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Sunday, January 02, 2005

Towards a Critical Appreciation of Thomas Merton

A little more than a year ago, Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead voice their disappointment with the inclusion of Thomas Merton in the draft of the new National Adult Catechism in an article for Catholic World News (The New National Adult Catechism Revisited CWNews, Nov. 2003). Their article contained a blatantly slanderous and damning portrayal of Thomas Merton as an unfaithful Catholic:
. . . we now turn immediately to the very first "story" in Part 1, Chapter 1, of the draft NAC, and we find that, incredibly, the supposed "exemplary Catholic" featured in this first story is none other than that lapsed monk, Thomas Merton, a one-time professed Catholic religious, who later left his monastery, and, at the end of his life, was actually off wandering in the East, seeking the consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality. Now it is true that Thomas Merton was a gifted writer, which in part explains why he continues to have votaries today; he wrote beautiful words about the needs of the human heart in its search for truth and grace. Some of these words are quoted here, and apparently were the pretext for featuring Merton in this chapter. The chapter is actually richer than that, though, and features at the end some wonderful quotations from St. Augustine.

But Thomas Merton was no St. Augustine. The latter, though he had sinned greatly, nevertheless devoted the rest of his life to the strict practice and promotion of the Christian faith. He was all the more effective in that he understood what the lack of faith entailed. Thomas Merton, on the other hand, converted when he was fairly young and only later, after he had incurred the solemn responsibilities that accompany religious vows, did he apparently give in to "itching ears" and went off "searching" in the manner of those modern seekers who will not be tied down by concrete demands of genuine religious faith -- especially the moral demands.

This chapter actually speaks about "those who have drifted away from the faith," yet does not see the irony inherent in the fact that Thomas Merton was himself apparently one of these. We do not take notice of this in order to judge him, but only in order to indicate that he can scarcely be considered an "exemplary Catholic." The very fact that the editors of the this text could have included him as such in their very first chapter immediately casts doubt on their understanding of Catholic teaching and practice and the needs of contemporary Catholics, especially in the wake of the scandals of other priests unfaithful to their vows. The choice of Merton here surely resembles the recent choice of the pro-abortion Leon Panetta as a member of the bishops' National Review Board on clerical sex abuse -- one of those mistakes that ought not to have been made. And this will undoubtedly be the reaction of many Catholics if this particular story is retained in the final NAC draft; it will likely be taken as one more piece of evidence that the American bishops still don't "get it."

Blogger and fellow member of St. Blog's Parish Bill Cork has recently defended Merton against the slander that he had "left the Church", pointing out that:

Merton was not a "lapsed monk," nor a "one-time professed Catholic religious," nor did he ever leave his monastery. He remained a faithful Catholic and a faithful member of the Trappists until he died; he is buried at Gethsemane as "Fr. Louis." He was not "actually off wandering in the East," but went to Thailand for a conference of Christian and Eastern monks, and had other dialogues with leaders of Eastern religions along the way; he died at the Thailand conference when he accidentally pulled an electric fan onto himself. This is simple history known to anyone who knows anything about Merton.

Unfortunately, Wrenn & Whitehead's critical article is now suspected as having contributed to the decision of the U.S. Bishops to replace the profile of Merton with American Catholic Elizabeth Ann Seton (the rationale being: "to provide more gender balance, because most of the other profiles [included in the catechism] are of men"). Merton's rejection has sparked protest of hundreds of Catholics, as reported by the Louisville Courier ("Hundreds want Merton back in Catholic guide" January 1, 2005) and monitered by Dan Phillips, who runs a popular website on all things Merton).

The International Merton Society has released open letter to Bishop Donald Wuerl, chair of the committee charged with writing the catechism, and USCCB president Bishop William Skylstad, questioning Donald Wuerl's claim that "we don't know all the details of the searching at the end of his life":

As for the "secondary" consideration ". . . we are aware of no reputable Merton scholars or even of careful readers of Merton who think that his interest in Eastern religions toward the end of his life, which led to his Asian journey and his untimely death, in any way compromised his commitment to the Catholic Christianity that he had embraced thirty years before. On the contrary, a reading of the major biographies by James Forest, Michael Mott and William Shannon, of The Other Side of the Mountain, the final volume of his journals, of his retreat conferences in Thomas Merton in Alaska, given immediately before leaving for Asia, and of his final talk on the day of his death, published in The Asian Journal, confirm that it was because of the deep grounding in his own Catholic, Cistercian, contemplative tradition that he was able to enter into meaningful dialogue with representatives of other religious traditions like the Dalai Lama, who has repeatedly said that it was his encounter with Merton that first allowed him to recognize the beauty and authentic spiritual depths of Christianity.

As Merton himself said in a classic passage in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (published two years before his death):

"I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot 'affirm' and 'accept,' but first one must say 'yes' where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it."

If that wasn't enough to persuade Wrenn & Whitehead, let's hear a refutation from Jim Forest himself [photo, left], from a lecture given at Boston College (Nov. 13, 1995):

Because Merton was drawn to develop relationships with non-Christians -- Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists -- casual readers occasionally form the impression that Merton's bond with Christianity was wearing thin during the latter years of his life and that he was window-shopping for something else. It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton's life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton's hermitage -- he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious. The Dalai Lama has remarked, "When I think of the word Christian, immediately I think -- Thomas Merton!"

