September 19, 2020

iMonk Classic: The monk who wouldn’t go away

Merton Grave

Note from CM: Yesterday marked the 47th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death. On December 10, 1968, he died in an accidental electrocution in Bangkok, Thailand. His body was returned to the U.S. in a military transport plane that carried the bodies of soldiers killed in Vietnam, a war he had condemned forcefully. He was laid in the earth on a hillside behind the monastery, overlooking the Kentucky woods where he had prayed and written and served as a brother at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Internet Monk would not be Internet Monk without Thomas Merton. He was one of Michael Spencer’s great heroes. And one of the reasons I have become forever grateful to Mike is that he introduced me to Merton and the Abbey of Gethsemani, which has become my go-to place for spiritual pilgrimage and renewal.

Today we present one of Michael’s tributes to Merton, from August of 2004. Please note this remarkable passage in particular:

“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.”

• • •

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 sixtie’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.”

merton280.0It 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.

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 JournalsThe 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 ContemplationConjectures 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.

• • •

For more on Merton, check out these articles, written in the light of what would have been Thomas Merton’s 100th birthday earlier this year:


  1. (T)he 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

    One heck of an endorsement 🙂

  2. Senecagriggs yahoo says

    “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.”

    Oh man, I like that. Sen

  3. St. Thomas Merton, pray for us!

  4. It’s time to read some Merton

  5. I remember on Michael’s group blog, The Boarshead Tavern , he for a while referred to himself as “Tommy Mertonhead”. I still chuckle thinking about that. 🙂

  6. The account of Merton’s last words that I’ve read is a little different: “So I will disappear from view, and we can all go have a Coke or something.” There’s a multifaceted sardonic little joke there, about the futility of any attempt to escape the rationalized modern world as represented by one of its iconic products, and the wrongheadedness of trying to escape in the first place. Leave it to Merton to offer as his last words a pithy and profound quip critical of the rationalized and commodified modern world, and its religious despisers (including himself).

  7. Old Tommy was lazy and self adsorbed. With all the bs that goes along with it. Sorry If I don’t jump on the band wagon. He decided to go be all alone and be a rebel. He went to eastern religion and was all over the map. Oh wait a minute that sounds like me.

    To be sure he was riding a gravy train that didn’t quit till he touched a fan. I’m sorry can’t go along with it. Work and have something to offer. That jean jacket with the rest of the garb speaks a lot to me. Wouldn’t follow such a thing if someone paid me to. If it helps some of you that’s great but as for me it doesn’t and doesn’t even confirm what I’ve always known. There I said it, what didn’t and does not sit right with me. What the hell was he doing over there anyhow. Makes me wonder. You can get whatever you want on that side of this world. I’m just saying I have big reservations when it comes to one who could hide things so easily and then just get on his knees. Oh wait a minute that sounds like me. Crap…….Only thing is I wasn’t a monk and giving my life to God always and as long. Hate to say it but the skeletons in the closet may always be hidden. Okay though I am sure when we get there it won’t matter so much as we think.

    • w,
      The jeans jacket was standard issue at the monastery because it got cold, and because the monks worked in the fields. Rising early for prayer, self-mortification, hard physical work, were part of monastic life.

      And Merton was in Asia attending and addressing an interfaith monastic conference. Do you really mean to suggest that Thomas he went to Bangkok for illicit sex? There is no evidence of anything like that, and I’ve never heard anyone but you suggest it. Don’t you think that’s way out line, since it’s baseless conjecture without any evidence?

  8. Sadly, the only thing I know of Thomas Merton comes from a letter written to him by Fr. Seraphim Rosewhen Fr. Seraphim was still Eugene Rose, a recent convert to Orthodoxy. I read the letter in a copy of The Orthodox Word, the magazine of Fr. Seraphim’s unhappy St. Herman Brotherhood, published in 1983.

