I don’t know if I qualify as a real fan of Thomas Merton or not. The Catholic monk who rivaled C.S. Lewis as one of the 20th century’s most influential Christian voices has always intrigued me though. For years, I had read Merton only in excerpts. Having converted to Catholicism as a worldly, urbane 20 something and drawn quickly to monastic life, he spent the majority of his adult life at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. His insight into the role and nature of solitude and silence in the life of the believer, markers of the Trappist order, is a gift to the whole Church and the whole world. At his best, Merton’s fearlessness to wrestle with his own demons and cultivate awareness of the divine whisper produced some of the finest and clearest spiritual writing of the last century. There are sections in books like New Seeds of Contemplation in particular that deeply moved me.
It was of course the autobiography of his conversion, The Seven Storey Mountain, that made him famous. I had never read that classic work until I went on silent retreat last year at the Abbey of Gethsemane. There first and foremost for a time of soul searching and prayer, my secondary objective was to get my head around Merton while I was there. I read Seven Storey Mountain in 3 short days, an experience which gave me something like the headache you get when you eat ice cream too fast. I admired the young Merton I encountered there. I admired his idealism and zero to sixty intensity for Christ and life together with his brothers. I was moved by his profound sense of reverence. Merton wrote quite seriously about how one of the central reasons he wanted to join monastic life was so that he could live day and night in the same building where the host (the communion bread and wine) was housed, a sentiment which I found heartbreakingly beautiful. That palpable sense of reverence and awe, things we never seem to risk having too much of, got hold of me. And yet I enjoyed Seven Storey Mountain as an outsider, not an insider. His was a voice I enjoyed from a distance. That Merton was serious, even humorless, and certainly rigid in his understanding of orthodox Catholicism. While it was intense to read his autobiography staying a few feet away from his grave, it did not change my life. Some of Merton’s classic works, like No Man is an Island, flatly failed to sustain my interest despite numerous attempts to access it.
Coming from the world I come from…among Protestants and Pentecostals, I assume Merton’s legacy is mixed. Only the most obtuse fundamentalist would deny the validity or even divine inspiration behind Merton’s insight into the life of prayer. On the other hand, the ever-seeking Merton spent a lot of time exploring Eastern religion in his later years, and had some difficulties in his personal life that I assume lessen his evangelical street cred, legacy wise (I’m sure Merton would be devastated). Even in his own writing career, Merton is a bit of a moving target–I assume those drawn to certain chapters of his public life would be less inclined towards others. So to that end, I will make a few disclaimers–and not look back again.
I do not feel well versed enough in the Merton canon to know whether or not he did or did not become more inclusive than I would feel comfortable with in terms of Christian orthodoxy. I do know that I have read things in Merton that strike me as problematic. Right now there is great concern that perhaps there is a movement towards a kind of open-ended, bland kind of tolerance threatening key doctrines of the Church. I agree with that, actually. But I also think in this maddening environment of John MacArthurism/Piperism (I’m sure “McCarthyism” is what I really meant to say), there is also an uncritical backlash where there is no room to engage great thinkers of the Church we might disagree with, holding on to that we feel can nourish enough and leaving behind that which does not. I am no more inclined to the latter of those options than I am the former, and am thus quite comfortable to share insights gleaned from a complicated but gifted voice, even though he pushes my own buttons (including in the primary section I will feature here tomorrow).
Moving on…by a happy accident, Amanda picked up Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable at our favorite used bookstore (Book Buyers on Central ave., in case you were wondering) the other day. Last week I picked it up casually, and was astounded by what I found there. As usual, there were a handful of essays that did little for me. But there were several of the best pieces of contemporary spiritual writing I suppose I’ve ever read.
This was a different, older Merton, one whose voice I could understand better. He seemed alternately more at home in his skin, full of mischief and far less humorless than the young man who wrote Seven Storey Mountain; and yet full of urgency, tired of censoring his thoughts and eager to apply with precision thoughts formed in silence to the real world. The Merton I encountered there was testier, funnier, and more unfettered than I had imagined. Broad in his reading and interested in nearly everything, the restless soul who wrote Raids on the Unspeakable was one I felt kinship with. While I do not possess such gifts, the reckless, prophetic side of Merton that takes no prisoners and stares unblinking at the real problems and the real beauty of his world gives me a glimpse of the man I want to be. There is a restraint to Merton’s earlier work that, even while brilliant, made him feel buttoned up to me even given his honesty. But this is jazz Merton, he’s was making soul music here.
The essays are loosely eschatological though otherwise thematically diverse. His opening essay, “Rain on the Rhinocerus,” is a stunning and eternally relevant critique of technology and the role of the city in driving us away from the rhythms of nature we were given. His prose elegy upon the death of Flannery O’Connor was incisive and fun. His “Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann” where he contends that those that are deemed the most sane by our culture are in fact the ones most likely to end the world is worth the price of admission. And nothing tops the elegance, heartache or heartbreak of “The Time at the End of the World is the Time of No Room,” perhaps the most moving, prophetic Christmas meditation I’ve ever read.
Yet in terms of sheer impact, nothing hit me quite as hard as the last 2 pages of his essay “To Each His Darkness,” where Merton describes the beautiful inconsistency of mercy.
(Part Two to follow tomorrow)