July 16, 2020

Serious About Merton?

merton_icon2.jpgThen we discover what the spiritual life really is. It is not a matter of doing one good thing rather than another, of praying in one way rather than in another. It is not a matter of any special psychological effect in our own soul. It is the silence of our whole being in compunction and adoration before God, in the habitual realization that He is everything and we are nothing, that He is the Center to which all things tend, and to Whom all our actions must be directed. That our life and strength proceed from Him, that both in life and in death we depend entirely on Him, that the whole course of our life is foreknown by Him and falls into the plan of His wise and merciful Providence; that it is absurd to live as though without Him, for ourselves, by ourselves; that all our plans and spiritual ambitions are useless unless they come from Him and that, in the end, the only thing that matters is His glory. -Thomas Merton

There’s a good bit of bad-mouthing of one of my friends going on around the blogosphere these days, so I thought I’d post something to counter the haters.

Thomas Merton has been a mentor and hero for me for more than two decades. As Kentucky’s foremost Christian author, a major influence on contemporary Catholicism, a monastic scholar, a spiritual director, a hermit, a writer, a poet, a wit, a romantic, a pain in the (name body part), an enigma, and much more, Merton is a rich and rewarding personality to study.

I’ve read a lot of the available Merton canon, and many books twice. When I hear Merton described as a Buddhist, it’s like saying Charles Spurgeon was a cigar aficionado who spent most of his life hanging out in the south of France. Did he do something else? Merton scholars can put Merton’s late interest in Zen into context without much trouble, but when anti-Catholic critics want to drag contemporary spirituality into the new age movement, there’s never a shortage of web sites to peruse to increase one’s misapprehensions and fears.

I wrote an IM essay about Merton almost five years ago, and it’s still a decent introduction to my experience of Merton and his books.

The Thomas Merton Center coordinates a lot of serious Merton scholarship. The Merton Foundation is very active in promoting Merton’s influence. This rather awkwardly built site is still a good source of Merton information, such as the recent “find” of more than 3,000 pages of unknown Merton material. There is an International Merton Society and a Canadian Society as well.

The Abbey at Gethsemani has a wonderful web site, good fudge, and a nice Merton page. Serious Merton scholarship is everywhere. Avail Thyself, and don’t waste time on those who have no use for Merton’s legacy beyond slanderous accusations of “mysticism.” Boo.

George Kilcourse put it well.

In the final analysis it is Merton’s ability to help his Christian readers bridge the abyss between their Christian faith life and the rest of their life that characterizes his remarkable appeal even thirty years after his death. He insisted that the problem did not lie so much with the Bible or our theology as it did within ourselves. He advised us not to discard all the symbols of biblical revelation or the traditional terminology of our faith “in order to substitute them for a pseudo-scientific jargon that would be valid at best for the next ten years.” Perhaps this also explains why Merton’s shelf-life will extend into the third millennium. “What is required of Christians,” he reminded, “is that they develop a completely modern and contemporary consciousness in which their experience as [persons] in our century is integrated with their experience as children of God redeemed by Christ.”


  1. CaldoniaSun says

    Yeah, but does he tell you “How to Have Your Best Life Yet?”

    Seriously, though, good post, Michael. Merton has been a fresh well for me lately. It’s amazing what we might learn (and enjoy) if we step out of the “group think” box to see how Christians who may be different from us have experienced Jesus Christ.

  2. Albert G. says

    Could you give me the name of the Merton book the qoute came from?

  3. I first saw that quote at alancreech.com. It’s alan’s favorite, but I don’t recognize it. I’d bet New Seeds, but I don’t know. Write Alan and ask him.

  4. As a Catholic who comes each morning (okay, sometimes afternoon) to the imonk conference and one who, like Michael, has had Frater Tom as mentor for close to 20 years myself, I appreciate very much Michael’s post. Here’s another Merton quote along those lines from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

    “If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by
    denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant,
    Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find
    that there is not much left for me to affirm as
    a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the
    Spirit with which to affirm it”

    Thanks again, Michael for building bridges with integrity.

  5. My only exposure to Merton thus far is from Paul Elie’s excellent study of Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day in “The Life You Save Might Be Your Own.”
    While I am inspired to read more, Elie’s critically acclaimed book left me feeling somewhat disappointed in Merton who, as a monk, had an affair with a young woman and in many ways seemed more inclined toward seeking celebrity than living the quiet existence of a monk. It is also hard to respect someone who enterered the monastic life after having abandoned a son born out of wedlock while demonstrating a disappointing degree of remorse.

  6. I think calling it an “affair” (and I’ve probably used that word) gives too much to what was an emotional crush that took place mostly on the phone and in letters, with only a handful of meetings at restaurants, homes of friends, etc.

    Merton was a monk for more than 30 years. He entered the monastery as a very young man. He constantly wrestled with monastic life: to be or not to be. To be a hermit or not. To move to another monastery, etc.

    In his 50’s he fell for a student nurse much younger. I don’t know how old you are, but I can tell you as a man almost 50, this is VERY normal. Merton considered leaving the monastery for marriage because of the integrity of his vows. When his calls to her were exposed, he ended the relationship, and eventually burned everything related to it. The entire episode isn’t disappointing at all. It is quite human, and Merton comes out right where he should.

    I only wish he had left. He’d likely still be with us, but Tom knew where he should be.

    Read Mott’s bio to get more details.

  7. Jeremy Duncan says

    I have recently found Merton’s writings as I researched the Lectio Divina for a series. He has already added a lot to my journey and I have much more to read.

  8. Hey Michael – and other peoples. That quote comes from Thoughts in Solitude. Very good one. Great book to get started on Merton with – small but deep.

    And on that woman, she was certainly up with him alone at his hermitage at least a couple of times – says so in his journals. It isn’t clear whether they had sex or not but it was spoken about by him as something more than hand holding and nice words. Still, “affair” isn’t really the word. He had another committment, yes, and as you said Michael, eventually broke it off in favor of that committment.

    I get tired of that business about him being a Bhuddist as well – how he wanted to leave Christianity – that’s somebody looking for a way to take his memory down there. Goofy. Peace to you.

  9. Alan…

    I gave away my journals (don’t ask) but I have a pretty clear recollection that…

    1) When she was up there they were alone outside, but not on the property. Someone was at the hermitage. (I may be wrong on this.) He refered to this a couple of times because…

    2) He basically admitted that sexual intercourse was really the next step, and he had to make a decision because he knew this was a violation of his vows….and he was adamant that he never broke his vow of celibacy, and was truly upset by where things were heading. Hence all the agony about leaving.