The Monk from Manhattan: Thomas Merton’s Tantalizing Message for Modern Catholics

Religious conversions must rank among the most profound occurrences, yet far from being orderly, solemn and majestic businesses—resembling, say, an elegant Anglican church service—they are usually bumbling and embarrassing affairs.

God won’t even bestow on them a little literary dignity. They rarely have the definable beginnings so necessary for a successful novel; the plots are turgid; and the denouement, when it finally arrives, turns out to be anything but a neat ending. For those going through the confusing process, it is immensely comforting to know that this is “normal”—that they are not, somehow, doing their conversion wrong.

For those of us who were on the religious fence for many years, Thomas Merton was a godsend. Here was a man whose writings were witty, compassionate, reassuring and eminently accessible. Here, finally, was piety with a human face.

The legacy of Thomas Merton—who died 20 years ago this December while attending a conference in Bangkok—is mixed. Much attention has been paid the politicization and ecumenism of his later years—his friendships with the radical Berrigans and with feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, his interest in Asian religion and Zen meditation in particular, his growing involvement in the anti-nuclear movement—and probably a good number of Merton’s admirers were drawn to this side of the man.

Merton’s larger appeal, however, preceded these political leanings. His most popular work, the autobiographical Seven Storey Mountain was published in October 1948. When it burst onto the scene, its immense popularity took everyone—not least its publisher Harcourt Brace—by surprise. The most formal and structured of his books, The Seven Storey Mountain chronicles Merton’s life from his birth in the French Pyrenees, through his student years at Columbia University, to his life as a monk in the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky.

Raised by two bohemians, he was carted from country to country as his father eked out a living for his family by painting landscapes. His father was Anglican, his mother a Quaker, and neither was particularly religious—although the elder Merton demonstrated a fuzzy religiosity in the form of a heightened aesthetic outlook on life.

That religious conversions can emerge from an accretion of seemingly insignificant impressions is something few religious thinkers are willing to credit. Dostoevsky very much believed this to be the case, and The Brothers Karamazov can be read as the elaborate tracing of this thesis. Just as Alyosha’s spiritual development was propelled by haphazard images and memories, so Merton’s faith was to a large extent forged by the cumulative effects of his father’s natural goodness; his childhood spent among the ancient chapels and monasteries of France and Italy; and his visits with a family which, in the quietness and sincerity of their religious devotion, instilled in Merton a respect for the saintliness of everyday life.

Merton was a democrat to his core. By his example and in his writings he emphasized the necessary inclusivity of the Catholic faith. There was no patronizing edge to his tolerance. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander he emphasized that “No one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him…. Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.”

This would seem an obvious point, incumbent on anyone devoted to spreading the Good News, but in truth it is a quality that many religious thinkers lack. Merton won such a loyal following by treating his readers as equals. He rejected, explicitly, the notion that those who have already “got” religion are sitting pretty in box seats with unobstructed views of the deity; that they have won some sort of gnostic knowledge denied their flawed fellow men. Throughout the collection of essays that make up No Man Is an Island Merton spells out his egalitarian beliefs. There the contemplative describes how “ordinary life, embraced with perfect faith, can be more saintly and supernatural than a spectacularly ascetic career. Such humility dares to be ordinary, and that is something beyond the reach of spiritual pride. Pride always longs to be unusual. Humility not so.”

Tidy Packages

The call to faith is open to everyone, and there is no clearer evidence of this than the all-too-human ways God wryly chooses to prod people into an awareness of His existence. To expect a call to faith to come in a tidy package is not only unrealistic, given the vicissitudes of life and the complexity of personality, it is actually a form of hubris. We do not deserve such a unilateral overture, and God will not let us get away with waiting for the gift of faith to fall into our lap. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton describes how his own movement towards Catholicism and the priesthood took place in fits and starts. There were brief periods in his youth when he went through what he describes as “religious phases,” but they didn’t last and, Merton is careful to point out, were not necessarily either particularly prescient or meaningful.

Merton further endears himself to readers by describing the immense discomfort he felt with the various manifestations of his calling, especially with his early efforts at prayer and public worship. Had he described these experiences as graceful events he would have been vastly untrue to life, as any newcomer to religion can attest. “One thing that Catholics do not realize about converts,” writes Merton “is the tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which they feel about praying publicly in a Catholic church. The effort it takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort.”

