Merton dares us to imagine what is possible for God and for human beings
In August of 1938, a young graduate student at Columbia University stepped from his rooming-house near Butler Library and walked uptown seven blocks to West 121st street to attend the Sunday morning Mass at Corpus Christi Catholic Church. “What a revelation it was,” he would later write, “to discover so many people in a place together, more conscious of God than of one another; not there to show off their hats or their clothes, but to pray, or at least to fulfill a religious obligation, not a human one.” The student was Thomas Merton, and given the dissolute shape of his life to this point, he thought it no small miracle to find himself sitting among the regular worshipers on this particular morning. Indeed, just a few lines earlier in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton confesses that this was the first time he “had ever really spent a sober Sunday in New York.” He could not escape the feeling that the parishioners surrounding him in the pews “had spotted me for a pagan and were just waiting for me to miss a few more genuflections before throwing me out.” At age 23, somewhat adrift and deeply insecure about the direction of his life, the young Merton was terrified of walking into a Catholic church. Yet by the time the Mass ended, he says, “my eyes looked about me at a new world … I could not understand what it was that had happened to make me so happy, why I was so much at peace.”
Like sacred spaces all around the world, Corpus Christi is a place of deep silence and stillness; yet it also reverberates with songs of ancient remembrance and future hope. The young priest at Merton’s first Mass spoke with confidence of a God who “loved us, and walked among us” in the person of Jesus Christ. And though it was a Low Mass, there was much singing, as Merton recalls, and “before I knew it, I was engrossed and absorbed in the thing as a whole: the business at the altar and the presence of the people.” To the shock of many of his friends, Merton was baptized at the same Corpus Christi on November 16, 1938. After spending Holy Week of 1941 on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the hills of rural Western Kentucky, he decided to become a Trappist monk. For the next 27 years he lived as a monk of Gethsemani, until his untimely death in 1968. It was the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948 that established him as an unusually famous monk and a wholly unexpected literary phenomenon. In addition to publishing widely read spiritual meditations, journals, and poetry, Merton would write penetrating essays on the religions of the East, monastic and church reform, questions of belief and atheism, and some of the most explosive social issues of the day. Above all, he made the case for the contemplative life in a world of relentless action.
During his historic address before the United States Congress on September 24, 2015, Pope Francis lifted up Thomas Merton as “a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” More than five decades earlier, Merton had described the world we inhabit as a “post-Christian” world. In fact, “Peace in a Post-Christian Era” was the book he had prepared for publication in 1961, but which the leaders of his own monastic order deemed too controversial to publish. And no wonder. Merton confronted his contemporaries with some very uncomfortable questions: Does faith have a future, and if so, what kind of faith will it be? Faith in the markets? Faith in technology? Faith in atomic weaponry and the national security state? Fundamentalist faith, which is to say, faith not in God but in one’s idea of God, in the absolute truth of one’s own faith, all others be damned? It is not incidental that Pope Francis has drawn the world’s attention to Thomas Merton at this moment in our social history. Who is he, and what “certitudes” does Merton continue to challenge in our era?
Son of a Century
Merton’s enduring appeal to postmodern sensibilities may be explained in part by his own renaissance background. Born in France in 1915 to Ruth Jenkins, from America, and Owen Merton, from New Zealand, itinerant artists who had met in Paris, Merton spent much of his youth traveling between Europe and America. By age 16, both his parents were dead. His account of his mother’s death when he was six years old is one of the most poignant passages in The Seven Storey Mountain, clearly affecting him profoundly. Years later there was also the loss of his younger brother John Paul, killed in a bomber crash during the Second World War, remembered in a stirring poem that concludes the autobiography: “Sweet brother, if I do not sleep / My eyes are flowers for your tomb.” From a very young age the “flowers of paradise” were indelibly scented for Merton with the loneliness of loss and suffering.
After his father’s death, Merton completed his studies at Oakham School in England and then enrolled at Cambridge. His raucous behavior there, including rumors that he made a girl pregnant, led his godfather to insist he leave England for the United States. After completing his first-year exams, Merton left Cambridge and enrolled at Columbia University, where he soon thrived among an avant-garde and literary group of friends: Robert Lax, Ed Rice, Sy Freedgood, and his teacher and mentor Mark van Doren. Reading Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy was transformative. His reading became “more and more Catholic.” He devoured works by Blake, Hopkins, Joyce, and Maritain. As he later wrote of this period, something deep “began to stir within me … began to push me, to prompt me … like a voice.” After his baptism at Corpus Christi in 1938, he took a job teaching English at St. Bonaventure’s College in September of 1940. A year later he entered the monastery.
