Friday 1 February 2008

Thomas Merton, The Man, the Monk, on Monasticism

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was an enigma. He was a monk, a man and a myth. He created the myth with his bestseller The Seven Story Mountain and then spent most of the rest of his life trying to change that story. Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, states; "the discovery of culture and the folk-mind means that there cannot be universal principles of understanding. Reason is a myth that makes mythmaking impossible to comprehend." This was one of Merton's problems. He made the myth, but the myth was no longer the man. In this essay, I will be looking at the man, the monk, and some of his writings on monasticism. Monks have often been on the leading edge of religious life, and theological reform. The earliest desert fathers were trying to get back to a truer, purer form of Christianity. Then the Benedictines were an attempt to return to the fathers. The order Merton belonged to, which was founded in about 1100A.D., formed a stricter, more austere form of the Benedictine monasticism. Merton Himself continually pushed the boundaries: he was a monk who rebelled, but rebelled respectfully.

The man and the monk with both help us understand his writings on monasticism. Michael W. Higgins said it best, "Merton's life was fraught with contradictions, polarities and wild paradoxes." yet the legacy of his writings continues to affect new generations of readers.

There have literally been hundreads of books and articles written about Merton and his works. I cannot do justice to that industry here, but I will summarize some of the
key points in his development.

Thomas Merton was born in 1915 in the south of France to an American mother and a New Zealander father. He died in 1968 in Bangkok of accidental electrocution. His life was a constant oscilliation between retreat from and attack on the world. When he was 6 years old, his mother died. At age 10, he was enrolled at a private school; often being sick, he spent most of his time alone and in nature exploring abandoned monasteries. At 15, he moved to England and was soon after orphaned. Then, at age 18, he visited Rome; he found himself drawn to churches, and here he discovered Christ. He attended Cambridge and then Columbia University. He graduated in 1935 from Columbia and then he taught at a junior college. In 1941, at age 26, he entered the Trappist Monestary of the Abbey of our Lady of Gethsemani. In 1949, he was ordained as a priest. The year before this he published The seven Story Mountain. Yet all of these are just facts. Who was the man Thomas Merton? He was a seeker, a quester, a pilgrim. Michael Higgins in Heretic Blood states: "He knew that the route to human authenticity was lonely, full of risk, a pilgrim's terror." Merton the man was such a pilgrim, willing to face pain and trials, to follow the quest.

Yet Merton also saw the need of the individual as sometimes being greater than the needs of the many: "The person is and must always remain prior to the collective. He stands for courageous, independent loyalty to his own conscience, and for the refusal to compromise with slogans and rationalizations imposed by compulsion."

Yet Merton was much more than just a man; he was also a poet, and as a poet, he saw his role to be a reclaimer of words: "Metron saw the scar of the fall in language and he came to understand the poet's role as nothing less than the restitution of the word; the restoration of its sacredness, and its liberation from the uses of deception, slick rhetoric, and ideological manipulation to become once more the quiet servant of truth." Also, "the word must be cleanses. As we are made whole by the Word, so words are made whole by the poet." But he recognized the constraints in that he was a monk who took a vow of silence, yet he could not stop the flow of his words. This is summed up by Higgins: "His diaries communicate his earnest struggle with the many contradictions that defined his life; the writer who is vowed to silence; the Columbia bohemian who is a consecrated religious; the solitary man compelled to address the public order; the "hidden one",
marked by fame." He not only recognized these contraries within himself, but he worked at resolving or balancing out the ones he could.

