It is a timeworn literary conceit, but some writers seem to be several people. There always exists some disparity, of course, between writers and their work. Yet a kind of multiple personality disorder keeps turning up in writers—and writers with a religious bent seem particularly susceptible, as they keep in play not only complex human realities but divine realities as well. Dostoyevsky, Graham Greene, Walker Percy, and many other distinguished names attest to how common a phenomenon this is. But of all the great modern religious writers, no one harbored within himself a larger cast of dramatis personae than Thomas Merton.
First, there is Merton the Contemplative, who emerges in the 1948 autobiographical account of his conversion to Catholicism and entrance into a Trappist monastery, The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton had a true contemplative vocation, though he agonized about its authenticity at several points. The contemplative life formed the deepest (though not always the dominant) part of his personality. Merton came to contemplation partly because of a pure attraction to wordless union with the absolute, partly because of an intense desire to flee a sinful self and world. In most contemplatives, these two motives gradually coalesce. But in Merton they remained in stark and painful contrast.
It did not help that Merton the Contemplative confronted Merton the Writer. Even for a man not vowed to silence, Merton’s several dozen books would have been an extraordinary output. But adding the journals—four volumes have now appeared and the whole will run to seven volumes totaling about 3,500 large pages—we begin to glimpse a serious conflict. Can a man committed to the wordless apophatic way and a forgetting of self be preoccupied with recording—and publishing—every thought and act? Gregory Zilboorg, a convert himself and a skilled psychoanalyst, warned Merton in the 1950s that his desire to leave the Trappist communal silence for the even more withdrawn life of a hermit was schizophrenic: “You want a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying ‘Hermit.’”
Though not entirely fair to Merton, Zilboorg had a point. Toward the end of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton had already recognized that:
There was this shadow, this double, this writer, who had followed me into the cloister . . . . He rides my shoulders, sometimes, like the old man of the sea. I cannot lose him. He still wears the name of Thomas Merton. Is it the name of an enemy? . . . Maybe in the end he will kill me, he will drink my blood. Nobody seems to understand that one of us has got to die.
Later, Merton would accept writing as a parallel vocation. But in his frequent references to the soul’s “hidden wholeness,” his own experience of a war-to-the-death within gives the phrase special poignancy.
There were also other Mertons, among the more troublesome: the Bohemian. This Merton felt a constant need to be an outsider. When Merton lived in the world, it took the usual forms. He had aspirations to being an experimental writer and poet (his Collected Poems, which show real innovation but great unevenness, run to almost 1,000 pages). He listened to jazz, dabbled in leftist politics, hit the bottle pretty hard, smoked heavily, had his share of girlfriends, and did a bit of drawing. All relatively harmless, but some incongruous holdover bedeviled Merton the monk. Should a Trappist be interested in Henry Miller? Or follow Joan Baez? Or Bob Dylan? As late as 1959 (after eighteen years in the abbey), Merton was reading books like James Thurber’s The Years with Ross, an account of life under Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker. The New Yorker of the fifties was more staid than its current incarnation, and Merton often claimed the chic ads reminded him of everything in the world he had fled. But there was something odd in a monk even being interested in a magazine like the New Yorker. Merton sometimes took pride in what he regarded as the fact that poets and monks are marginal people. The Trappist life occasionally seemed good to him because it represented the greatest nonconformity in the world.
A Fourth Merton, one still well known, is the Social Activist. The fifties and early sixties provided him with a series of social questions to ponder: the Cold War, nuclear arms, the peace movement, the civil rights movement, third-worldism, and the materialism of both America and Russia. A cloistered monk is not in the best position to be well-informed about the outside world. But Merton’s sheer skill as a writer coupled with the deep monastic perspective made him a powerful voice in social causes.
Intimately interwoven with these four Mertons is someone we are forced to call Merton the Man. This Fifth Business never entirely settled down. The Contemplative, as may be seen in painful detail in the journals, is constantly vacillating, though in his public work Merton displays spiritual mastery. The Writer is gifted, but so much so that he has a tendency toward glibness. The Bohemian Merton got the others into any number of scrapes, and the Activist Merton often got carried away by currents in the sixties that—in retrospect—were not entirely fair to American society. Yet when all is said and done, Merton remains one of the great contemplative spirits of the century.
Merton’s early life is well known from The Seven Storey Mountain. He was born in 1915 in the French village of Prades. His father, Owen Merton, was a painter and—when financial need demanded—a part-time musician who had left his native New Zealand seeking a wider world. His mother, Ruth, was an American of Quaker background with artistic ambitions. They met in Paris as art students and were working in the south of France when Thomas was born.
