The Gift Of Merton

Thomas Merton (photo by Jim Forest, November 1964)

This is the first piece I wrote about Merton. It was done on the 11th of December 1968, the day after his death and published in Commonweal in the issue dated 10 January 1969.

By James H. Forest

“Please say he changed people’s lives. That’s why he was important. No one changed my life more than he did.” Such is my wife’s appeal as this recollection of Thomas Merton is begun.

She has lit incense from Lebanon, myrrh and frankincense. The room is full of smoke and silence. I realize Merton would be happy here. A splinter of Robert Bly poetry floats to the surface of consciousness: “A man throws back his head, gasps/And dies. His ankles twitch, his hands open and close,/And the fragment of time that he has eaten is exhaled from his pale mouth to nourish the snow.”

Thomas Merton is dead.

“He changed people’s lives.” Which is to say many heads, many lives were turned inside out; he brought together politics and the spiritual life; he helped give resistance a contemplative dimension. In part it was because he never interrupted the cycle of birth and death within himself, never became petrified, never was afraid to make it known that another Thomas Merton had perished. The Thomas Merton that wrote The Seven Storey Mountain died at least two decades before the Thomas Merton who became the world’s most political hermit died among Buddhists in Asia.

I first became aware of Thomas Merton on a blizzardy night a few days before Christmas in 1959. I had just turned 18, a Navy airman, and was in the unexpected midst of becoming a Marxist’s Christian son. A two-week leave had made it possible to spend Christmas with the Anglican monks at Holy Cross Monastery at West Park, New York, upstate along the Hudson. But to catch the bus, several hours had to be endured in the neon pall of Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. In a paperback rack I came upon Seven Storey Mountain.

I pictured Merton — no picture of him had yet been published, he was the contemporary equivalent of the man in the iron mask–as a lean, fast-weathered human scare-crow, something like St. Bernard in the desert and probably almost as irritable. But his writings — not only in the autobiography but in Seeds of Contemplation, The Waters of Siloe, No Man is an Island — were vivid and compelling, products of something more than a theologically-attuned cerebral cortex. “Everything that is, is holy” seemed more than an approved, homogenized thought, but an almost Zorba-like celebration of having millions of nerves — to see, hear, taste, smell, touch — reaching outward for communion; and he found a poet’s ways of giving it verbal flesh.

Chez Merton

A bit more than two years later, in February 1962, then an editor of The Catholic Worker, four of us on the Chrystie Street staff got up at sunrise, bought several loaves of fresh, still-hot Italian bread from a Spring Street bakery and started hitch-hiking to Gethsemani. Thomas Merton had been carrying on a warm correspondence with Dorothy Day and the Worker staff and had recently begun submitting articles on war and peace for CW publication. Now he had invited us down for a kind of informal retreat.

Discovering no one would stop for four people, we broke our group in half: Nelson Barr (later to found the New York Psychedelicatessen) and Polish artist Alex Marcin in one contingent and American-Polish poet

Robert Kachnowski and I in the other. Although the weather was bitter, Christmas was sufficiently remote from memory for most drivers to comfortably ignore two long-haired, peace-buttoned vagrants. Countless open-armed dashboard Jesus statues sailed by. After three sleepless days we finally made it to Cleveland, scraped together just enough for a bus to Bardstown, Kentucky, and were there picked up by a monk who brought us to the monastery. Bob collapsed in a guest room while I went to the chapel.

I had been in the church loft five minutes or so when I heard, coming from the adjacent guest house despite distance and heavy doors, such gales of explosive laughter as I had never heard before. It was a kind of mon- soon. Rushing toward the hilarity, I threw open Bob’s door. On the floor was a bald monk in white and black robes, feet in the air, hands pressed to his belly–not a skinny monk–and face radish-red, almost suffocating from laughter. The smell! Bob had taken off his shoes. During our three days and nights of ride begging there had been no rest or showers or change of socks. The room was like the inside of a fish barrel at the Fulton Fish Market in the middle of July, the air like month-old hot fish syrup. Merton had probably not smelled anything like it in his life. But for such a smell to erupt in cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness Gethsemani — a kind of negative miracle. The Catholic Worker had arrived. Perhaps it was an apocalyptic sign.

How to tell the effects of those weeks at Gethsemani?