Merton was an intellectual, he was probably brilliant or even genius, but genius is often seen as madness. He was not a typical theologian, he was more of a religious thinker: "Merton was really a religious thinker, having more in common with Blaise Pascal and Simone Wiel then with the methodologies of systematic theologians." And yet in this very intelligence, and commitment to his own person, he often clashed with church authorities: "Merton refused to toe the official catholic line; he was increasingly pacifist in his thinking, arguing vigorously against the "Just War Theory", ... which had been a standard catholic teaching for centuries." He was a thinker, and a thinker of the highest order. Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, states: "I must reiterate that Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche are thinkers of the very highest order. This is, in fact, precisely my point. We must relearn what this means and also that there are others who belong in the same rank." Merton was such a man. He did not think for us but he wrote to make us think. Yet we only saw what he wanted us to see, what he was willing to show us. "The masks of the Gethsemanie diarist are many: there is the monk as a rebel, the monk as visionary, the monk as artist, the monk as divided self, the monk as conscience of the nation, the monk as troublesome charge, the monk as renegade, the monk as dutiful son, and the monk as guru. As an assemblage of masks, of personae, they tell us something about the essential Merton. They tell us what he would have us know." And this leads us to a second view. Merton as monk.

Merton the monk. Our Merton was not only a man, he was also a monk, and a monk of the "strict observance' at that. The problem with Merton is that once you have categorized him, the next piece of his writings your read breaks that mold or box you have just put him in. Michael Higgins describes him this way: "Meton was, and remains, a phenomenon, an utterly engaging figure, controversial, iconic, the paradigmatic monk for our century." The monk is or should be the quester. "The monk must explore the desert area of the human heart, the 'arid, rocky, dark land of the soul." Merton did this, his whole life was this process. When he got to Gethsemani he thought this process was over. That is what The Seven Story Mountain is about. And then he realizes his quest was just begining a new phase. "Ideally the monk is a mature realization of that quality of monkhood that we all possess - openness to the transcendent.", and "As a poet, and as a monk, Merton understood his task to be nothing short of the Blakean undertaking to reintegrate shattered humanity." To this considerable task he poured most of his energy and writings.

Merton's biggest struggles came from within. He believed that being a monk would end his personal struggles, but it only redirected them."Merton's life as a monk was characterized by the tragic and salutary, precisely because it was a life lived with ruthless honesty. Becoming a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani did not end his wild peregrinations, though his vow of stability would severely limit his physical wanderings and he realized quite early in his monastic life that the easy confidence and confronting security that attracted him to Trappist life would be profoundly tempered by his spiritual restlessness." Merton's problem was that: "Merton was a post-modern monk in a premodern tradition. This choice of the monastic way of life as his vocation was not an act of penitence and submission but of rebellion: it was his way of definition, his natural rebelliousness." he was a rebel, but a rebel committed to stability and to his order, and to his chosen church, the Roman Catholic Church.

But Merton was an overcomer, a heroic struggler in the true sense of the word. And he came to realize that: "To be a fully integrated monk he had to be a fully integrated human being, to accept his emotional emptiness and his yearnings for reciprocated love." Thus he comes to questions, not answers. He himself stated, "When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of 'answers'. But as I grew old in the monastic life and advanced further into solitude, I became aware that I have only begun to seek the questions. And what are the questions? Can man make sence out of his existence?"

Thus we come to Merton's writings on monasticism.
Thomas Merton was often frustrated with the monastic life. And yet he was sure it was where he was supposed to be, despite this conflict with his Abbot, the order's censors, and even ecclesiastical hierarchies. He was a rebel, but always with a cause. "He knew what the monastic life could be, and he knew what it often was, and this chasm, so frequently the result of an impoverished imagination and an unholy dread of fear, could drive him to distraction." Being a monk was at the core of his being, and he needed to be true to his vision of what monastic life was.

To Merton, for whom monasticism was a form of rebellion, the figure of monk as portrayed by his superiors did violence not only to his sense of self but to his very understanding of monastic spirituality in both its primitive and its twentieth century form. He watched with horror the gradual and effective transformation of a community of contemplative monks into an industry "Trappist Corp." His view was so antiquated that it was new again. He wanted a purer, truer form of monastic life.