In truth, the seeds for Merton’s conversion had been planted years earlier, when he was eighteen, an orphan in the world, and visiting Rome. He found himself drawn into the city’s ancient churches, and was “suddenly overwhelmed” by the Byzantine mosaics that adorned their walls.
And now for the first time in my life I began to find out something of Who this Person was that men called Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense, truer than I knew and truer than I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there that I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my Kind and Who owns and rules my life.
It is significant that Merton describes his knowledge of Christ in these early encounters as “a true knowledge,” even if it “was obscure.” The dormant seeds of his faith had been stirred, significantly, through an immersion in a cultural landscape quite foreign to his own.
The Seven Storey Mountain struck a deep chord in a generation trying to make sense of things in the devastating wake of World War II. Where is God? What is humanity? What reasons can we give for the hope that remains in us? For the next twenty years Merton navigated such questions of faith and the search for meaning in dozens of books and hundreds of essays across a dizzying range of genres: spiritual meditations, journals, poetry, letters, literary criticism, and social essays appearing in journals both sacred and secular. Remembering Merton’s role during the 1960s as “pastor to the peace movement,” Jesuit priest and activist Father Daniel Berrigan says, “It was a long, hard road, and we needed help along the way, and he gave it. Merton was very important to all of us.”
Several other experiences profoundly shaped Merton’s life as a monk and spiritual writer. Between 1955 and 1965 he served as master of novices, helping the young monks imbibe from the deepest wellsprings of the Christian mystical tradition. Always meticulously prepared, he loved his students and taught them with great spontaneity, energy, and humor. In 1965 Merton received permission to live as a hermit on the grounds of the monastery, freeing his spirit and literary voice in new ways. Much of his best writing comes to us from the hermitage. During a hospital stay in Louisville in the spring of 1966, Merton fell in love with a young student nurse named Margie, or “M.,” as she is rendered in the private journals. For some six months they had a kind of clandestine affair until Merton, with much anguish, finally broke it off, helped not a little by his abbot’s discovery of the affair. The relationship with Margie — as well as substantive friendships and correspondence with other women during his last decade — was clearly transformative for Merton and bears a spiritual significance that shines through much of his writings in this period.
In October of 1968, Merton set out for Asia on what would be his final pilgrimage, desiring “to drink from [the] ancient sources of monastic vision and experience.” He dreamed of meeting the Dalai Lama and fulfilling what he believed to be the vocation of every Christian: to be an instrument of unity, to “realize the unity that already is and to find ways to live together that are consistent with unity.” He and the Dalai Lama met three times, the latter remembering, some twenty years later, “It was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.’” Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968, the victim of an accidental electrocution. A military transport plane that was carrying the bodies of servicemen killed in Vietnam, a war he had forcefully condemned, returned his too to the United States. Once back in Kentucky, Merton’s body was laid in the earth on a hillside behind his home, the monastery, overlooking the woods where he lived as a hermit the last years of his life.
Pilgrims from around the world continue to visit Gethsemani and pray before the simple white cross that marks Merton’s grave, though as a model for Christian holiness Merton was far from perfect. In fact in his spiritual evolution he took pains to distance himself from his early, more pious writings, and insisted on his right not to be turned into a myth for Catholic school children. He was a restless monk, and often chafed against his vows of stability and obedience. Indeed what emerges so compellingly from the broad tapestry of Merton’s life is a beautifully human journey before God. In his writings we discover not a porcelain saint hovering above the messiness of human history but a companion who walks beside us like a brother, opening up new ways, and rediscovering old ways, which we had forgotten. I was fifteen when my mother put an old copy of The Sign of Jonas in my hands. Some days later I came to the book’s epilogue and one of Merton’s most-celebrated meditations, “Fire Watch: July 4, 1952.” I read transfixed, walking alongside Merton as he ascended the abbey tower, checking every corner and hidden passageway for fire, while questioning the hidden God who questioned him in the deep silence of night.
