Photo Illustration by Ben Schneider

Photograph of Thomas Merton by Sibylle Akers. Used with permission of the Griffin Estate and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University

December 10, 2008

The cow gives birth to a baby elephant

Remembering Thomas Merton

“The more I am able to affirm others, to say ‘yes’ to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.”

—Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

“Merton was a man who understood how to be a companion. He had a lot of humor, and I think he knew something about how to be happy or how to enjoy happiness when he had it. I liked him tremendously. He had a very lively countenance; a very bright, curious, amused eye.”

—Wendell Berry, in an interview with Sojourner Magazine

Forty years ago, the Rev. Mary Louis, a Roman Catholic priest and long-time Nelson County resident, was accidentally electrocuted while attending a monastic conference in Bangkok, Thailand. He died there that day, Dec. 10, 1968.

Though for many years he lived as a hermit, it is no secret that Mary Louis also enjoyed jazz, cold beer, good conversation, trips into Louisville, and written correspondence with his many high-profile friends. Moreover, his boundless curiosity and authentic love of humanity enabled him to become an important figure in the emerging inter-religious dialogue of the post-Vatican II era.

Of course, Mary Louis was better known to the world as Thomas Merton. With a keen intellect and wicked sense of humor, the best-selling author famously functioned as a monk, poet, photographer, social critic, and modern day mystic.

As such, his untimely death was widely mourned. And his far-reaching legacy remains strong — particularly here in Louisville, where many residents have firsthand recollections of his impact.

Merton’s importance in theological circles is well established, but because of his many talents, diverse interests, and approachability, he is held in high regard by plenty of non-religious folks, too. In his book “The Human Journey,” Anthony Padavano goes so far as to deem Merton a “symbol of a century,” because of his ability to feel and personalize the forces of his age with more depth and comprehensibility than others.

Discussing Merton over a glass of wine with retired University of Kentucky historian Donald Nugent, he agrees with that assessment, saying Merton might just be an apt symbol for authentic living in the 21st century as well.

“Merton was multiculturalism incarnate,” Nugent says. “And his unique perspective definitely contributed to his transcendence of borders. Merton’s openness was a forerunner of what is today called ‘global spirituality.’”

Merton’s life was indeed an odyssey with universal appeal, segments of which almost anyone could relate to. In a time when institutionalized religion is so polarizing, Merton’s model of dialogue and his lived example of contemplation in a world of action are especially relevant. Merton’s writings continue to raise the sorts of questions that challenge the masses of complacent “pew-sitters” to be less apathetic and more apophatic.

But his challenge is not just aimed at people of faith. Merton calls all people, religious or not, to be more humble and contemplative in their approach to living. Now seems as good a time as any.

 

His story begins, as Merton puts it in his autobiography, “on the borders of Spain.” To be more precise, he emerged in Prades, France, on the last day of January 1915.

At an early age, the eruption of World War I drove Merton and his parents out of France, and into the less explosive atmosphere of the United States. When he was only 6 years old, Merton’s American mother, Ruth Jenkins Merton, died of cancer.

Along with his father Owen, a respected painter from New Zealand, Merton returned to the south of France, settling for a while in St. Antonin. In time he would begin his formal studies at Lycée Ingres in Montauban.

Some years later, Merton’s father sent him off to London, England, to live with relatives and continue his education at Ripley Court in Surrey. It was at this juncture that Merton’s literary ambitions began to emerge.

Then, when Merton was 15, his absent father died from a malignant brain tumor. Though devastated, Merton carried on with his studies, earning a scholarship to attend Clare College in Cambridge.

At Cambridge, however, laziness, tippling and promiscuity seemed to obscure Merton’s priorities. (He is rumored to have impregnated a young woman around this time.) Duly un-amused with his behavior, Merton’s guardians — his father’s family — exiled him to America, where he still had family on his mother’s side. In 1935, an unrepentant and thoroughly secular Merton began coursework at Columbia University in New York City.

