Thomas Merton And Me


 A young man was unenthusiastically preparing for the United States Foreign service at Georgetown University. Uninspired, he called his focus a “decent plan at the time for some sort of career in international affairs.”

 But everything was about to change because of the power of one particular book. It was Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, the story of a young Columbia University intellectual who became a Christian and then a Roman Catholic monk.

 Merton’s book had a huge impact: “Never had words been so intimate to my own latent feelings, and never before had their honesty and authenticity moved me so deeply.” 

 “Merton’s journey charted a path into my own heart, stirring questions I did not dare ignore. Indeed, as I finished the book, I felt an aliveness I had never known.”

 The Seven Story Mountain had the effect of awakening “a primal desire that would henceforth be a factor in every decision I would ever make, in every moment of self-discovery I would ever experience”. (Br Christopher, The Book that Changed My Life, ed. Coady and Johannessen)

 Brother Christopher, a monk now for more than 30 years, is one among quite a few whose lives have been inspired by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. I am a member of that club.

 When I arrived for Seminary studies in Kentucky in 1975, my first purchase was the book, New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. When my fiancee joined me a semester later, our first big date was a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemane, the monastery where Merton lived out his vocation until his death in 1968.

 Two events stand out at the monastery. One was the discovery of The Thomas Merton room where we were thrilled to hear a cassette tape of an animated Thomas Merton lecturing his students.

 I had not expected the abundance of energy and the laughter. Merton was a captivating live wire, the opposite of anything dull or sour. 

 The second great event was to hear Gregorian chant for the first time. I was enchanted. Growing up in the Baptist church, I had never heard anything like it. Ripe for change, I thought upon hearing it: ‘I’ve been looking for this kind of music all my life!’ A pianist, I played the chants I heard that day over and over again for many years afterwards.

 Merton has been an inspiring point of reference many times along my life’s journey. A biography of Merton by Monica Furlong rates as a long time favourite along with Thomas Merton’s Dark Path, by William Shannon which, when I read it, had the effect of lifting a great weight off of me. My new sense of lightness was because I had discovered the apophatic way of knowing.

 Not long ago, I read The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Merton's dream had been to travel to the Orient. Before boarding the plane, Merton, in characteristic fashion, was required to pay extra for the over-load of books he carried!

 Ever the keen student, among the books was a copy of Herman Hesse’s Siddharta.

 It was while in Asia, that the most profound religious experience of Merton’s  life occurred. In Ceylon, he came upon several Buddhist statues: “Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious.”  

 About his experience, Fr Merton said: “I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual vitality running together in one aesthetic illumination.” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton p. 235)

 Concerning this Christian who experienced illumination in a Buddhist context Amiya Chakravarty says: “Merton sought the fullness of man’s inheritance; an inclusive view that made it impossible for him to deny any authentic scripture or any man of faith.” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p.vii)

 Father Thomas Merton demonstrated an open, searching spiritAnother very different spirit has existed and persists even today. I’m going to compare these very different ways of thinking and being.

 A while ago I read The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus (579-649 approx.) and initially valued what I was reading, especially what he had to say about going into exile.

 Climacus was compelling as he described the state of a spiritual exile as "an irrevocable renunciation of everything in one’s familiar surroundings that hinders one from attaining the ideal of holiness.” (John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 85)

 That was very good. Also captivating, was when Climacus defined an exile as someone who has a "disciplined heart," and an “unpublicized understanding.” The exile, furthermore, engages in "unseen meditation, "longs for what is divine,” lives with "an outpouring of love”, and lives in "a depth of silence.” All very, very good!

 But then came Step #5 on his Ladder of Ascent, the section called: ‘On Penitence.’ Now this was something else, another spirit. It gave me pause. 

 I found it disturbing to read about the month Climacus spent at a place called The Monastery Prison. I cringed as I read that Climacus appeared not only to have approved of, but to have taken some kind of satisfaction in the self-tortures that the penitents endured there, as they practiced a most severe asceticism.

 Climacus presents the men of the monastery prison, as "holy men” whose practices included torturing themselves so severely that “their knees were like wood, the result of all the prostrations. Their eyes were dim and sunken.  Their hair was gone and cheeks wasted, scalded by many tears. Their faces were pale and worn. They were no different from corpses.” Not especially inspiring!

 Climacus observes that the men’s "breasts were livid (black and blue) from all the beatings, which had even made them spit blood. There was no rest for them in their beds; no clean and laundered clothing. They were bedraggled, dirty and verminous.” (p. 125) This is holiness in action? 

 Now, as I did some research, I discovered a present day fan of Climacus who says about the Step #5 section: "If there is any part of the book which really shakes us and brings the message home, it is precisely this chapter concerning those "blessed inmates of the prison. For truly these are holy ones, crazed for Christ.” Well, crazy, yes. Crazy for Christ? Not so much...

 As I kept up the research, I found to my delight and relief that Merton himself had read what I had and felt similarly bothered about it. He was, I am glad to report, out of touch with his inner Climacus.

 Merton’s assessment is mine as he describes, The Ladder of Ascent, as “seldom, if ever tender - a tough, hard-hitting, merciless book.” (Thomas Merton, in Merton and Hesychasm, The Prayer of the Heart Ed. Dieker and Montaldo p. 23)

 Concerning the goings-on at the monastery prison, Merton said that it "reads today like a report of a badly-run mental institution.” Exactly.

 My research continued as I then discovered that the contemporary fan of the abominable Step #5 section, read of Merton’s revulsion and decided to go after Father Tom, as it seems, in the very spirit of the monastery prison!

 Thus in a contemporary replication of that spirit, the devotee of Climacus unsparingly attacked Merton: Lampooning his integrity he exclaimed: “Merton travelled to the Far East, there to seek from the worshippers of demons new insights and techniques for finding God. And it is there that this hapless man, instead of finding God, found only his own tragic death.” Harsh words that cause me to cringe again.

 These unsympathetic and scathing words appear to imply that Merton got what he deserved for opening his heart to the Orient.

 Merton, if you haven’t heard, was electrocuted by a faulty fan as he stepped into a bath tub.

 When I first heard this I wept in response. Another sort of spirit appears to have a different take on the event...

 Well, all I can say again is that there is the open, searching spirit of a Thomas Merton and then there is something elseanother very different spirit.

 Scott Cairns, an Eastern Orthodox poet and Literature Professor, has observed what he calls "two distinct expressions of piety,” alive then and now.

 There is, on the one hand, a spiritual approach, or “flavor of piety," that continues to smile during spiritual practices

 Another spirit, in contrast, seems more to be about severity and suffering. 

 The first spirit Professor Cairns calls a "spirituality of the resurrection," the other, a "spirituality of crucifixion."

 The "spirit of resurrection” Cairns describes as "running towards something.”   The "spirituality of crucifixion" in contrast, is "running away from something.”

 That first spirit of health and holiness, has to do with a sense of joy already attained in God’s kingdom, the other, Cairns calls a "species of hell.” (Scott Cairns, Short Trip to the Edge, p. 203) Thank you, Professor Cairns, for your discernment!

 Well, I have stood with Merton for many years now and cannot get enough of him! His spirit was a burning desire to know truth, beauty and goodness, a spirit on display in the following quote:

 “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is ever at our disposal, and inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will.”

 “This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billion points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.” (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander p. 158)

 I love Thomas Merton for words such as these! It is Merton and me, together now for many years and I hope, for many years to come.

Gloria IX, Monks of Fontgombault