Mists of damp heat rise up out of the fields around the sleeping abbey. The whole valley is flooded with moonlight and I can count the southern hills beyond the watertank, and almost number the trees of the forest to the north. Now the huge chorus of living beings rises up out of the world beneath my feet: life singing in the watercourses, throbbing in the creeks and the fields and the trees, choirs of millions and millions of jumping and flying and creeping things. I lay the clock upon the belfry ledge and pray cross-legged with my back against the tower, and face the same unanswered question. Lord God of this great night: do You see the woods? Do You hear the rumor of their loneliness? Do you behold their secrecy? Do You remember their solitudes? Do You see that my soul is beginning to dissolve like wax within me?
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Merton’s lesson to me was, “Pay attention, you might miss it.” Like the biblical poets and prophets of old, Merton calls us back to our kinship in one another, in the natural world, and in God, “the hidden ground of Love,” before it is too late.
As a lifelong musician, it occurs to me that Merton’s writings touch, surround, and enlarge the reader’s imagination in ways analogous to music. Merton’s writings do not just paint pretty pictures for our aesthetic enjoyment. The effect of reading Merton is metaphysical, mystical, theological. At stake between Merton, his reader, and all those letters and spaces dancing on the page is the discernment of the deepest truths that lay hidden within the substance of things. Merton gives us a clue to his own artistry in a pivotal essay of 1959 on the Russian writer Boris Pasternak, when he describes Pasternak as “a poet and a musician,” and the structure of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago as “symphonic, thematic, almost liturgical.” Much like Pasternak, Merton captures you not in the first place by advancing an argument or chain of ideas but rather by enclosing you in an atmosphere, a climate of wakefulness, presence, and finally — as if by stealth — the divine mercy. “Think of it,” he writes in one of his finest essays, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” as he ponders the sound of the rain falling on the hermitage roof, “all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody.” In Merton’s hands, the rain falling through the forest canopy makes a peaceful noise, soaking the earth in eddies of protest against “the technological Platos who think they now run the world.” Like waves crashing on the shores of our consciousness, Merton writes “by rhythms that are not those of the engineer,” rhythms we recognize but have forgotten. Like fish swimming in an ocean of grace, we need to be reminded: This is water. This is water.
Merton is a poet of the liminal spaces of our lives, where sacred mystery breaks in and casts everything in a different sort of light. Whether walking alone in the woods, gazing on a single red rose on the altar during Mass, or standing alone and barefoot before the great statues of the Buddha at Pollanaruwa, as he did a month before his death, what Merton describes in so many passages is not a chain of “peak experiences,” here one moment, gone the next; he invites us, rather, into a whole-bodied communion with reality, where matter pulses with spirit, and time touches the eternal. In perhaps his most famous passage, it is not hard to picture the monk standing in street clothes among the passersby on a busy street corner, gazing on a sea of faces of every color.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud … Thank God, thank God that I am like other [human beings], that I am only a [human being] among others.
It was a critical moment of transformation in Merton’s life, and much more than a moment. One could say it was the anticipatory flowering in Merton of the Catholic Church’s own “turning to the world” at Vatican II, inspired by Pope John XXIII and a host of Catholic ressourcement theologians.
Another of Merton’s lesser-known urban epiphanies happened in the summer of 1964, when he boarded an airplane for New York City to meet with Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki at Columbia University, his alma mater. Flying over the city at 35,000 feet, Merton noted in his journal, “I suddenly realized after all that I was a New Yorker.” Arriving at Columbia he found his way to his room in Butler Hall, overlooking the streets of Harlem. He writes:
The noise of traffic and the uninterrupted cries of playing children, cries of life and joy coming out of purgatory, loud and strong the voice of a great living organism. Shots too — and there is no rifle range! Frequent shots — at what? More frequent than in the Kentucky woods behind the hermitage in hunting season. And drums, bongos, and the chanting of songs, and dogs barking and traffic, buses like jet planes. Above all the morning light, then the afternoon light, and the flashing windows of the big new housing developments.
Through Merton’s eyes, the reader is invited to discover something beautiful, transcendent even, in the “flashing windows of the big new housing developments.” But there were gunshots too, and then, “drums, bongos, and the chanting of song”; in sum, the incomparable music of Harlem. Only a month later, writing again from the monastery, the key darkly changes:
Jim Forest sent me clippings from Monday’s New York Times about the big riots in Harlem last weekend. It all took place in the section immediately below Butler Hall … The police shot thousands of rounds into the air but also quite a few people were hit, and one man on a roof was killed. In the middle of all the racket and chaos and violence a police captain was shouting “Go home! Go home!” A Negro yelled back “We are home, baby!”