An English major, Merton served as general editor of the Columbia Yearbook and art editor of the Jester, a student-run campus publication. Importantly, while at Columbia, Merton also established lifelong friendships and professional contacts (such as Ed Rice and Robert Lax) who would continually reinforce his natural inclinations to write. Professor Mark Van Doren, a Catholic intellectual, also made quite an impression.

While reading Etienne Gilson’s “The Spirit of Medeival Philosophy” for a class and simultaneously marveling at Aldous Huxley’s increasingly mystical worldview, Merton’s own latent spiritual sensibilities were awakened. This was a providential stint in New York, and a dramatic conversion of manners took place.

In 1938, Merton finally received his Bachelor of Arts degree. And after months of discernment, he was baptized as a Roman Catholic. It is likely that at this point, many scholars agree, Merton had a strong desire to experience the world and its creator with absolute and unquestionable certainty, because he had been so rootless, reckless, and disconnected in his youth. He was running from the radical subjectivism of the 20th century toward something medieval, more structured, rigid and ecclesiastical — thus, in short, Catholicism.

Merton continued graduate work at Columbia, concentrating on the visionary poet William Blake. A Master of Arts degree followed the completion of his thesis in 1939. After briefly teaching at the Columbia University Extension, he joined the English faculty at what was then St. Bonaventure College in western New York. Still lacking direction, Merton also began writing book reviews for an assortment of newspaper outlets. In his spare time, he fashioned chapters of what was intended to be a novel.

By 1940, Merton began to fantasize more about the religious life than any future fortune and fame he might accumulate as an author. But for reasons never fully explained, Merton was swiftly rejected when he applied for admission to the Franciscan Order. The following year, through happenstance, he was persuaded to make an Easter retreat with the Cistercians at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky.

Sincerely impressed, he returned to the monastery in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks. On Dec. 10, 1941, Merton assumed he had forever traded the writer’s life for an anonymous life of penance, prayer and farm work: He officially became a novice monk of the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists.

 

His sabbatical from writing would prove brief. A sympathetic abbot soon permitted Merton to incorporate his obvious talents into his monastic vocation.

In 1948, Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, arrived to widespread acclaim. It is perhaps not so surprising that Merton’s revealing tale of his journey out of despair and into an ancient faith tradition would resonate with many who were weary in the aftermath of two world wars. 

After several false starts, Merton had finally found his voice as a writer. And thereafter he became a trusted and prolific guide for many. Best known for publishing vast quantities of readily accessible tomes on spirituality, he also wrote poetry (in the style of San Juan de la Cruz), kept detailed journals, produced visual art, and snapped photographs with what he jokingly called a “Zen camera.”

Somewhat paradoxically, this man who renounced the world went on to speak extensively on social issues like racial justice, the Cold War, and ecology. Still, his candid descriptions of his own inner struggles (including the time he fell in love with a Louisville nurse) and his ever-evolving understanding of God continue to attract most readers.

Paul Knitter, Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, acknowledges that throughout Merton’s body of work, “it is fascinating how personal he makes the details of his evolution from a narrow-minded young monk into an ecumenical mystic.” Over tea in Cincinnati, Knitter (a thoughtful writer and former priest) hints that he underwent a similar transformation. He has a new book to be released this spring called “Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian,” which — one assumes — will speak further to the idea of pluralistic theology.

Because of his scholastic tendencies, Merton was assigned the position of novice master at Gethsemani, educating the newest members on a variety of topics in which he had become an expert. As a teacher, he was always injecting bits of comic relief into what could have, in the hands of another, been dry philosophical lectures.

While breaking bread at Suggins Grill (a Lexington hole in the wall) with the Rev. James Connor, a former student of Merton’s who is out of the monastery for the evening to deliver a talk at the Cathedral of Christ the King, he relates that, “Merton taught not only by words and instruction, but also particularly by his example. 

“Merton was zealous for prayer and for solitude,” he says. “That’s why in 1952 the abbot gave him use of a tool shed that was left after building the new retreat house. It was dragged out to the woods behind the monastery and used by Merton as a hermitage of sorts. He named it St. Anne’s.”