We had come from the Bowery. Our clothes were gifts from the dead. In New York the peace movement, including almost all of the Catholic Worker’s staff, had just gotten through the exhausting, round-the-clock week of the First General Strike for Peace, carried out under the intense direction of the Living Theater’s Julian Beck and Judith Malina. People were working day and night in an atmosphere of crisis and chaos. The Russians had resumed the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and we expected (correctly) the United States shortly to announce similar intentions. Vietnam, though as yet hardly known to anyone in America, was already the scene of a major U.S. confrontation with a revolutionary movement. In a climate of such urgency and exhaustion, it is not surprising that we at the Catholic Worker were showing signs of strain: staff crises developed from such world-shaking issues as what to do with the small amounts of real butter and eggs that were occasionally given us by convents and friends; the Great Butter Crisis, it was later called.

Then to be at a Trappist monastery in a remote part of Kentucky with Thomas Merton, a man who, despite distances and solitude, was more conscious of the agonies being decreed for man than were we in the midst of destitution and institutionalized brutality. And yet a man who could laugh as none we had ever encountered, and who spent days and weeks in silence broken only by occasion- al bursts of typing and lectures to the novitiate.

We crunched through the snow with him, tried on his hooded choir robe (heavy as chain mail) and, with his novices chopped trees and cut firewood in the surrounding woods. We learned the hand signs for bread, God and potato, saw one novice demonstrate a current popular song put to sign language, sampled the community-made cheeses (not eaten by the monks themselves), sat in with the novices for Merton’s lectures, spent afternoons in his cinder-block hermitage a mile distant in the woods.

What did he say to us? I don’t remember the exact words. But there are fragments still preserved, and certain images he drew upon in making points.

He spoke of the problem of consciousness: how incidental, accidental and minor is the ‘I’ we generally speak of, how distant that “I” from real essence. What I call myself, he said, is like the debris of fallen leaves and twigs and algae that happen to gather on the surface of a lake, a lake which is perhaps not only deep but bottomless.

He spoke of the Eucharist as a breaking open of time itself, something in which all bread is joined to man not as repeated magic trick but as a singular event forever, indelibly enacted.

He talked of the need for silence and the uncluttering of the mind, even more important for us than for monks: the imperative to protect the spirit from ambushes of busy-ness and schedules. “Inside of yourselves you shouldn’t be running all the time,” he said, knowing well the kind of momentum which had been within us.

For those of us in the peace and justice struggle who have fallen, one way or another, under Merton’s influence, it is in the last area that his impact has been most profound, and again his relationship with the Catholic Worker staff is an example. Before we came down he had tried to get it through to us with letters. In a special delivery letter received while we were among 50 sitting in before the Atomic Energy Commission’s New York office, Merton had written: “My Mass of February 1st … will be for all strikers everywhere in the world and for all who yearn for a true peace, all who are willing to shoulder the great burden of patiently working, praying and sacrificing themselves for peace. We will never see the results in our time, even if we manage to get through the next five years without being incinerated. Really we have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past of Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hairshirts will not do the trick, but there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man … ”

Merton’s message was one of freedom, freedom from cultures and mind-styles that have been driven mad with acceleration (he would have been happy to wear a Speed Kills button), freedom to see and hear without self-imposed biases. He hoped for de-nationalization of the head. Those who have providentially been stirred to be- come the leaven of change, he said, those who seek to renew human imagination, those who try to use their lives to give meaning to communion and community, love, hope and happiness, they most of all must have entered into a peace, a now-ness, in which moments, men and events can be savored.

Now Merton is dead.

His face was like Picasso’s.

In the winter he wore a Navy-type stocking cap.

In his hermitage there is probably still some of the candy and beer he used to keep for visitors, and his ancient patchwork quilt is probably still on his bed and his 1957 Sengai calendar from Japan surely still hanging on the wall.

In his files somewhere are letters from Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, John Howard Griffin, D. T. Suzuki, Henry Miller, W. H. Ferry, James Baldwin, Hasidic rabbis, poets, musicians, conscientious objectors, resistors, mystics.

His friend the black snake is probably still in the outhouse.

He leaves behind, not children, but perhaps a few more peaceful people, a lot less parochial people, quite a few who learned from a monk and hermit what it means to be alive and in the world in time of plague.

Peace, Thomas Merton!