Merton - Conventional Catholic and Otherwise

Whatever position one takes in the present debate, it must be recognized that Merton was anything but a conventional Trappist monk.

On one hand, Merton very much catered to such a portrayal as a "traditional" Catholic -- he wrote a spiritual biography heralded as one of the most influential religious works of the twentieth century (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948); he produced lengthy meditations on traditional Catholic subjects like the Eucharist (The Living Bread, 1956), the Carmelite spirituality of St. John of the Cross (The Ascent to Truth, 1951) and the monastic calling (The Silent Life, 1957).

On the other hand, the latter period of Merton's relatively brief life did everything to call his portrayal as a "traditional Catholic" into question: he ventered into political activism in the 1960's (protesting the Vietnam war, racial segregation and the nuclear arms race); displayed a genuine interest in other religions and engaged in dialogue with their practicioners (including D.T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lhama) in a spirit that anticipated Vatican II's Nostra Aetate, and journeyed to Japan and India to attend conferences on Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

There is no denying that the later Merton had changed to some degree in his thought and attitude toward the Catholic Church. In fact, according to Merton's friend Edward Rice, he went on to say

I have become very different than what I used to be. The man who began this journal [The Sign of Jonas] is dead, just as the man who finished The Seven Storey Mountain when this journal began is also dead, and what is more, the man who was the central figure in The Seven Story Mountain was dead over and over . . . The Seven Story Mountain is the work of a man I had never even heard of." [The Man in a Sycamore Tree, p 101].

The remark can be interpreted on a number of levels. Rice interprets it as a sign of Merton's disappointment with Trappist life, that it did not bring the peace and contentment he had envisioned when initially becoming a monk. But perhaps Merton's statement can be read as well as a sign of his personal exasperation with Seven Storey Mountain, which propelled him into the public eye and branded him as a kind of "poster boy for American Catholicism" sought after by thousands of adoring readers -- not an easy situation for a Trappist monk attempting to live a life of solitude, seeking to relenquish his ego in the quest for God.

However much we may appreciate Seven Storey Mountain, one can also recognize an underlying current of pious revulsion at the secular world, a distinct attitude which laid the groundwork for further change -- as can be seen by Merton's account of his spiritual epiphany en route to the city of Louisville in The Sign of Jonas:The Sign of Jonas:

I wondered how I would react at meeting once again, face to face, the wicked world. I met the world and found it no longer so wicked after all. Perhaps the things I resented about the world when I left it were defects of my own that I had projected upon it. Now, on the contrary, I found that everything stirred me with a deep and mute sense of compassion . . . I seemed to have lost an eye for merely exterior detail and to have discovered, instead, a deep sense of respect and love and pity for the souls that such details never fully reveal. I went through the city, realizing for the first time in my life how good are all the people in the world and how much value they have in the sight of God."

The Universal Appeal of Thomas Merton

Jim Knight and Edward Rice, two of Merton's close friends, published an online recollections of their memories of Merton -- The Real Merton -- resisting the characterization of their friend as a triumphant Catholic ("a portrait that was unrecognizable, that of a plastic saint, a monk interested mainly in pulling nonbelievers, and believers in other faiths, into the one true religion"). According to Knight and Rice:

The Merton we knew, who is still in the lives of both of us, was a different man, and monk, from the saintly person of pre-fabricated purity that has become his image these days. He was a real person, not a saint; he was a mystic searching for God, but a God that crossed the boundaries of all religions; his was not a purely Christian soul. He developed closer spiritual ties than Church authorities will ever admit to the Eastern religions, Hinduism as well as Buddhism. In fact just before his appalling accidental death in December 1968, he was saying openly that Christianity could be greatly improved by a strong dose of Buddhism and Hinduism into its faith. These are things the record needs.

For us Merton was one of the seminal figures of our time. He was deeply curious about all religions, all areas of thought and philosophy. Rice says: "The Church has not done right by him. In fact, the Church has wronged him, and continues to wrong him, by glossing over, by evading the universality of his thought. The Church wants to obscure his basic human nature, his reaching out to other people in a desire to create a common bond, not necessarily based on religion."

Edward Rice, who sponsored Merton's conversion, goes on to challenge what he calls the "Thomas Merton Cult":

"['The Thomas Merton cult'] presents Merton as a plastic saint," Rice says, "a contemporary Little Flower, a sweet, sinless individual who has a direct line to God. But the God some people see Merton communicating with is not the God that I think Merton would have been praying to. I am not comfortable with the plastic saint image of Merton; he was no such thing. I see Merton as an individual in the grand scheme, and it makes no difference whether he is approached as a Roman Catholic monk or a Buddhist lama. He was Merton, and he has his influence as Merton."