In 1961, the abbot approved construction of a proper hermitage for Merton about a mile from the main monastery, and in 1965, he was granted permission to live there permanently. Away from the community, Merton had more time for prayerful solitude and more freedom to follow his muse. Additionally, at the hermitage, Merton could more seriously absorb the sometimes-prophetic sounds of new music, like Bob Dylan and the Beatles. It was there he would entertain famous friends like Daniel Berrigan, Joan Baez and Wendell Berry.

After plying Maurice Manning — a creative writing professor at Indiana University and winner of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award — with enough whiskey, he recalls one such hermitage drop-in story shared by his mentor, Will Campbell. Campbell is a Nashville preacher, author, and civil rights activist who knew Merton well.

As it happens, Campbell was also a friend of the author Walker Percy, who requested of him an audience with Merton. “So,” Manning says, “arrangements were made for the pair to embark on a pilgrimage from Tennessee up to Gethsemani. Keep in mind that by this point in time, Percy was rather famous in his own right, having won the National Book Award and all. But he was still prepared to prostrate himself in front of this austere holy figure. Percy was likely expecting some great revelatory encounter,” Manning muses.

“When they finally arrived at the monastery, Merton, who for obvious reasons didn’t get out much, was itching to go for a ride. So they got back in the car and went in search of beer. Eventually they came back to the monastery, with a six-pack or something, and just sat around talking over drinks.

“Though there was probably more to the story,” Manning reflects, “Merton’s demeanor in Campbell’s account really impressed me. Here’s a guy that was internationally revered, a man presumably absorbed in the spiritual life, yet he was still really down to earth, and apparently interested in connecting with people in a very simple and honest way.”

 

It was an immense feeling of connectedness that led to Merton’s greatest epiphany, while standing in the shopping district of downtown Louisville, in the spot now known, appropriately enough, as Merton Square (as well as the cultural vortex from which Fourth Street Live beckons).

What Merton experienced in March 1958 was a sudden enlightenment involving the interdependence of all human beings. He thought it important enough to include an account in several published works. This was Merton’s great moment of clarity, the point at which he shook the dust from his eyes:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut … 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 as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts … the person that each one is in God’s eyes … If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed … There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun …

It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self isolation in a special world, a world of renunciation and supposed holiness … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy that I almost laughed out loud.

Merton’s Louisville vision is both overwhelming and overwhelmingly simple. This experience is not unlike what Buddhists (and later in his life, Merton) might call satori. In his journals it is clear that this helped Merton move away from his rigid, traditional Catholicism without really becoming separated from it. In some ways it was a second conversion. More amazing than Merton ever finding God in an age of unbelief was Merton’s new ability to find God in everyone.

As a younger man and recent convert, Merton tended to interpret other cultures through his own limited Christian framework. But in what were to be the last 10 years of his life, Merton became intensely interested in and fascinated by the spiritual truths found in the traditions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and especially Buddhists.

Knitter, of Union Theological Seminary, says what he finds most inspiring about Merton is that he “embodied and demonstrated decades ago something that more and more Christians are realizing today — that the deeper one enters into the well of one’s own religious experience, the more one is able to touch the undercurrent of Divine Mystery that feeds the wells of other religions. In other words, to be deeply religious is to be broadly religious.

“It was Merton’s experience of being in Christ Jesus that enabled him to talk to and appreciate and learn from D.T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and a number of Sufi Mystics. He was an example of what is described today as ‘being religious inter-religiously,’” Knitter says.

As fate would have it, Merton’s dialogue with the East ultimately took on an experiential dimension that was to be the culmination of his experience, Eastern or otherwise.

Late in the tumultuous year of 1968, Merton set off (in a roundabout way) for Asia to address a conference of fellow monastics. While abroad he had occasion to meditate with various Rinpoches, share cocktails with world religion expert Huston Smith, and enter into a deeply gratifying exchange with the Dalai Lama. In fact, at a regional dharma teaching last autumn, the Dalai Lama was still singing (or chanting, as it were) Merton’s praises as a refreshing model for Christianity.