When he first dared to pray, at age 18, in one of the beautiful churches he often frequented during his time in Rome, he picked a church that was almost completely empty. Still, “I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes. As I knelt to pray, I wondered if she would run out and accuse me at once to the priests, with scandalous horror, for coming and praying in their church—as if Catholics were perfectly content to have a lot of heretic tourists walking about their churches with complete indifference and irreverence, and would get angry if one of them so far acknowledged God’s presence there as to go on his knees for a few seconds and say a prayer!”

And even though this experience was a moving one, it was also thoroughly intimidating: so much so that he fled and sought refuge in another church, this one completely deserted. There he found he could not pray at all, “being scared by some carpenters and scaffolding.” Such ignoble experiences can set one’s conversion back months, even years, but that, Merton makes clear, is not a sign that God is making inefficient use of His, or our time. For in the push-pull of the religious calling one is being thoroughly tested: How powerful is your pride? To what extent are you willing to change, not only your behavior, but your entire image of yourself? Is your commitment serious enough that you are willing to display it publicly?

Even when, at the age of 25, Merton decided to enter a cloister (a Franciscan order) he was seized with doubt as to his motives and precipitated a crisis: a few weeks before he was due to enter the novitiate he described his past life to his priest in sufficiently gory terms that the Franciscans were duty-bound to reject him as a candidate. God was not reneging on his call, He was simply forcing Merton to take stock of the depth of his convictions. And it took very little hindsight for Merton to admit that the decision had in fact been a rash and emotional one.

Merton was an accomplished writer, and he must have known that it would have made for a tighter plot line had he experienced his calling in a single picturesque blow, joined a monastery, and been done with it. To describe all the setbacks that befell him, though, was a far more astute move.

It is in this radical honesty that Merton plays his winning card—a manifest concern for the psychological, as well as spiritual state, of the budding convert. It is also here that the monk’s liberal sensibility is most evident. But a distinction must immediately be drawn between two very different forms of liberalism. There is a liberalism whose very essence is ease; it is embracing, tolerant, affirming; its inclusivity is non-judgmental. If Merton can be called a liberal Catholic, it was not of this open-admission variety. His liberalism was, rather, an overflow of his faith, which was—and one suspects many of his fans choose to overlook this point—rigorously traditional.

Non-liberal Regimen

Merton may have seemed an easy-going fellow, but one must remember that, during the years in which most of his books were written, he was, by his own choice, leading a harsh and highly regimented existence. As Monica Furlong describes in her biography of Merton, the Trappist’s life was anything but an easy one:

The monks would rise at 2 A.M. for the night office, mental prayer, Angelus, and private masses said simultaneously at side alters. Then they would meditate or read until Prime at 5:30 A.M. There was Tierce, High Mass, and Sext at 7:45; None, Examen of Conscience, and Angelus at 11; Vespers and mental prayer at 4:30; Lecture (pious reading), Compline, Salve, and Angelus at 6:10 before retiring to bed at 7 P.M.

Other aspects of the monk’s behavior were equally subject to regulation: the way one held one’s drinking cup (with both hands), the manner in which one shaved, the exact length of one’s tonsure (3/4 of an inch). There was no air-conditioning to combat the humid Kentucky summers and no heat to take the chill off the bitter winters. Monks were frequently taken ill. The food was spartan, and exacerbated Merton’s stomach disorders. Five to six hours a day were spent in manual labor.

The monastery, in short, was no Walden Pond. But it is important to note that even as Merton began to chafe at some of the pettier restrictions within the monastery, his critique was more of the puritan, than the radical variety.

His criticisms of modern-day monastic life were directed less against authority, obedience, and sacrifice per se—disciplines he continued to appreciate as essential to spiritual growth—than against the growing bureaucratization of monasteries, which he thought was impeding actual efforts at contemplation. (In The Sign of Jonas Merton complained that “there is absolutely no time for any such thing as contemplation. You are lucky if Otis can get a minute to kneel down before the tabernacle and say a Hail Mary.”) Merton had always been sensitive to the danger of means becoming ends, and had little patience for those who cherish tradition as a good in itself: not only does this deflect us from our proper object of worship—God—but, he would add, in so doing we are worshiping the handiwork of man—conventions.

This theme resonates throughout Merton’s works. “Convention and tradition may seem on the surface to be the same thing,” writes Merton in No Man Is An Island, but

this superficial resemblance only makes conventionalism all the more harmful. In actual fact, conventions are the death of real tradition as they are of all real life. They are parasites which attach themselves to the living organism of tradition and devour all its reality, turning it into a hollow formality….