Artistic parents are usually both a blessing and a curse, and the Mertons were no exception. Thomas inherited gifts of insight that frequently outran even his considerable talents as a writer. His conversion would owe much to aesthetic intuitions. Yet in his mature years he believed that some cold ambition in his mother had early made him feel unworthy and led to a distance from women. Ruth died when Merton was only six, but his descriptions of her are not nostalgic. On the contrary, he notes the narrowness and provincialism on that side of the family, both socially and religiously.
Merton’s father became even more restless after Ruth’s death. He took Thomas with him to Cape Cod, Bermuda, New York, England, and, eventually, back to France. Thomas spent three years in a dismal lycee in the south of France, but he also absorbed there something of the medieval Catholicism of the region, which would play a large role in his future. Though he developed a facility for foreign languages, it was a relief when his father told him one day to pack up for a move to England.
As it turned out, Merton did not like England much better than France. His schools were more congenial and he became popular and wrote a great deal. But the smug wealth of 1920s Britain repelled him. He also felt that the Church of England had become a religion of social manners. Within a few years his father developed brain cancer and suffered a long, painful death. Sometime before he fell ill, Owen Merton had had a religious conversion, and Thomas was later to speculate about what purpose that suffering may have served in his father’s spiritual development. But by fifteen, Merton had lost both parents.
He won a modest scholarship to Cambridge, but the posh Cambridge of the thirties proved a bad environment. If Merton was no worse than many other undergraduates, he was no better either. Besides drinking heavily, neglecting his studies, and engaging in the usual undergraduate pranks, he also fathered a child with a “lower class” girl (this episode, duly recorded by Merton, was excised by the Trappist censors from The Seven Storey Mountain). Legal niceties were tidied up by Tom Bennett, his guardian. But Bennett wrote to Merton on Long Island during the summer holiday advising him that his grades were not good enough to make a return to England worthwhile.
Merton settled down for a while with his brother and American grandparents on Long Island and started attending Columbia in 1935. He liked the American plainness of Columbia, but caroused a great deal there too. He was fortunate in soon discovering Mark Van Doren as a teacher and making such lifelong friends as the poet Robert Lax, the publisher James Laughlin, and Robert Giroux. Always energetic, he played sports and wrote for undergraduate publications. Given the chaotic habits of his early years, it was not a bad life.
But this rough equilibrium was upset when both grandparents died within a short time of one another. The sudden aloneness precipitated Merton into a kind of crisis that recurred several times later. He began having nervous attacks on the Long Island Railroad and in Manhattan. Doctors could do very little to help him. His friend Robert Lax was going through something similar, and they shared a sense of the “abyss that walked around in front of our feet . . . and kept making us dizzy and afraid of trains and high places.” In Merton’s case, it is not difficult to see this as a psychosomatic symptom of his second orphanhood.
For some reason, Merton’s literary and philosophical reading turned toward Catholicism. He wrote a senior thesis on William Blake as seen through Jacques Maritain’s interpretation of Thomistic aesthetics. He planned a doctoral dissertation on Gerard Manley Hopkins. Memories of France began to take hold of his imagination. Catholic thought appealed to him in the books he read and the people he came to know (particularly a part-time lecturer in medieval philosophy at Columbia, Dan Walsh). But there was no little aesthetic element in Merton’s religious evolution, and the spiritual and sensual beauties of Catholic life animate The Seven Storey Mountain.
Merton took instruction and was baptized at Corpus Christi Church near Columbia. Almost immediately, perhaps even before the baptism, he began thinking he had a vocation. He applied to the Franciscans and was accepted. But when he revealed his illegitimate child, they found it an impediment. He turned briefly to working with the Baroness Catherine De Hueck at Friendship House in Harlem and might have become a religious social worker had he not made a retreat at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky. Someone warned him as he was leaving: “Don’t let them change you.” He responded, “It would be a good thing if they changed me.” In 1941, a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, age twenty-six, Thomas Merton entered Gethsemani as a postulant.
When Merton told this tale in The Seven Storey Mountain , he became an instant sensation. Clare Booth Luce, Evelyn Waugh, and other distinguished Catholics praised him. The first hardcover edition sold 600,000 copies; at one point, an unprecedented 10,000 orders were coming in a day. It was 1948, and Merton had touched a nerve, not only in America but all over the world. The spiritual exhaustion after the Second World War stimulated interest in inspirational religious stories. Novices began flooding into Gethsemani. Within a decade, a monastery built to house 70 monks had attracted 270. New foundations were begun in America and abroad. Paradoxically, the sheer numbers became a serious factor in Merton’s dislike of communal life in the 1950s. He thought of becoming a Carthusian, or of going to Latin America, and let everyone know of his discontent.