Like the earlier experience at Fourth and Walnut, Merton’s encounters in Asia seem to have affected his attitude toward solitude. He was reminded that it is appropriate and rewarding for contemplation to be complemented by action and compassion, and that we are all interconnected.

Fully grasping this, Merton was thus primed for his final mystical experience before the stone Buddhas of Polonnaruwa:

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 …

All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear.

Eight days later, on the 27th anniversary of his entrance into Gethsemani, and just shy of his 54th birthday, Merton exited the material world. His lifeless body was shipped back to Kentucky (and the only earthly home Merton truly knew) for burial.

 

Sitting on the front porch of Merton’s hermitage in the unlikely company of Brother Paul Quenon (another former student of Merton’s and a gifted photographer/poet in his own right) and Americana music icon Mark Olson, it becomes obvious that Merton was a complex individual whose spiritual insights and remarkable trajectory continue to inspire an eclectic crowd. As Lexington musician Ray Smith, who fronts the rock band Tula, insists, Merton’s example still “helps re-conceptualize Christianity for people who straddle liberalism and conservatism and are wary of the Pat Robertsons and George Bushs of the world.”

For a variety of reasons, people still gather across the globe to honor him in small groups, as large Merton Societies, through contemporary lectures, conferences, prayer meetings, and curriculums. At the moment there are three scholarly journals specifically devoted to all things Merton: The Merton Journal, The Merton Seasonal, and The Merton Annual. The latter is published in Louisville by Fons Vitae, a superb local press dedicated to world religions. 

The Merton Institute For Contemplative Living, whose sole stated purpose is to provide resources for contemplative living to further Thomas Merton’s vision for a just and peaceful world, also calls Louisville home.

There is additional evidence of this Kentucky monk’s broad appeal on display at Louisville’s Thomas Merton Center, founded (with Merton’s cooperation) at Bellarmine University in the early 1960s. It is the premier collection of Merton’s work and works about him. In addition to books and articles, the library houses over 600 audio tapes of his lectures, 800 original drawings, and well over 1,200 of Merton’s photographs.

“As the official repository of Merton’s literary estate, the Thomas Merton Center is in a very unique position in keeping its finger on the pulse of the Merton industry,” Paul Pearson, the center’s director, says. “In this year of the 40th anniversary of his death, we have seen unprecedented interest in his life and thought. New books by and about Merton have appeared, television and radio features, articles in magazines and newspapers, conferences, commemorations and memorial services around the world.”

One of the latest books to appear about Merton, “Soul Searching,” was co-written by Jonathon Montaldo of the Merton Institute and Louisville filmmaker Morgan Atkinson, who has long been a fan.

Atkinson remembers: “When I first told my father I admired Thomas Merton, he said, ‘Wasn’t he the guy who wrote a best-seller and then hid away in a monastery the rest of his life?’ It got under my skin, as it was intended to. How could I explain this was a man who had indeed lived cloistered in a monastery and then as a hermit but from that remove had changed the world?

“I wanted to say he helped open Western minds to a deeper appreciation of Eastern spirituality. His writing celebrated the value and sacred common bond of all humanity. He re-established connections to the mystical tradition in Christianity. He challenged countless readers to consider the radical, countercultural path a Christian and any spiritual seeker is called to walk. He was in the forefront of raising essential questions about civil rights and nuclear disarmament (and for this had some of his best-selling books burned by protestors). And, he was a good monk.”

As Paul Pearson concludes, “We certainly mourn the loss of this man, this writer and monk; we mourn the loss of his prophetic vision and his frequently acerbic insights into the modern world; however, we celebrate his life and witness and, perhaps most importantly, remind ourselves of the part we can play in implementing his legacy by being contemplatives in a world of action; by being peacemakers in a world of war, violence, racism and discrimination; and by being bridge builders between faiths in a world of barriers and intolerance.” 