He wrote extensively on monasticism and how it should be reformed. He also had very strong opinions about what monasticism was. In The Hidden Ground of Love, he states: "the contemplative life is ... the search for peace not in an abstract exclusion of all outside reality, not in a barren negative closing of the senses upon the world, but in the openness of love." He also wrote about this way of life as a gift of anointing in The Monastic Journey: "The monastic vocation is an ascetic charism, not a call to a special work in and for the church. The monk is called 'out of this world' to seek God truly in silence, prayer, solitude, renunciation, compunction and simplicity." He saw this way of life as a vocation with very specific purposes: "there can be no doubt that the monastic vocation is one of the most beautiful in the church of God. The contemplative life ... is a life entirely devoted to the mystery of Christ, to living the life of God who gives himself to us in Christ. It is a life totally abandoned to the Holy Spirit, a life of total self obligation to god in union with Jesus."

To Merton, the life of a monastic was total commitment to the way. But it is also a love relationship first with god, then with all of humanity. "The monastic life is a life of love for God and for man. The social aspect of the monastic life is therefore very important, but it's importance must not be overemphasized to the detriment of the spirit of prayer and solitude." Thus his view was that prayer and solitude were to be the monastic focus. All else may be good, but not essential. But he returned again and again to the theme of monasticism as love. "Love is the epiphany of god in our poverty. The contemplative life is then the search for peace not in an abstract exclusion of all the outside reality, not in the barren negative closing of the senses upon the world, but in the openness of love."

Yet the more Merton wrote about traditional monasticism, the more frustrated he became with the way things were. Michael Higgins sums it up this way: "The more he wrote about traditional monastic structures and spirituality, the more dissatisfied he became." Again Higgins makes a strong point: "Merton's quite palpable annoyance with institutional monasticism, ... portrays him, not unfairly as the enfant terrible of a contemporary contemplative. But he was much more than a spiritual malcontent, or renegade monk. Merton was an apologist for a revivified monasticism."

Yet even with his radical reputation, his own words show a much more tempered view of monasticism and monastic reform, as can be seen in the works collected in A Monastic Journey: "The first concern of monastic reform should be the clarification of monastic principles by return to sources, in order that monastic life may recover its authenticity and simplicity, liberated from all that is foreign to it."

He was concerned with the integrity of the contemplative way of life. And making sure the monastic actions were relevant: "In monastic reform, care should be taken first of all to maintain or restore the special character of the monastic vocation … The works of the monk are not justified by there external results but only by their relevance to his monastic life alone with God."

He also wrote much on how monastic leadership should be shaped and act. "Monastic superiors should be ready to see and encourage in their subjects any exceptional and genuine desire for a deeper life of prayer, and for a return to simpler monastic ways." Yet I think Michael Higgins summed up Merton on monasticism best: "Monasticism was not a static condition for Merton but a vital one full of contradictions and crises, a ceaseless struggle to balance the contraries, his own marriage of heaven and hell."

Thus we see a monk who wanted to change, but loved tradition, who pushed the boundaries, but sought a more ancient form of monasticism, who was modern and ancient in one, a man who came to the monastery to revolt against the world, only to conflict with the monastery and reach out around the world with his words.
Merton was also searching for understanding, self understanding. In A Vow of Conversion he states: "I see more and more that my understanding of myself and my life has always been inadequate. Now that I want more than ever to see, I realize how difficult it is … my job and that of the church remains this: to awakening in myself and in others the sense of real possibility of truth, of obedience to Him who is Holy, a refusal of pretenses and servitudes, without arrogance and pride, and without any specious idealism." Michael Higgins views Merton this way: "Merton is no pseudo-saint, nor is he likely to be canonized. He is the consummate post-modern holy one: flawed, anti-institutional, a voice for the voiceless. But he is also a classic traditionalist: centered, obedient, in search for stability."

I see him as a teacher, a guide. A man searching for the true self. And through his search he helps others on their quests. "Only the rarest individuals find their own stopping points from which they can move the world." This is the type of man and monk that Merton was. When you read his writings you respond, you either are challenged or you revolt. But either way you respond.