    I found a copy of Fr. Seraphim’s letter online. Merton never answered him, but it is an interesting letter. From what I know of Thomas Merton, he died relatively young and needlessly, but at probably the most auspicious time possible. His ideology, Liberal Idealistic Catholicism, was at flood tide after Vatican II. It was the ‘sixties. Young people were going to take things in hand and usher in A Better World™, based on Christian Ideals™, albeit nobody really wanted to admit to believing in all that uncomfortable Bible stuff. I’m certain Fr. Seraphim’s letter seemed to him like a GARBC Baptist Dispie croaking about the Rapture.

    It would have been so interesting to see Merton age in the age of the Great Retrenchment, to see him interact with the pontificates of Paul VI and John Paul II, the Reagan years, and the surge of Pentecostalism that is making nearly everybody else numerically irrelevant.

    We have his books. Where would you all suggest I start?

    • Easiest place to start is A Thomas Merton Reader, his poems, essays, and excerpts.

    • In the mid 1980’s, I started reading Merton when I picked up his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander in a used bookstore. It is a collection of his journal entries in from the mid 1960s; in it, Merton is at his insightful and self-aware best. I can think of no better place to start, though if you were to go on to read more of him you would necessarily be mostly working backwards chronologically.

      This is what Merton had to say immediately after hearing news of J.F.K.’s assassination, and the assassination of his assassin, and the some of the circumstances surrounding these events: “The whole thing is so odd it is barely credible.”

    • Here’s a long quote from the very beginning of Part One: Barth’s Dream:

      “Barth had a dream about Mozart.
      Barth had always been piqued by the Catholicism of Mozart, and by Mozart’s rejection of Protestantism. For Mozart said that ‘Protestantism was all in the head’ and that ‘Protestantism did not know the meaning of the Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi.
      Barth, in his dream, was appointed to examine Mozart in theology. He wanted to make the examination as favorable as possible, and in his questions he alluded pointedly to Mozart’s masses.
      But Mozart did not answer a word.
      I was deeply moved by Barth’s account of this dream and almost wanted to write him a letter about it. The dream concerns his salvation, and Barth perhaps is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology.
      Each day, for years, Barth played Mozart every morning before going to work on his dogma: unconsciously seeking to awaken, perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes in tune with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love, yes, even by eros. While the other, theological self, seemingly more concerned with love, grasps at a more stern, more cerebral agape: a love that, after all, is not in our own heart but only in God and revealed only to our head.
      Barth says, also significantly, that ‘it is a child, even a “divine” child, who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.’ Some, he says, considered Mozart always a child in practical affairs…. At the same time, Mozart, the child prodigy, ‘was never allowed to be a child in the literal meaning of that word.’ He gave his first concert at the age of six.
      Yet he was always a child ‘in the higher meaning of that word.’
      Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to be a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.”

  9. Still my favorite bit of Merton’s—“The Moral Theology of the Devil.” Resembles American-style Christianism in a lot of ways. I’ll throw in this quote, apropos to our political climate:

    “Another characteristic of the devil’s moral theology is the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions. No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps all be more or less at fault, and that we might be expected to take upon our own shoulders the wrongs of others by forgiveness, acceptance, patient understanding and love, and thus help one another to find the truth. On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men, because it means that everyone wants to be absolutely right himself or to attach himself to another who is absolutely right. And in order to prove their rightness they have to punish and eliminate those who are wrong.”

  10. I dunno. I’ve never been able to more than dabble in both CS Lewis and Tom Merton. What I do know is that trying to talk with most Christians, including the so called clergy, about contemplative prayer as a way to God is like talking with someone on one of those prison visitor phones thru glass, only you have to use Skype with a slow connection, only you discover that you are each living in a different century in some kind of weird space/time warp. My impression is that Merton wasn’t so impressed with his fellow monks, and that was a two-way street. Patience perhaps wasn’t his highest virtue, nor is it mine.

    I don’t need to be convinced that you can find God in the solitary, contemplative life, I don’t need to be inspired to seek it, what I need is folks who have been there and can tell me the nuts and bolts of how it works and how I can get there as best possible. Now. And they are available. Living and still working things out right here today. If I had a throwaway wish right now, it would be that all those folks who are so enamored with CS Lewis as a way shower these fifty years later, would spend equal time and effort with Tom Merton. I would consider that a step forward toward the twenty-first century.