 

Merton: A chronology

(courtesy of The Thomas Merton Center)

1915 — January 31, born in Prades, France

1916 — moves to U.S., lives at Douglaston, L.I. (with his mother’s family)

1921 — his mother dies of cancer

1922 — in Bermuda with his father, who goes there to paint

1925 — to France with his father, lives at St. Antonin

1926 — enters Lycee Ingres, Montauban, France

1928 — to England, Ripley Court school, then to Oakham (1929)

1931 — his father dies of a brain tumor

1932 — at Oakham School he acquires a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge

1933 — visits Italy, spends summer in U.S., enters Cambridge in the fall — study of modern languages (French and Italian)

1934 — leaves Cambridge and returns to U.S.

1935 — enters Columbia University

1937 — at Columbia — editor of the 1937 Yearbook and art editor of the Columbia Jester

1938 — graduates from Columbia, begins work on M.A.

1938 — Nov. 16 — received into the Catholic Church at Corpus Christi Church

1940 — 1941 — teaches English at St. Bonaventure College

1941 — Dec. 10 — enters the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Trappist, Kentucky.

1944 — March 19 — makes simple vows, publishes Thirty Poems

1946A Man in the Divided Sea

1947 — March 19 — solemn vows, publishes Exile Ends in Glory

1948 — publication of best-seller autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain and What Are These Wounds?

1949 — May 26 — ordained priest; Seeds of Contemplation; The Tears of the Blind Lions; The Waters of Siloe

1951-1955 — Master of Scholastics (students for priesthood)

1951The Ascent to Truth

1953The Sign of Jonas; Bread in the Wilderness

1954The Last of the Fathers

1955No Man Is An Island

1955-1965 — Master of Novices

1956The Living Bread

1957The Silent Life; The Strange Islands

1958Thoughts in Solitude

1959The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton; Selected Poems

1960Disputed Questions; The Wisdom of the Desert

1961The New Man; The Behavior of Titans

1961Emblems of a Season of Fury; Life and Holiness;

1964Seeds of Destruction

1965Gandhi on Non-Violence; The Way of Chuang Tzu; Seasons of Celebration

1965-1968 — lives as a hermit on the grounds of the monastery

1966Raids on the Unspeakable; Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

1967Mystics and Zen Masters

1968Monks Pond; Cables to the Ace; Faith and Violence; Zen and the Birds of Appetite

1968 — Dec. 10, dies in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had spoken at a meeting of Asian Benedictines and Cistercians

 

Posthumous Publications:

1969My Argument with the Gestapo; Contemplative Prayer; The Geography of Lograire

1971Contemplation in a World of Action

1973The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton; He Is Risen

1976Ishi Means Man

1977The Monastic Journey; The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton

1979Love and Living

1980The Non-Violent Alternative

1981The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton; Day of a Stranger; Introductions East and West: The Foreign Prefaces of Thomas Merton (reprinted in 1989 under title Honorable Reader: Reflections on My Work)

1982Woods, Shore and Desert: A Notebook, May 1968

1985 The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (Letters, I)

1988A Vow of Conversation: Journals 1964-1965; Thomas Merton in Alaska: The Alaskan Conferences, Journals and Letters

1989The Road to Joy: Letter to New and Old Friends (Letters, II)

1990The School of Charity: Letters on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction (Letters, III)

1993The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers (Letters, IV)

1994Witness to Freedom: Letters in Times of Crisis (Letters, V)

1995 Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation (Journals, I: 1939-1941)

1996Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer (Journals, II: 1941-1952); A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life (Journals, III: 1952-1960); Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (Journals, IV: 1960-1963)

1997Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage (Journals, V: 1963-1965); Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom (Journals VI: 1966-1967)

1998The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey (Journals VII: 1967-1968)

1999The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals

2001Dialogues with Silence

2003The Inner Experience; Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers.

2004Peace in a Post-Christian Era.

2005In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton; Cassian and the Fathers.

2006The Cold War Letters