Our Tradition: The Restless Soul of Thomas Merton

In his early years as a monk, Thomas Merton tried determinedly to give up writing, convinced that it was a worldly occupation and hence incompatible with his monastic vocation. He met determined opposition in this effort, opposition incongruously provided by his religious superiors. Their argument — that Merton should consider writing as part of his monastic work and, even, a part of that work that could be sanctified — was not an argument that he bought easily. In fact, he struggled against it for years. When he finally gave up the struggle and dedicated himself to the role of writer-monk, it was with a kind of wild abandon. Merton became an obsessive writer, and now, some seventeen years after his death, previously unpublished material continues to appear on a fairly regular basis. And it would seem that the end is not yet in sight. The latest item is The Hidden Ground of Love (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, $27.95), which is volume one of a projected four-volume collection of Merton’s letters, edited by William H. Shannon. Shannon has arranged the letters thematically, and those brought together in this first volume come under the heading of “religious experience and social concerns. ”

Despite the repetition of themes and of factual information which makes reading tedious at times, this book contains a good deal of interesting and revealing material. Private correspondence discloses the private person, and through these letters there is exposed to public view sides of Merton which we have not seen at all, or of which we have had only an imperfect glimpse, in his other writings.

Not long after the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, Evelyn Waugh, who was not particularly impressed by the quality of writing displayed in that famous work, suggested to Merton that, by way of improving his style, he might concentrate his attention on letter writing, and make a serious effort to turn it into an art form. On the basis of the not insignificant sample we have before us, it must be admitted that Merton did not succeed in raising his epistolary productions to the level where they could provide seminar stuff for English graduate students. And little wonder, given the volume of correspondence he was trying to keep up with. One does come across some wonderfully crafted letters in this collection, but most are characterized by a respectable though unremarkable journeyman’s prose.

Though not exactly dazzling here, Merton’s style is noteworthy for its eccentricities, one of the most prominent of which is the large amount — excessive, really — of hyperbole to be found in it. Hyperbole is effective precisely to the degree that it is employed sparingly. Its overuse constitutes a kind of linguistic protesting too much. Consider what Merton has to say on the subject of war. War, especially nuclear war, is a serious subject, and just for that reason it is necessary to talk about it in precise, measured terms. Thirty years ago Merton wrote “the human race as a whole is on the verge of a crime that will be second to no other except the crucifixion of Christ.” Ten years later he was claiming that many Catholics in America “imagine themselves somehow deputed by the Lord to exterminate His enemies in a nuclear crusade.” And in 1966 he told a correspondent that people who did not share the view he was advocating “[total] lack [of] all moral or practical insight whatever into the human realities involved.” I picked the above examples at random, but actually these letters are replete with language of this sort. What are we to make of it?

Merton’s exaggerated language can be explained in part by the fact that he was an enthusiast. He responded to events in a forthright, energetic way and that kind of response, quite naturally, is reflected in his language. Just as Hemingway’s style is marked by understatement, so one of the hallmarks of Merton’s style is overstatement, which was itself a function of the emotional investment he made in the things that commanded his interest.

But this is superficial. On a deeper level, Merton’s exaggerated language is explained by his exaggerated perception. I suspect that, as more careful scholarly attention is given to Merton’s writings on social issues, it will become more apparent that he frequently labored under a real deficiency with respect to scope of vision. The “picture” to which he was responding was sometimes an odd composite of hard facts and soft facts, of lacunary interpretations from sources reliable and not so reliable, and of substantial contributions from his own lively and assertive imagination. Noting his description of the “Catholic position on nuclear war” as one which accepted “without a qualm the extermination of millions of helpless innocent adults,” or his confident assertion that Americans in general display a “total unquestioning acceptance of the bomb without distinctions,” one is better able to appreciate how exaggeration is a form of distortion. A reader is hard pressed to take pronouncements like this seriously, however seriously they were made.

There is no gainsaying that Merton could display marvelous perspicacity about one or another specific facet of a social issue — I think, offhand, of his analysis of the attitudes of the white liberal with respect to the phenomenon of racism. But he was not particularly adept at comprehensive social analysis, perhaps because he lacked the patience for it, or perhaps because he lacked the talent. Another related and very practical problem, already alluded to, involved the quality of Merton’s knowledge of the social scene upon which he was commenting. The truth was that he did not always have a good idea of what actually was going on, and he knew this. Indeed, he speaks about the problem with disarming honesty. He admits, in 1961 (by this time more and more social commentary is showing up in his writing), that “naturally in the monastery I am not very well versed in politics.” Four years later he informs Dorothy Day: “It is more and more clear to me that if I pretended to keep up with politics here and tried to utter profound judgments from my solitude I would be deceiving myself and perhaps others.” Finally, the year before he died, he specified the “real trouble: my lack of ability to communicate what I mean and to say what really needs to be said, because I am out of touch.” But Merton, like many another great personage, was not always able to follow the lead of his own best perceptions, and on the basis of limited, sporadic, sometimes selective information, he continued to make sweeping judgments about large, intricately complicated social issues. Whatever “prophetic” quality such judgments might have had, their relationship to actualities to which they purportedly respond is sometimes considerably less than obvious.