Granted, Rice's vision of salvation may be deemed more universalistic and non-traditional than most Catholics ("in Paradise with Merton, Rice says, are Lao Tse, Isaac the Blind, Ibn el Arab[i], Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Charles de Foucau[l]d, . . . "an endless number, hundreds, thousands of saints of all faiths, some with no faith at all"), and I am not altogether certain where such a "Thomas Merton Cult" is to be found (the appreciations I've read of Merton readily acknowledge his defects in character), but I believe he is nevertheless correct in challenging those who seek to claim Merton entirely as Catholic, who could only be appreciated in the context of Catholicism and denying his universal appeal by other religious, or even non-religious folk.

Merton's Interest in Other Religions - Two Closing Observations

It would be mistaken to assume that Merton's interest in other religions was a post-conversion manifestation of his disappointment with Catholicism, as alleged by Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead. I question this because Merton displayed an interest in the other religions (especially those of the East) from the time he was a college student at Columbia University.

For one thing, the young Merton was impressed by the spiritual conversion of Alduous Huxley (from materialism to mysticism recognizing "a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds . . . [as can be found] among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions"), and who was fascinated by Huxley's investigation of mysticism in the world's religions The Perennial Philosophy.

Likewise, it was at Columbia University, that Merton met a Hindu spiritual pilgrim -- Bramachari -- who first encouraged him to read St. Augustine's Confessions and The Imitation of Christ, and thus played a part in his journey to Catholicism. Both Merton's encounters with Huxley and Bramachari are described in The Seven Storey Mountain). According to Alexander Lipski (Thomas Merton and Asia: His Quest for Utopia), around the same time he met Bramachari Merton also was reading the Hindu scholar Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (initially in connection with his M.A. thesis on William Blake).

Again, to borrow from Bill Cork, much of this is common knowledge to anybody who has studied Merton or has read Merton's biography. I suppose the real question here is not when did Merton begin to study Eastern religions, but rather to what degree did Merton's Catholicism inform and influence his post-Christian exploration of Eastern religions? -- Write and Wrenn have their own conclusions, but so do Robert Forest, Jim Knight, Edward Rice and a number of Merton scholars worldwide.

That said, Merton's later writings on other religions -- particularly those on Buddhism -- should nevertheless be read with great care and critical judgement by the laity. Raymond Bailey (curiously, a Southern Baptist minister who became Director of the Thomas Merton Studies Center at Bellannine College in the early 80s) goes into detail as to why this caution is necessary in his study Thomas Merton on Mysticism (Doubleday Image, 1975). It's a little long, but worth repeating in full:

Merton's writings on Eastern mysticism are tempered by repeated allusions to traditional Christian symbols. His diaries written in the last months he spent at the hermitage record his preferences for the Fathers for reading in the cottage and for the works of the Zen masters in the fields. However, his published works are not always instructive as to how the Zen experience can contribute to the Christian experience or how the study of Eastern religions or the practice of oriental techniques engender or complement the Christian experience. Some of his published works might well be interpeted as syncretistic and might leave the reader with the im pression that it does not matter what religious expression one's spirituality takes as long as it has broken through the facade of the illusionary self.

Published discourses excerpted from continuing dialogue between or among two spiritual masters do not always mean the same thing to the general reader as to the dialogue participants. Few Westerners are endowed with the ability to think "oriental" or to translate their Western experience into Eastern modes. Some are deluded by teachers who interpet oriental an occidental religious concepts as univocal when in fact the differences are profound [emphasis mine]. The casual reader might overlook the fact that Merton spent half his life disciplining himself and reaching a level where he could think and write in terms of the "universal" man and transculturation. Even then, he considered himself a beginnner who had much to learn.

The ease with which he accepted the potential worth of Eastern spirituality at this stage was undoubtedly due to his "Augustinian bent." Augustine refused to differentiate "truth," contending that all truth is of God, and th erefore, revelatory. An accurate impression of Merton or understanding of his thought cannnot be gained from any single work bearing his name. He is open to abuse and distortion by one using his writings as prooftexts for a position on almost any theological question. Because of the revelatory nature of his work, i.e, the record of personal dialectic, there is a certain danger in isolating any one work or phase of his work as definitive of him or his philosophy.

Should Merton be recognized in the new American Catechism?

When it comes to Merton, I find myself agreeing with Robert Royal, on why -- despite his apparent flaws -- we may regard Merton as worthy of praise:

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.

Does Merton deserve placement in the USCCB's Catechism for adult American Catholics? -- I'm inclined to think that Robert Royal might say yes for the reasons stated above, even with due respect to the concerns raised by Merton's interest in Eastern religions. I would answer in the affirmative as well, although I admit here to being a little biased in the matter, since it was through reading Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day that I discovered and was led to the Catholic faith in the first place.

I would also question (if the Louisville Courier-Journal is correct) Bishop Wuerl's justification that young people "had no idea" who Merton was -- as if he were an eclectic relic of the early 20th century better swept underneath the rug, whose life and thought simply had no relevance for Catholics of today. Judging by the staying power of Merton in bookstores and conferences on Merton attended by those interested in "the silent life" of contemplation, perhaps Bishop Wuerl underestimates the prevalence Merton has in the hearts of the laity, and his influence (even today) in leading souls to the Catholic faith.

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