Tradition does not form us automatically: we have to work to understand it. Convention is accepted passively, as a matter of routine…. The activities of conventional people are merely excuses for not acting in a more integrally human way. Tradition nourishes the life of the spirit; convention merely disguises its interior decay.

That is why, concludes Merton, “Nothing could be better than for a monk to live and grow up in his monastic tradition, and nothing could be more fatal than for him to spend his life tangled in a web of monastic conventions.”

While Merton certainly was not advocating an easy liberalism, a junking of the labyrinthine Benedictine rules that govern a Cistercian monk’s every waking moment, he was struggling with a very real tension between his temperament—feisty, garrulous, and free-thinking—and his chosen occupation, that of a Trappist. Merton’s harking back to a purer form of sacrifice and contemplation may well have betrayed a more general discontent with his conflicting obligations: it cannot have been easy going through life with a breviary in one hand and a Filofax in the other. Still, at no point did he question the fundamental premises of monastic life—and he certainly found it preferable to the “outside world.”

Again, his reformist zeal must be considered in its proper light. He had some harsh words for asceticism, but only for abuses of what he remained convinced was an essential tool for spiritual growth. The ascetic, he believed, often runs the risk of, on the one hand, praising himself for his virtue, or, on the other, deeming the world evil and so asserting his superiority to God’s creation.

Merton points out that while it may look impressive on one’s religious resume to renounce the world, those who do so are actually taking the easy way out. For “to renounce life in disgust is no sacrifice,” writes Merton. “We give Him the best we have, in order to declare that He is infinitely better. We give Him all that we prize, in order to assure Him that He is more to us than our ‘all.’… Our asceticism is not supposed to make us weary of a life that is vile. It is not supposed to make us odious to ourselves.”

His consistently hardline stance on renunciation—at a time when self-sacrifice was rapidly falling into disrepute—is also evident in his critique of modern psychoanalytic thinking, with its tendency to devolve the objective into the subjective. Far too many men, notes Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, think they have got religion when, in truth, they merely “wish themselves to be in a certain state in which they can live with themselves, approve of themselves; for they feel that, when they approve of themselves, God is at peace with them. How many Christians seriously believe that Christianity consists of nothing more than this? Yet it is anathema to true Christianity.”

I’m Saved, You’re Saved

It is nothing less than disastrous, says Merton, “when a Christian imagines that ‘saving his soul’ simply consists of getting himself together, avoiding those sins which disrupt his inner unity by shame, and keeping himself in one piece by self-approval. As if saving my soul were nothing more that learning how to live with myself in peace!” The ugly truth is that “the worst evils may well have no disruptive effect on one’s psyche.”

All men may be equal before God: that was about as radical as Merton ever got; he never came close to suggesting that God and man are the slightest bit equal. That Merton condemned as a thoroughly “impure”—if frighteningly prevalent—notion.

“An impure intention,” explains Merton in No Man Is an Island, “is one that yields to the will of God while retaining a preference for my own will.” It becomes a most modern matter of choice. Such an intention, “without doubting in theory that God wills what is universally best, practically doubts that He can always will what is best for me.” What does such a man do? He avoids obedience “by making an adjustment between God’s will and his own, and so the will of God comes to have, for him, a variety of values: richer when it is more pleasing to him, poorer when it offers less immediate satisfaction, valueless when it demands a sacrifice of his own selfish interests.” This game that we all play (and that Judaism and Catholicism particularly lend themselves to) Merton lays bare and ridicules.

It is easy to be reeled in by Merton—it has happened to the best of us. It is much harder to accept him on his own terms, because—despite the modernness of his language, and his tremendous warmth and wit—he is a stern spiritual taskmaster. As both a writer and a priest he knew well the power of words to bait and trap. “There are times,” he wrote in The Sign of Jonas, “when 10 pages of some book fall under your eye just at the moment when your very life, it seems, depends on your reading those 10 pages. You recognize in them immediately the answer to all your most pressing questions. They open a new road.”

For many who have struggled to come to terms with their own faith, The Seven Storey Mountain is such a book. Having risen to the bait, however, we rapidly find that a good deal more is being demanded of us than we might have wished. We will be needing a lot of help along the way. Fortunately, Merton was not the type to love his readers and leave them; his sense of obligation was stronger than that. In the outpouring of his writings, he ensured that we would always have a spiritual guide. As he humbly acknowledged, “Perhaps one of the functions of a contemplative is to help other people, by word or merely by example, to be aware of how much they are capable of loving God—or perhaps of how much they already love Him without realizing it.


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