When Merton entered the monastery he had clear ideals and views, as time would pass, things would become less clear to him. As can be see from two final quotes, in his own words: "It is true that when I came to this monastery where I am, I came in revolt against the meaningless confusion of a life in which there was so much activity, so much movement, so much useless talk, so much superficial and needless stimulation, that I could not remember who I was." and "When I first became a monk, yes I was more sure of 'answers'. But as I grew old in the monastic life and advanced further into solitude, I became aware that I have questions. And what are the questions? Can man make sense out of his existance?" Merton was thus a spiritual quester whose quest began in earnest when he thought he had reached the grail. We can all learn from Merton. We can apply the essence of the contemplative no matter where we are.


1. The Closing of the American Mind, p.307
2. Heretic Blood, p.9
3. Heretic Blood, p.180
4. The Pasternak Affair, p.31
5. Heretic Blood, p.133
6. Heretic Blood, p.150
7. Making and Remaking of Thomas Merton, p.10
8. Heretic Blood, p.41
9. Heretic Blood, p.107
10. The Closing of the American Mind, p.240
11. Making and Remaking of Thomas Merton, p.9
12. Heretic Blood, p.2
13. Heretic Blood, p.111
14. Heretic Blood, p.89
15. Heretic Blood, p.4
16. Making and Remaking of Thomas Merton, p.5
17. Heretic Blood, p.101
18. Heretic Blood, p.320
19. Thomas Merton Spiritual Master, p.424
20. Making and Remaking of Thomas Merton, p.5
21. Heretic Blood, p.108
22. The Hidden Ground of Love, p.157
23. The Monastic Journey, p.165
24. The Monastic Journey, p.11
25. The Monastic Journey, p.168
26. Thomas Merton Spiritual Master, p.426
27. Heretic Blood, p.6
28. Making and Remaking of Thomas Merton, p.6
29. The Monastic Journey, p.166
30. The Monastic Journey, p.165
31. The Monastic Journey, p.167
32. Heretic Blood, p.99
33. A Vow of Conversion, p.200-201
34. Heretic Blood, p.10
35. The Closing of the American Mind, p.200
36. Thomas Merton Spiritual Master, p.424
37. Thomas Merton Spiritual Master, p.424


Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind.
New York: Touchstone, 1987

Higgins, Michael W. The Making and Remaking: The Many Masks of Thomas Merton
Michael Keenen Memorial lecture, Second Lecture 1988
Muenster: St Thoman College, 1988

Heretic Blood.
Toronto: Stoddart, 1998

Merton, Thomas The Monastic Journey Ed. Brother Patrick Hart
London: Sheldon, 1977

The Hidden Ground of Love. Ed. William H. Shannon
New York: F, S & G, 1983

A Vow of Conversion.
New York: F, S & G, 1988

The Pasternak Affair.
New York: F, S & G. 1960

Spiritual Master. Ed. Lawrence S. Cunningham
Mahwah: Paulist, 1992

(First written for Dr. Peter Frick Fall 1998 Intro to Theology.)

Books by Michael W. Higgins:
Genius Born of Anguish: The Life & Legacy of Henri Nouwen
The Unquiet Monk: Thomas Merton's Questing Faith
Heretic Blood: The Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton: Faithful Visionary
Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart
Faith and Literature Matters
Power And Peril: The Catholic Church At The Crossroads
Stalking the Holy: The Pursuit of Saint Making
My Father's Business: A Biography Of His Eminence G. Emmett Cardinal Carter

Books with Douglas R. Letson:
Soundings: Conversations about Catholicism
The Jesuit Mystique

Contributed to:
Commonweal on Contemporary Theologians
Introducing John Moriarty In His Own Words
Vatican II: A Universal Call to Holiness
Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen as Model for a Reformed Priesthood (with Kevin Burns)
Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal (with Peter Kavanagh)


Related Posts:
Waterloo Loses A Good Man
Michael W. Higgins
Faith in the Media Conference 2006

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