Suddenly the description of Harlem as “purgatory” — a place of “purification” — bears much more ominous meaning. What kind of purification, Merton might ask today, are we requiring of the nation’s black and brown children, too many marked out for failure by virtue of their zip codes? Whose sins are being paid for as we build more and larger prisons, fill them with young black and Latino men, and staff them with working class whites who desperately need the jobs? In “Letter to a White Liberal,” Merton confronts us with a question no less resonant today than it was 50 years ago: “How, then, do we treat this other Christ, this person, who happens to be black?”
Merton wrote frequently of a return to the “true self” or le point vierge, a “point of nothingness and of absolute poverty [which is] the pure glory of God in us … It is in everybody.” Yet he was one of the first and most prominent white Catholic public intellectuals during the Civil Rights era to extend this far-reaching insight of biblical faith explicitly to African Americans. An elder African American woman and former nun in my parish told me that Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was her “Bible” during the 1960s, when she was an activist for racial justice and felt increasingly alienated by her religious community. “Merton got it,” she said, “when few others did.” Indeed not a few (white) Catholic readers, who seemed to prefer the pious monk of The Seven Storey Mountain, were bitterly disappointed with Merton for writing about racial justice, war, interreligious dialogue, and human rights. His own Trappist order censored his most prophetic writings. “I ought to learn to just shut up and go about my business of thinking and breathing under trees,” Merton wrote in 1967. “But protest is a biological necessity.”
The Child Who is Prisoner in All the People
Much later in my life it was the prose poem “Hagia Sophia,” Merton’s sublime hymn to Holy Wisdom, the feminine face of God, which, like a kind of magnetic north, drew my imagination back into itself again and again. The flowering in Merton of long meditation on biblical Wisdom texts, patristic and Russian Orthodox theology, and Zen, the poem seemed at once to multiply and silence all my questions. Rather than succumbing to my preconceptions of God, it broke them open. Set according to the liturgical hours, the poem begins in a hospital room at dawn, where the speaker is awakened “out of languor and darkness” by the soft voice of a nurse. If it is true, as the late Fr. Andrew Greeley writes, that “the artist is a sacrament maker, a creator of emphasized, clarified beauty designed to make us see,” then Merton in “Hagia Sophia” is the consummate artist, helping us to see — that is, to feel in our whole person — that while the world is stricken deeply by sin, it also shimmers in the light of resurrection. What would it feel like to think and pray with a God who is not fixed like a Great Marble Statue in the elite spaces where power is exercised but who enters without reserve into the stream of our humble tasks and decisions? Perhaps such a God would re-ignite our hope, our capacity to breathe, and to imagine again. “Love takes him by the hand, and opens to him the door to another life, another day.” When Jesus of Nazareth prefaced his teachings with the words, “let those with eyes to see, see, and those with ears to hear, hear,” scholars tell us he was speaking as a teacher of Jewish wisdom, appealing not just to the head but to the whole person of the listener. In effect the wisdom teacher invites us to sit in the belly of a paradox: listen to the silences, hear the forgotten voices, let things seen and unseen speak to you. God is here, now, and everywhere present, drawing near in the voice of the stranger, the wind on the water, the rustle of the trees, “like the air receiving the sunlight,” as Merton writes.
The poem would become the centerpiece of Emblems of a Season of Fury, which includes devastating poems on racism (“And the Children of Birmingham”), Nazi genocide (“Chant to Be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces”), and political oppression (“A Picture of Lee Ying”). “Hagia Sophia,” so different from the other poems in this collection, dares us to imagine a faith fully reconciled with the body, the feminine, the Earth. The poem, anticipating the whole trajectory of Merton’s last decade, witnesses to an embodied spirituality that is both mystical and prophetic, offering a rare model for reconciling two strands in the Christian tradition still commonly assumed to be opposed, even mutually exclusive. And yet, as Pope Francis laments in his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’, such an integration will not come easily to people whose lives are patterned so habitually by utilitarian rhythms, the values and demands of the marketplace, the rhetoric of war. “We do not hear the soft voice, the gentle voice, the merciful and feminine. We do not see the Child who is prisoner in all the people, and who says nothing.”