In assuming the tasks of social commentator, Merton focused a good deal of his attention on American culture; this fact is worth pausing over for a moment. Here his limitations are most in evidence. On the one hand Merton would freely concede that he really knew very little about the country — he maintained that he was essentially a European in his outlook — and yet, on the other hand, he could not stop making cavalier assessments of the American scene that in some instances amount to little more than caricature. His shaky status as a student of American culture is strangely revealed in his attitude toward John Courtney Murray, a master at the work in which Merton dabbled. Merton was dismissive of Murray, at one juncture suggesting that Murray was, somehow, in conspiratorial cahoots with the Pentagon. What we see in this, I think, is an oblique admission on Merton’s part of his uncertainty about his own position.

The overriding weakness in Merton’s social commentary was his penchant for too readily subscribing to dichotomies, which are altogether too simple and clean. His general view of East and West is a good example; he tended to idealize the former and, in the fashion typical of twentieth-century Western intellectuals, denigrate the latter.

Ironies abound in Merton, and this serves as a fine instance, for Merton was quite aware of the weakness that I am citing against him. Throughout his works — it serves almost as a theme — one will find arrestingly appropriate things said about simplistic thinking, about the danger of falling into the trap of viewing the world in terms of the cramping dichotomy of “We” versus “They.” In a letter he had written to a friend in New York who had left one wife to marry another, Merton took pains to make clear that he was cognizant of the kinds of complexities inherent in such sticky matters and of the need, therefore, to be cautious in one’s judgments. Unfortunately Merton was not able consistently to apply this sound principle to social issues. There Merton too often ignored complexities and too quickly subscribed to glib judgments. Take, for example, his estimates of some of the major political leaders of his day. Eisenhower, “with his whole administration, was a complete failure and did much harm to the country.” Kennedy, in whom he had “little confidence,” is nonetheless seen as “all right,” and “fairly capable.” Johnson is a “well-meaning but inept goof.” And what about Nikita Khrushchev? He is viewed as “far from being the nastiest Red.” As a matter of fact, “he is really the nicest and most amiable. There are others much worse.”

There is one characteristic of these letters that puzzles me. I do not quite know what to make of it. Merton was the quintessentially ingratiating correspondent. He strains to assure those to whom he writes, whoever they are, that he is “with” them, on their side, indeed, one of them. To Erich Fromm he proclaims: “I am a complete Jew.” A South American correspondent is told: “I have not only the face of a South American but also the heart.” Another correspondent receives the information that Merton has more in common with the Czech Jan Milc “than with many American Catholics.” He writes to blacks that he, like they, feel dissociated from the white community. Zen Buddhists are notified that they are dealing with a fellow Zennist, and the off-beat can rest content that their correspondent too is to be counted among the off-beat. There is something vaguely admirable about this, but there is something unsettling about it as well. What kind of compulsion was Merton working under here? What was the quality of this odd liberality, which allowed him so variously to give himself away?

Perhaps what we are seeing is simply the manifestation of something, which is to be found in all of us —the desire to be liked, to be accepted —, but which seemed to have been especially pronounced in Merton. Fr. Dan Walsh, who had been one of Merton’s instructors at Columbia and who remained a life-long friend, once said “Tom Merton always wanted to be one of the boys.” The key fits. Merton was a gregarious, convivial soul, and that explains his marvelous openness to a broad diversity of people. But there was a peculiar intensity to that gregariousness — if that’s the proper word for it — which is shown in the way Merton again and again in these letters attempts to take on the coloration of his correspondent, the way he goes out of his way to assure them that he is “all right”: “You see that my concept of Christianity is far from being an old-maidish theology of hiding in a corner of the house and standing on [a] chair for fear of heretical mice.”

But another side of Merton is revealed in these letters, running dramatically counter to his gregariousness, and that is his individualism. Throughout his life Merton fostered an image of himself as piquantly unconventional, a kind of rebel-at-large whose duty was to serve as gadfly to the establishment. He obviously enjoyed this role, which was inspired not a little by his strong Romantic propensities, and it is with scarcely disguised glee that he was reporting, in 1962, that “The top brass in the American hierarchy is getting wind of my articles and is expressing displeasure.” The year before he died he was clearly bragging that he was “a notorious maverick in the Order,” and that he was “under constant surveillance.” That was Merton’s Romantic individualism, and one can wonder if it did not at times take a distinctly juvenile turn. However, Merton’s individualism also had a religious dimension. If Merton regarded himself as a loner and an outsider, someone whose “vocation Was essentially that of a pilgrim and exile in life,” it was for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This dimension of his individualism helps explain his monastic vocation and, more particularly, his captivation with solitude.

