Thomas Merton: monk, poet, prophet, artist, lover, marginal man, social critic, peace activist, practitioner of interfaith dialogue, contemplative, outstanding Christian spiritual writer of the 20th century.
The facts of his life. Born in France on January 31, 1915, to an American mother and a father from New Zealand. Grew up in France, England, and the US. Went to Cambridge, dropped out after one year, moved to New York, did well at Columbia. Almost had a nervous breakdown at the age of 23, reached out for a lifeline, found it in the Roman Catholic Church. Became a Trappist monk, at the abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, where he lived for 27 years, the last three of these in a hermitage. During these final years, to his own astonishment let alone that of his monastic brothers, he acquired a girlfriend. Struggled for a time between thoughts of marriage and monastic life, finally reaffirmed his monastic commitment. Wrote 60 or 70 books. Died accidentally at a conference in Thailand, on December 10, 1968—27 years to the day from his arrival at Gethsemani.
People ask me regularly why I am so interested in Merton, beginning with my daughter Megan, then aged eight, at the dinner table. Over macaroni and cheese, as I recall, she suddenly burst out, “Daddy, who is Thomas Merton, and why do you talk about him all the time??” Very unfair, of course, because I didn’t and don’t talk about him all the time, just a lot of the time. Nowadays when people ask me the equivalent question, I say it’s because he is an icon or model of response to the major challenges to the Christian community of our time. In his view, and in mine, the most important of these are (1) how to bring an end to war; (2) how we as Christians are to relate to members of other religious traditions, and (3) how to live a contemplative life—life with God, in the present moment—in a frantic and hyper-connected world.
Through his writings he has become a spiritual guide, almost a spiritual director in absentia, to millions of readers. But he is not always an easy writer to get into. His most famous book, The Seven Storey Mountain, which many people pick up first, is an uneven work. The story is a very engaging one, and Merton’s combination of high style and slang keeps us reading in the narrative sections. But it also contains turgid chunks of semi-digested theology; and there are places where his satisfaction at having found a faith and a place in the world transmutes unattractively into rigidity, smugness and triumphalism. These were less noticeable when the book came out (1948), in a time when Roman Catholicism appeared to be a fortress built on a rock of unchanging truth and practice (not that that had ever been the case, but that was the perception, particularly among people who were not Roman Catholics). But readers today are more aware, more critical and more individualistic; and too many potential friends of Merton have been put off by these features of the SSM.
Another problem is that the book is often referred to as his autobiography, when in fact it is only the first installment of an autobiographical series. He published it when he was 33, and lived another two decades. Those years are presented in his journals, now available in seven volumes, and also available in summary in The Intimate Merton, edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo. So if you are a new reader of Merton, I would encourage you to read The Intimate Merton first. That will give you an outline of Merton’s life, and show you how much he grew over the years. After that, it will be safe to read the SSM.
Then, to fill out your basic acquaintance with the breadth of his writing and thought, read Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, edited by Lawrence S. Cunningham. This book provides a good general introduction to Merton, offers excerpts from his most important writings, and places them in context, both in terms of Merton’s personal history and his ever-developing interests. And when you read Cunningham, don’t miss “Day of a Stranger” (214–222; also available in Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, edited by Patrick F. O’Connell, 232–39), a little masterpiece, in my view the most brilliant piece he ever wrote.
Another brief volume, a very personal take on Merton which I can warmly recommend, is Ontario writer J. S. Porter’s Thomas Merton: Hermit at the Heart of Things. Then after that, a more recent book, Thomas Merton: Monk on the Edge, the book of essays published in 2012 by Canadian scholars for the Thomas Merton Society of Canada, and available through the Society’s office (merton.ca). Then, if you are still motivated, you can move on to the full seven volumes of the journals and the five volumes of the selected letters. After this, you will be well prepared to read my new book, Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon: The Camaldoli Correspondence (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, forthcoming in 2015): it deals with his unsuccessful attempt to move from Gethsemani to what he mistakenly thought would be a more peaceful monastery in Italy, Camaldoli. Once you’ve read this much, or even half as much, you are well and truly launched on the good ship Thomas Merton! Happy sailing, happy reading.
Readers of this blog in the Vancouver area may wish to come to a forum on Merton I am offering Sunday morning, January 25, 2015, at Christ Church Cathedral (Georgia and Burrard in downtown Vancouver, nearest SkyTrain station, Burrard). The forum starts at 9:15 am and will end at 10:00 am.
For other events in observance of his centenary, check out the website of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada (merton.ca) and the website of the International Thomas Merton Society (merton.org). You may also wish to look at the Merton page on my website (donaldgrayston.ca).