Sounding the Middle of the Ocean
One of Merton’s central concerns was that people in modern society have lost touch with the depth dimension of reality — what Jewish philosopher Martin Buber famously called the “I/Thou” mode of encounter — in favor of a Cartesian or analytical mode that engages the world by collecting data through the senses, analyzing, naming, and categorizing that data and developing theories about it — what Buber called the “I/It” mode of experience. We have traded mystery and wonder for mastery and technological manipulation, for cheap (and very expensive) imitations of the real thing. The result is the pervasive sense of alienation so many feel amid mass society. To be alienated is to feel oneself cut off from all the “others,” equally isolated in the churning wheel of experience; cut off from the natural world, largely subjugated to utilitarian ends; and cut off from “God,” who becomes a projection of the individual’s sense of aloneness and anonymity in an infinitely receding universe.
On this point Merton borrows an arresting image from the physicist Werner Heisenberg, who, in a famous essay of 1958 on the role of technology in our changing relationship with nature, suggests that humanity now finds itself “in the position of a captain whose ship has been so securely built of iron and steel that his compass no longer points to the north but only towards the ship’s mass of iron.” The moral and spiritual peril of the “ship’s captain” can be allayed, says Heisenberg, only “if he recognizes what has gone wrong and tries to navigate by some other means — for instance, by the stars.” To “navigate by the stars,” says Merton, is to go beyond the limitation of a scientific and utilitarian worldview and recover our sense of the sacred, the seedbed of life itself and sacred mystery that pulses in all things. “The machines are meditating on the most arbitrary and rudimentary of essences,” Merton wrote in 1965, “punched into IBM cards, defining you and me forever without appeal.” Today these words hardly seem like hyperbole.
Standing in a long line of Christian mystics, Merton sought to help his contemporaries learn how to “sound the ocean,” that is, to reestablish contact with the hidden ground of Love at the center of our being. Contemplation, the golden thread unifying Merton’s corpus, is simply this: the practice of becoming aware of ourselves in communion with God, Earth, one another. It is, as Jesuit Fr. Walter Burghardt writes, “a long loving look at the real,” where reality is neither abstract, nor manufactured, or the kind of “real” one typically encounters through a TV or computer screen. Contemplation for Merton is the very heart of faith. It is to surrender one’s self to God’s own gift of Self, freely given. And yet this free gift implies on our part a painful letting go, a “putting to death” of the old, false self, to make way for the true self each person is called to be. To surrender the masks we habitually wear, the fears and falsehoods that prevent us from life-giving relationship with others, is at once to find ourselves in more intimate and truthful companionship with God.
Here we might call to mind two contemporaries for whom Merton held the greatest admiration: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. What Merton celebrates as the “Indian mind that was awakening in Gandhi” was not far from King’s seminal belief in the “interrelated structure of all reality,” a conviction rooted in King’s biblical faith that a divine, loving presence binds all life together in “an inescapable network of mutuality,” a “single garment of destiny.” In his darkest moments of doubt, fear, and despair, King felt this Presence reassuring and beckoning him forward, giving him courage and strength to love.
If there is a golden thread that joins Pope Francis with Thomas Merton in opening “new horizons” and challenging “the certitudes” of our times, perhaps it is that prophetic wisdom and contemplative praxis for which the pope’s namesake, Saint Francis, is most celebrated: the fate of suffering Earth and the fate of all God’s creatures are not separate but are bound beautifully, integrally, and urgently together. Merton’s writings dramatize what Francis calls an “integral ecology,” our whole-bodied immersion and mutual dependency in the relational web of all things. As Francis writes in Laudato Si’, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental … There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.” To the extent this twin crisis does not paralyze religious believers and contemporary pilgrims from every background, it gives rise to creative thought: what images, narratives, and practices of hope can we offer the next generation?
During an informal talk in Calcutta in October 1968, just over a month before his death, Merton described the character of our primordial communion in God, Earth, and one another across boundaries of race, culture, nation, and religion: “It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.” For Merton as for Pope Francis, it is not enough to preach “tolerance” at a safe distance from the other, without listening, without transformation, without risk, without growth. To build what Francis calls a “culture of encounter” is to risk learning something new and essential on the path to God. It is to lay down stepping stones, cor ad cor loquitur, on the hard road to peace. For generations of readers Thomas Merton has been a kind of fulcrum, making a little more possible in our lives the movement between heaven and earth, matter and spirit, freedom and grace. As Pope Francis intimates, Merton dares us to imagine what is possible for God and for human beings under the horizon of faith in the twenty-first century.
Feature image from Wikimedia Commons.