But there were other reasons for his restlessness. The Seven Storey Mountain had given people an impression of Merton as a traditional Catholic writer. But the other Mertons were lurking in the background, and sometimes in the foreground. He had written a book with the charms and enthusiasms of youth; it would be unrepresentative of his more mature thought. Later, he protested that he had a right not to be turned into a myth for children at American parochial schools. And in fact he soon found himself in conflict with the Cistercian life as then lived and with American society in the 1950s.
Merton entered another crisis. Writer’s block struck in the mid-1950s, though books continued to appear. Nervous attacks recurred. The reasons for this turmoil are complicated, but the upshot was that Merton began to ask whether he had made the right choice in becoming a Trappist. He had particular troubles with communal living, censorship, meaningless disciplines, and, above all, the authority of the abbot, Dom James Fox.
Dom James could be a firm man, but he was quite intelligent, and other monks attest to his kindness and understanding. The abbot probably sensed that relaxing disciplines over Merton the Bohemian and the Writer could lead to disaster—and perhaps Merton the Contemplative did as well. For a decade, they locked horns and the right was not always on Merton’s side. It is hard to sympathize with the restive Mertons against the Contemplative Merton who joined the Trappists fully knowing and desiring a life of restrictions on correspondence, visitors, and involvement with the outside world.
In the 1960s that world came to the fore in his work. The Contemplative who fled the world, however, was not always a good advisor for the Activist. The Contemplative had not fared well in European or American society, and had taken this as proof that those societies were not doing well either. This led him to a number of mistaken or exaggerated judgments. During the fifties he accepted a theory of the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Vietnam War abroad and the civil rights struggle at home, he came to believe, revealed a totalitarian impulse in America and he wrote of the possible emergence of a Nazi-like racial regime in the United States.
Merton was tempted—primarily because of his friendship at Gethsemani with the poet and monk Ernesto Cardenal, who would later serve in the Sandinista government in Nicargaua—to seek reassignment to Latin America. He had enjoyed a pre-Castro visit to Cuba before he became a monk, and he admired and translated several Latin American poets. Like many activists, he regarded the Latin problem as a U.S. creation, and he wondered in his journals whether he would not be ashamed of being North American if he went south. In his essay “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra Concerning Giants,” he almost seems to think a nuclear exchange that would destroy the United States and Europe would be a fitting recompense for the European conquest.
Merton wrote forcefully against nuclear deterrence. A collection of his social writing from the 1960s, Seeds of Destruction, contains some of Merton’s most penetrating analyses of modern just-war issues. Merton objected to Augustine’s notion of right intention—which Merton thought could be easily rationalized—and to his pessimism. He suggested that Christians get rid of “Augustinian assumptions and take a new view of man, of society, and of war itself.” Always sophisticated and eloquent in this pursuit, Merton tried to make clear that this was not soft-headed pacifism or optimism, but the core teaching of Pacem in Terris.
However, Merton also saw serious contradictions within the “peace” movement. He rebuked those who claimed to be pacifist yet advocated armed revolution in the Third World. In 1965, as the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations were beginning to peak, a young member of the Catholic Peace Fellowship burned himself alive, causing Merton to observe that both the country and the peace movement had an air of absurdity and frenzy. But at times he contributed to the frenzy. When, for instance, his friends Daniel and Philip Berrigan were convicted, he exploded, “This is a totalitarian society in which freedom is pure illusion.”
The frequent tendency of Merton the Activist to overstatement is telling. Merton was by background mostly a European. And lacking any experience of the moral realism and decency of most Americans, he tended to judge all of American society through the lens of heated political controversies and the usual intellectual complaints about the bourgeoisie. His essays on civil rights, for example, are heartfelt and penetrating, but are not even a very good description of the predicament of the American liberal. The kind of moderation Merton showed in spiritual and moral questions rarely appears in his social commentary. He was angry about political issues in the early 1960s.
He displayed similar reactions toward the reform movement in the church. Merton made a gradual turn from a convert’s effusive gratitude to the type of critical stance usually associated with cradle Catholics. Partly this was a reaction to monastic restrictions and a widening and deepening of his knowledge of human nature. But there was a more rebellious element in him as well. He admired the early Hans Kung and engaged in a heated correspondence with Rosemary Ruether, defending himself from her criticism of the unnatural monastic life with the surprising claim that he was for all intents and purposes laicized in his separate hermitage. And yet, although he welcomed reform in the monastery and in the liturgy, when they actually came he thought both had been superficial and ill-advised. He warned that much of what was going on was being distorted by self-justifying activism.
