) I would venture to say that Merton is the most extensive journalist and correspondent of any modern Christian writer. Merton’s life is never far from his pen, and his honest soul hardly wavers. In these journals, we experience Merton’s growth from a monk withdrawing from the world to a Christian engaged with the world and wrestling with the place of a monastic calling. Merton evolves from a confident advocate of monasticism to an articulate critic of the institutional church. With a breathtaking range of reading and interests, the Merton reader will explore politics, prayer, peacemaking, fame, mysticism, Asian religions, the foibles of romance, the absurdity of institutional Christianity, and a constant excursion into a Godly appreciation of nature. Merton’s journals are an education, a journey and an exploration of the soul. He is funny, catty, spontaneous, profound, insightful, opinionated and so recognizably human that it is hard not to see yourself in page after page. To walk with Thomas day by day is to walk with Thomas and God, and that is what all of us should be going for.

Thomas’s gift to me has been sanity and security. Because of him, I have stopped trying to be a good Christian and devoted myself to being the prodigal on his knees, enjoying the undeserved love of the Father. To try and stand and be the older brother has no appeal to me. Thomas Merton’s conscientious recording of his own human journey into self-knowledge and God’s love has been the model for me of what a “relationship with God” (evangelical jargon) actually looks like. Even though he lived in the most religious and structured of monastic communities, it is the person, not the monk, that drew me into this friendship and helped me to be the person loved by God, not the preacher/teacher performing for God.

Every month I hear of ministers who have left the ministry because of adultery or emotional breakdown. It moves me deeply because I know something of what these men are going through. As a public Christian, it is easy to become a walking house of cards: appearing to be all together, but waiting to collapse. And the faith you are trying to present seems to be the reason for denying your human struggles, thereby making you all the more susceptible to temptation and moral collapse. You despise your phoniness and the people you perform it for. It’s easy to come to hate the faith itself. Without walking with Tom through these same struggles, over and over, I might have self-destructed long ago. Merton’s simple commitments to solitude, scripture, prayer, reading, community, humor, writing and above all, honesty, have rescued me a thousand times. I owe him a lot and I will say thanks at the first opportunity.

Merton’s last recorded words were “…and now I will disappear.” Thankfully, he didn’t and shows no signs of doing so. I commend him to lovers of honesty everywhere.

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To meet Merton, try A Thomas Merton Reader or Michael Mott’s excellent authorized bio, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. A great book of selected journal readings is called The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals. The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton are vast and moving and puzzling. Pure enjoyment can be found in The Seven Storey Mountain (autobiography of his early life) and The Sign of Jonas (early journals.) His finest devotional work is New Seeds of Contemplation. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is a good political book. Also, Merton was much photographed. Try Thomas Merton, a Pictorial Biography by Jim Forest. Personal favorite: Learning To Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom containing his brief, life-changing, love affair with a student nurse almost thirty years his junior. Attaboy Tom.


  1. I’ve been systematically reading TM for almost 5 years. Began with New Seeds of Contemplation and am presently reading Faith and Violence. At this point in my peregrinations of Tom’s writings I’d have to say that Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander has been my favorite.

    Sometimes I can’t decide if Merton was a Great Roman Catholic or a Superlative Mystic who hobnobbed with the Greats of Protestantism.

    I pray that your time at Gethsemani is refreshing and that you have a jolting encounter with The Transcendent Immanent One.


  2. I haven’t read Merton books for quite a few years, but I remember liking The Seven Story Moutain and Seeds of Contemplation very much.

    I enjoyed this essay by Michael Spencer.

  3. You know who else went to Gethsemini? Daniel Quinn, the guy who wrote “Ishmael.” (Fr. Merton was his novice master–kicked him out for immaturity.)

  4. One more Mike says

    This may be my favorite Micheal Spencer essay. This is the one that told me that I’d found a fellow traveller.

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