For over twenty-live years Merton was a member of the community of the Abbey of Gethsemani. Given the internal restlessness of the man, so richly documented in these letters, that may turn out to be the single most amazing fact of his life. While he stayed at Gethsemani, he never seemed to be completely at home, and periodically he toyed with possibilities of going elsewhere. But restlessness sometimes gave way to downright confusion, particularly with respect to his loyalties to religion and vocation. The Hidden Ground of Love would seem to undercut the contention that Merton, in the last years of life, was quite without ambiguities regarding his commitment to the church and to monasticism. “Stay away from Catlicks, they are poison,” is the facetious advice he gives to a friend. But there is no facetiousness in his tone when, in 1967, he fulminates to the effect that he was “simply browned off and afraid of Catholics.” He continues: “I’d be perfectly content to forget I am a Catholic.” Merton reached the point where he allowed himself the supposition that he was “sneaking out the back door of the Church without telling myself that this is what I am doing.” The year he died he made the startling confession that, “As a priest I am a burnt-out case, repeat, burnt-out case.”

Regarding Merton and monasticism, the letters record the apparently continuous tension that existed between Merton and his abbot, Dom James Fox. We are getting only one side of the story here, of course, and when we hear Merton refer to “the complete irrationality of my Abbot,” we have a pretty good idea of his bias. As far as can be determined, it seems that Abbot Fox’s governing fault was his unwillingness to grant Merton the kind of concessions he felt he deserved, especially with respect to freedom to travel. It appears that Abbot Fox took seriously the notion that the Cistercians of the Strict Observance was an enclosed order; this made him, in Merton’s eyes, someone who was “rigid in his conservatism,” and not even “an order from the Pope himself would move the man.” Merton was elated at the election of Abbot Fox’s replacement, Dom Flavian Burns. He described Abbot Burns as “a real good man,” and assumed, correctly, that the new abbot would take a more liberal attitude than did his predecessor toward traveling Trappists.

Merton nurtured a long love affair with the idea of solitude, and the last three years of his life represented the culmination of a dream. In 1965 he was given permission by Abbot Fox to live regularly in a hermitage built in a wooded area on monastery property. Whatever strictly spiritual benefits accrued to Merton through the eremitical life, he reports that it had as well advantages of a decidedly mundane character. Fr. Daniel Berrigan was informed that living in the hermitage allowed Merton to get out from under “the stifling mentality” of his monastic community. Merton tells another correspondent that he loves the monks of Gethsemani “but they might as well be in China.” Later, writing to the same correspondent, he displays a less expansive attitude toward his confreres. He asserts that “monastic life here is an idol,” and describes his monastic brothers as “for the most part idiots.” Merton the hermit, it would seem, was developing some new perspectives.

For years before he began to live as a hermit Merton wrote often and always glowingly about the life of solitude. Apparently it represented for him the quintessence of religious life. But, however that might be, it is clear that he was convinced that his own vocation led to solitude. This was the will of God for him. If only he would be allowed to live as a hermit, everything would then fall into place. Merton’s letters raise some interesting questions concerning this matter, the most pointed of which would be this: Did Merton perhaps overestimate his abilities to live the eremitical life? The question is prompted by the fact that, once Merton begins actually living the life of solitude, he begins to say some rather odd things about it. One is struck by what he chooses to emphasize. He felt compelled to insist, for example, that what most importantly distinguished his hermit’s life was its secular character. From his woodsy retreat, where he is living a more “worldly” life, he claims that he is “subtly infecting the monastery with worldly ideas.” He seemed to enjoy the notion that he could no longer be considered an integral part of a religious community. “I am in a position where I am practically laicized and deinstitutionalized . . . My hermit life is expressly a lay life.” He continues to read the Bible “in peace and fruitlessly,” but for the most part he has given up the “Catholic stuff,” which, he admits, might represent “bad faith” on his part.

In 1964 Merton wrote “there is a terrible quality of restlessness, suspicion and nervousness about the mind of this nation.” I cite this otherwise not unusual remark because it struck me that if “mind of Thomas Merton” were to be substituted for “mind of the nation” the statement would stand as a fair description of what is being revealed to us in this fascinating and disconcerting collection of letters.

  • D.Q. McInerny

    D.Q. McInerny taught philosophy at the College of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota when he wrote this article.

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