The mid-1960s brought him to the brink of disaster. Merton had a back problem requiring an operation at a Catholic hospital in Louisville. When he recovered from the anesthesia, he was anxious that he had missed daily communion. He began making notes on Meister Eckhart. His long-desired hermitage awaited him back at Gethsemani. To the eye, it was business as usual.
But a pretty young student nurse came in. A Catholic, she knew of Merton from a book her father had given her. Something erupted between them—even though she had a fiance in Chicago. On leaving the hospital, he wrote her about needing friendship. She wrote back, instructed by him to mark the envelope “conscience matter” (lest the superiors read the correspondence). Under “conscience matter,” Merton sent a declaration of love. Thus began a series of deceptions, and Merton only narrowly avoided the shipwreck of his monastic vows because of the impossibility of the whole situation.
Until the later volumes of his journals appear, we will not have Merton’s complete account of the episode. But we know that during the storm, Merton used friends to carry messages and provide meeting places. He ignored warnings and even thought of a chaste marriage (though chastity was not particularly high in his thought at that point). They met for dinner and drinks, wine and picnics, listened to music together. Merton wondered how he could live without her.
Dom James found out about the relationship (another monk overheard a telephone conversation), and ordered Merton not to contact the young woman again, but surreptitious contacts went on for some months. Biographers such as Michael Mott agree that the incident reflects several unresolved conflicts in Merton. To his credit, Merton wanted it eventually to be known for what it said about his neediness and incompleteness. Some of the available notes are striking: “Passing near the hospital, I thought I was slowly being torn in half. Then several times while I was reciting the office, felt silent cries come slowly tearing and rending their way up out of the very ground of my being.” Though he was wrong, it is hard to wholly condemn him. The atmosphere of the 1960s drove other people into much worse, and in the end he did the right thing.
Or seemed to. All his life in the monastery, Merton had been dogged by stories that he had abandoned his vocation or run off with some woman. When he was allowed to go to Asia for a conference in 1968, he had to leave discreetly so as not to stir up rumors. But the Asia trip raises questions all the same. Merton gives several indications in his posthumous Asian Journal that he intended to return to Gethsemani—eventually. In the meantime, he began planning trips to Mount Athos, Europe, and other places. In the event, Merton was accidentally electrocuted by a fan in Bangkok.
The Merton of the late books—several solid reflections on Zen Buddhism and Eastern thought—is a cheerful man (a characteristic many people who knew him personally have emphasized). For some time he had been wondering about the distinctiveness of the monastic life. The deflation of all pretense in Zen especially attracted him for its sanity, wisdom, and good humor. Merton had gone to Asia in search of something and had apparently found it in various holy places and meetings with Asian monastic figures. He was clearly trying to redefine what being a monk entailed. Unfortunately, his last lecture (delivered just hours before he died) invoked now dated figures like Herbert Marcuse and praised as “true monks” some young European and American activists he had met on the way to Asia. This account bears all the marks of the self-righteousness and confusion of roles that the Vietnam War and Cold War induced in many circles. Merton deserved better at the end.
Merton’s true greatness lies in having engaged in person the whole range of challenges and trials of life in the late twentieth century and yet remaining essentially faithful to his Catholic inspiration. Many of those issues we still confront: poverty and war, the relationship of Eastern and Western thought, and especially how a deep religious life may be lived in contemporary conditions. As we near the end of the century, religion—even contemplative practices—have had a tremendous resurgence. Many of the paths religious people took during the 1960s are coming more and more to look like a dead end. But the attempt to bring a deeper spirituality to the public realm—to say nothing of recovering authentic spirituality—remains a burning necessity.
Merton is beyond doubt one of the great spiritual masters of our century. His personal turmoil and the misjudgments in his social thought notwithstanding, he is a forceful reminder that what may appear the most rarefied of contemplative speculations have powerful and concrete implications for the world. God dealt Thomas Merton a difficult hand. His greatness as a man lies not only in that he was able, more or less, to keep several different persons together in difficult times under the banner of “Thomas Merton,” but that he provides an enduring witness to all of us much less gifted seekers who have to shore up our own fragmentary lives in quest for the “hidden wholeness.” Requiscat in pace.
Robert Royal was Vice President and John M. Olin Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History. He is now the founder and president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing.