Meeting Thomas Merton Face-to-Page and Face-to-Face

Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)
Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)

a lecture given at Swansea University, Wales, 15 May 2013

by Jim Forest

Let’s start with a simple question: Who was Thomas Merton? I think it is accurate to say that he was the most widely read and best-known Christian monk of the 20th century. It was not a fate he intended. At age 26, when he began his monastic life, he thought he was choosing a path of radical invisibility, one aspect of which was his laying aside all his earlier aspirations as a writer. He had, after all, opted to belong to the most silent — many would say most medieval — of monastic brotherhoods, the Trappists, as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance is best known. (Given that this lecture is being given in Wales, one other biographical fact to mention is that, via both his parents, he was partly Welsh. It was with his Welsh ancestors that Merton felt a special bond. In his book-length poem, The Geography of Lograire, he speaks of “Wales dark Wales … holy green Wales … father mother Wales.”)

I met Merton face-to-face only twice, first in 1962 and again in 1964, four years before his death. In fact the very first meeting was not face-to-face but face-to-page. I was an eighteen-year-old boy waiting for a bus in Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was 1959 and I was on leave from my Navy posting at the U.S. Weather Bureau. Christmas was a few days away. I was en route to a monastery for a week-long stay. Until that moment, the closest I had come to monastic life was seeing a film called “The Nun’s Story” starring Audrey Hepburn. With a little time on my hands, I was browsing a carousel full of paperback books that was off to one side of the waiting room’s newsstand and discovered a book with an odd title, The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. The name meant nothing to me. It was, the jacket announced, “the autobiography of a young man who led a full and worldly life and then, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery.” There was a quotation on the cover from Evelyn Waugh, who said this book “may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.” Another writer said this was the twentieth-century equivalent of Augustine’s Confessions.

It proved to be a can’t-put-it-down read for me, opening doors that I had never known existed. In the bus going up the Hudson Valley, I can recall occasionally looking up from the text to gaze out the window at the heavy snow that was falling that night. Merton’s story has ever since been linked in my mind with the silent ballet of snowflakes swirling under street lights.

Let me read to you the first sentences:

On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers. Not many hundreds of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in rainy ditches among the dead horses … in a forest without branches along the river Marne.

It’s a remarkable opening, poetry as prose, with war a major theme. The leitmotif became still more intense in the last decade if his life, making him a man of controversy. In the Spring of 1962, Merton would be forbidden to write about war and peace.

In 1948, the year The Seven Storey Mountain was published, Merton was only 33. His book had been in the shops eleven years when, in its umpteenth printing, it found its way to my hands. And, eleven years on, he himself was in fact quite a different person than the Merton I envisioned on my first reading of his autobiography. The Thomas Merton I imagined had found his true home on the 10th of December 1941, the day he came to stay at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and was as firmly and peacefully rooted there as an oak tree in an ancient forest. He was that blessed man who finds not only faith but the place to live that faith, and though accidentally made famous by a book, was living happily in pre-Renaissance obscurity in rural Kentucky.

I would later discover that the actual Thomas Merton, far from being happily rooted, was in fact as engaged in the modern world as anyone alive and often longed to transplant himself to a poorer, simpler monastic environment. It wasn’t something he mentioned in The Seven Storey Mountain, but he had found sleeping in a crowded Trappist dormitory hard going and often found his monastery factory-like. He had dreams of becoming a hermit, but there was no tradition of solitary life in his order. Trappists lived an intensely communal existence.

In 1959 he made a major effort to get permission to move. His idea was to become a hermit associated with a poorer, more primitive monastery somewhere in Latin America, with Mexico the leading contender. On the 17th of December 1959, just a few days before I began reading The Seven Storey Mountain, he had been on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament opening a letter from Rome that told him, though his request was viewed with sympathy, permission could not be given for him to leave the Abbey of Gethsemani. “They were very sorry,” he noted in his journal later that day. “They wanted the right words to pour balm in certain wounds. But my departure would certainly upset too many people in the Order as well as outside it. They agreed with my superiors that I did not have an eremitical vocation. Therefore what they asked of me was to stay in the monastery where God had put me, and I would find interior solitude.” [The Intimate Merton, p 146] Two cardinals had signed the letter.

And yet the Merton I imagined was not altogether different than the actual Merton. One sees in his journal entry that he read the letter without anger, resentment or the temptation to disobey and walk out. He commented: “The letter was too obvious. It could only be accepted. My first reaction was one of relief that at last the problem had been settled.” He found himself surprised that he felt no disappointment but rather “only joy and emptiness and liberty.” He saw the letter as bearing news of God’s will, which more than anything else was what he was desperate to know. “I accept it fully,” he wrote. “So then what? Nothing. Trees, hills, rain. Prayer much lighter, much freer, more unconcerned. A mountain lifted off my shoulders — a Mexican mountain I myself had chosen.”

Yet even that day he felt the importance of replying to the letter, if only to explain what he understood the hermit’s vocation to be and what drew him in that direction. If he was not to be allowed to become a hermit at another monastery, then perhaps the day might come when there would be a place for solitaries within the Trappist context.

It was thanks to Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker movement, that I came in closer contact with Merton. I first met Dorothy a few days before Christmas in 1960, just a year after reading The Seven Storey Mountain. Once again I was on leave from my Navy job in Washington, D.C. My first few days were spent at Saint Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Manhattan, but one day I went to the Catholic Worker’s rural outpost on the southern tip of Staten Island, the Peter Maurin Farm. In the large, faded dining room of an old farmhouse, I found half a dozen people gathered around a pot of tea and a pile of mail at one end of a large table. Dorothy Day was reading letters aloud.

The only letter I still recall from that day’s reading was one from Thomas Merton. It amazed me that they were in correspondence. The Merton I had encountered in the pages of The Seven Storey Mountain had withdrawn from “the world” with a slam of the door that was heard around the world, while Dorothy Day was as much in the world as the mayor of New York. Also I recalled Merton’s description in his autobiography of the strict limits Trappists placed on correspondence. I had assumed he wrote to no one outside his family, of which he had practically none as his parents had died in his childhood and his only sibling, John Paul Merton, had been killed in combat in the Second World War. Yet here he was exchanging letters with one of America’s more controversial figures, a women who went to prison from time to time for acts of civil disobedience and who lived in community with people, truly the down-and-out, that most of us try to avoid.

Merton told Dorothy that he was deeply touched by her witness for peace. “You are right going along the lines of satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for nonviolent action; literally the power of truth]. I see no other way…. Nowadays it is no longer a question of who is right but who is at least not criminal …. It has never been more true than now that the world is lost in its own falsity and cannot see true values.”

In this letter, and many similar “Cold War letters” that Merton would write during the last decade of his life, one met a Merton who at first seemed quite different from the Merton of The Seven Storey Mountain, yet in fact the reader looking for a more socially engaged, war-resisting Merton will find much evidence of him in the autobiography.

It was in The Seven Storey Mountain, after all, that he explained why he had decided not to fight in World War II, though he was prepared to do noncombatant service as a medic. In a passage which must have startled many readers of the autobiography, appearing as it did just after the war, he explained:

[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [SSM, 311-12]

In the same book, Merton had recorded the experience of being a volunteer at a house of hospitality on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem in the months that preceded his choosing the monastic life. He described Harlem as a

divine indictment against New York City and the people who live downtown and make their money downtown.… Here in this huge, dark, steaming slum, hundreds of thousands of Negroes are herded together like cattle, most of them with little to eat and nothing to do. All the senses and imagination and sensibilities and emotions and sorrows and desires and hopes and ideas of a race with vivid feelings and deep emotional reactions are forced in upon themselves, bound inward by an iron ring of frustration: the prejudice that hems them in with its four insurmountable walls. In this huge cauldron of inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry, are stamped down and left to boil … and thousands upon thousands of souls are destroyed. [SSM, 345]

It’s an easy leap from these sentences to his essays about racism written in sixties.

Anguish and rage warm many pages in The Seven Storey Mountain. The distress with structures of violence and social cruelty that is a major theme of his later writings is quite evident in the younger Merton. If there is a difference in later life, it is simply that the older Merton no longer regarded monastic life as a straighter path to heaven. Rather he saw it as a place to which some are called, but in no way a “higher” vocation than any other state in life to which God calls His children. The question is thus not to seek a “best” vocation but rather to seek God’s will, living a Gospel-shaped life in the particular context of one’s own temperament and circumstances. The challenge God gives each of us is not to become a monk but rather to become a saint.

Partly thanks to Merton but mainly thanks to the New Testament, I became a conscientious objector. After receiving an early discharge from the Navy in the early Summer of 1961, I joined the Catholic Worker community in New York City that Dorothy Day had founded in 1933. I thought it might be a stopping point on the way to a monastery.

Dorothy knew of my interest in Merton’s books and the attraction I felt for monastic life. She shared Merton’s letters with me. Then one day she gave me a letter of his to answer — an astonishing request. Merton had sent her a poem, “Chant to Be Used Around a Site for Furnaces,” written in the voice of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, where after the war he was executed by hanging next to the camp’s one surviving gas chamber. Here are the poem’s final lines:

All the while I had obeyed perfectly

So I was hanged in a commanding position with a full view of the site plant and grounds

You smile at my career but you would do as I did if you knew yourself and dared.

In his letter to Dorothy, Merton described writing the poem as “gruesome” work. I wrote to tell Merton of our appreciation of the poem and our plans to publish it in the upcoming issue. It would serve, I said, as The Catholic Worker’s response to the Eichmann trial then going on in Jerusalem.

Not many days later I had a response from Merton. I could not have felt more elated had I received the map revealing the location of pirate gold. In that letter he noted that we live in a time of war and need “to shut up and be humble and stay put and trust in God and hope for a peace that we can use for the good of our souls.”

Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, that single sentence revealed a great deal about the long-term struggles in which Merton was engaged. I thought what he said was aimed at me (how apt the advice was), but, as was so often the case in his letters, he was addressing himself as well. He had enormous difficulty shutting up, feared he was lacking in humility, and often resisted staying put.

In December 1961, Merton suggested that perhaps I would like to come to the monastery for a visit. There was never any question in my mind about accepting though first there was an issue of The Catholic Worker to get out (I had become the paper’s managing editor). I was able to leave for Kentucky in late-January 1962.

I had no money for such a journey — in the Catholic Worker community one received room and board plus, on request, small change for minor expenses, subway rides and the like. In my own case I never dared ask even for a penny, preferring to sell The Catholic Worker on street corners in Greenwich Village, keeping a small portion of the proceeds for my incidental expenses and giving the rest to the community.

A companion on the Catholic Worker staff, Bob Kaye, joined me. With our nearly empty wallets, we traveled by thumb. Before sunrise one icy morning we loaded up on Italian bread still warm from the oven of the Spring Street bakery and set off. I can still recall standing in nighttime sleet at the side of a highway somewhere in Pennsylvania watching cars and trucks rush past, many of them with colorful plastic statues of an open-armed Jesus of the Sacred Heart on the dashboard. This image of Christ’s hospitality seemed to have little influence on the drivers. It took us two exhausting days to travel the thousand miles to the Abbey of Gethsemani.

But at last we reached the monastery. After the Guest Master showed us our rooms, my first stop was the monastery church. There was a balcony in the church that was connected to the guest house. Surviving such a trip, a prayer of thanksgiving came easily, but my prayer was cut short by the sound of distant laughter so intense and pervasive that I couldn’t resist looking for its source. I hadn’t expected laughter at a penitential Trappist monastery.

The origin, I discovered, was Bob Kaye’s room. As I opened the door the laughter was still going on, a kind of gale of joy. The major source was the red-faced man lying on the floor. He was wearing black-and-white Trappist robes and a broad leather belt, his knees in the air, hands clutching his belly. Though the monk was more well-fed than the fast-chastened Trappist monk I had imagined, I realized instantly that the man on the floor laughing was Thomas Merton. His face reminded me of photos of Pablo Picasso. And the inspiration for the laughter? It proved to be the dense smell of feet kept in shoes all the way from the Lower East Side to Gethsemani — the perfume of the Catholic Worker.

After that week-long stay at Gethsemani, The Seven Storey Mountain became a different book. Having discovered that Merton was capable of hurricanes of laughter, I realized his humor was often on display in his writing, if only one could allow one’s ears to hear it. I also learned that he was far from the only monk who knew how to laugh, though none exhibited the trait with such abandon as Merton.

The abbot, Dom James, though a most hospitable man, was not initially quite so positive about a visitation of young Catholic Workers. In those days most American men had frequent haircuts, but haircuts seemed to Bob and me a massive waste of money. The day after our arrival Merton apologetically explained that our shaggy hair did not please the abbot. If we were to stay on at the abbey, we must have our hair trimmed. A little while later I was sitting in a chair in the basement room where the novices changed into their work clothes; the room also served as a kind of barber shop. While the novices stood in a circle laughing, my hair fell to the concrete floor. Going from one extreme to the other, I was suddenly as bald as Humpty Dumpty

Soon after the haircut Merton took me to the abbot’s office. I can no longer recall what we talked about — perhaps about Dorothy Day and community life at the Catholic Worker — but I will never forget the solemn blessing Dom James gave me at the end of our conversation. I knelt on the floor near his desk while he gripped my skull with intensity while praying over me. His fingerprints may still be there. There was no doubt in my mind I had been seriously blessed. I have ever since had a warm spot in my heart for Dom James, a man who has occasionally been turned into a Darth Vader figure by Merton biographers. Doesn’t every good guy need a bad guy? There is no Robin Hood without the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I recall another monk at the monastery who had much less sympathy for me and still less, it seemed, for Merton — or Father Louis, as Merton was known within the community. This was the abbey’s other noted author, Father Raymond Flanagan, whose books were well known to devout Catholics at the time though they had never reached the broad audience Merton’s books had. Merton and I were walking down a corridor that linked the guest-house kitchen to the basement of the cellar of the main monastery building. There was a point in the corridor where it made a left turn and standing there, next to a large garbage container, was Father Raymond holding a copy of the latest Catholic Worker. Father Raymond was not so much reading as glaring at the paper, which he held open at arm’s length as if it had an unpleasant smell. There was an article of Merton’s in it, one of his essays about the urgency of taking steps to prevent nuclear war. Father Raymond looked up, saw us coming his way, balled the paper up in his fist, hurled into the garbage container, and strode away, leaving a trail of smoke.

Merton’s response was laughter. Then he explained that Father Raymond had never had a high opinion of Merton’s writings and often denounced him at the community’s chapter meetings. “In the early days Father Raymond said I was too detached from the world, and now he thinks I’m not detached enough.” Merton laughed once again.

During that visit I had my first glimpse of Merton’s openness to non-Catholics and, more surprising, to non-Christians. The first evening I was there, there was a hurried knock on the door of my room. Merton was standing there en route to Vespers. He wanted me to have the pile of papers in his hands, a collection of Jewish Hasidic stories that a rabbi had left with him a few days before. “Read these — these are great!” And off he hurried to Vespers without further explanation, leaving me with a collection of amazing tales of Hasidic rabbis in Poland generations before the Holocaust.

I recall another evening a day or two later when Merton was not in a hurry. He was in good time for Vespers and already had on the white woolen choir robe the monks wore during winter months while in church. It was an impressive garment, all the more so at close range. I reached out to feel it thickness and density. In a flash Merton slid out of it and placed it over my head. I was astonished at how heavy it was! Once again, Merton laughed. The robe met a practical need, he explained. It was hardly warmer within the church than it was outside. If you wore only the black and white garments that were standard Trappist attire, you would freeze to death.

The guest master, a monk named Father Francis, knew I was at the monastery at Merton’s invitation and thought I might be able to answer a question which puzzled him and no doubt many of the monks: “How did Father Louis write all those books?” I had no idea, but I got a glimpse of an answer before my stay was over. A friend had sent a letter to Merton in my care. In it he urged Merton to leave the monastery and do something “more relevant,” such as join a Catholic Worker community. (Over the years Merton received quite a few letters telling him that he was in the wrong place, that being a monk was not in fact — at least in the context of the times — a Christian vocation.) What is especially memorable to me about this particular letter was the experience of watching Merton write. He had a small office just outside the classroom where he taught the novices. On his desk was a large grey typewriter. He inserted a piece of monastery stationery and wrote a reply at what seemed to me the speed of light. I had never seen anyone write so quickly. Even in the newsroom of a city newspaper one rarely sees writing at a similar pace.

I wish I had made a copy of his response. I recall that he readily admitted that there was much to reform in monasteries and that monastic life was not a vocation to which God often called His children, yet he gave an explanation of why he thought the monastic life was nonetheless an authentic Christian vocation and how crucial it was for him to remain faithful to what God had called him to. It was a very solid, carefully-reasoned letter filling one side of a sheet of paper and was written in just a few minutes.

When I first met Merton, more than two years had passed since the Vatican’s denial of his request to move to another monastery where he might live in greater solitude. In 1960 plans were made for the construction of a small cinder block building — in principle a conference center where Merton could meet with non-Catholic visitors, but Merton called it his hermitage — on the edge of the woods about a mile from the monastery. By December it was ready for use. There was a small bedroom behind the main room. Merton occasionally had permission to stay overnight, but it would not be until the summer of 1965, four years later, that it became his full-time home. At that point he became the first Trappist hermit of modern times.

By the time I came to visit the hermitage already had a lived-in look. It was winter so there was no sitting on the porch. We were inside, regularly adding wood to the blaze in the fireplace. A Japanese calendar was on the wall with a Zen brush drawing for every month of the year, also one of his friend Ad Reinhart’s black-on-black paintings. Of course there was a bookcase and, next to it, a long table that served as a desk placed on the inside of the hermitage’s one large window. There was a view of fields and hills. A large timber cross had been erected on the lawn. On the table was a sleek Swiss-made Hermes typewriter. Off to one side of the hermitage was an outhouse that Merton shared with a black snake.

The week at the abbey ended abruptly. A telegram for me came from New York with the news that President Kennedy had announced the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, thus another escalation of the Cold War and yet another indication that nuclear war might occur in the coming years. Anticipating such a decision, I was part of a group of New Yorkers who had planned to take part in an act of civil disobedience, a sit-in at the entrance to the Manhattan office of the Atomic Energy Commission, the federal agency then responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. The abbey provided money for our return to New York by bus rather than thumb. Not many days later, now with a slight stubble of hair, I was in a New York City jail known locally as “The Tombs.” (My monastic haircut made me interesting enough to be featured on the front page of one of New York’s daily newspapers the following morning.)

Merton had a part even in that event. A letter from him, sent care of the Catholic Worker, was hand delivered to me during the hour or two that we sat on the chilly pavement awaiting arrest. “I am with you in spirit,” he commented, adding that ordinary people, “the ones who get it in the neck,” certainly don’t want war, yet ironically feel threatened by protests which oppose making weapons of mass destruction and preparations for war. “They do not feel threatened by the bomb,” he went on, “but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a [peace] placard.” He said he would be offering Mass for “all those who are willing to shoulder the great burden of patiently working, praying and sacrificing themselves for peace.”

I was to meet with Merton face-to-face only one more time. The next occasion was a small retreat of about ten peace activists at the monastery on the spiritual roots of protest in November 1964. On Merton’s part, there was still laughter, but less of it. I remember him best in those days not in his hermitage, though he was actively engaged with the group at every session, but rather walking alone outside the hermitage, pacing back and forth in a state of contemplative absorption so compelling that it brought home to me the gravity of what we were about more than any spoken word.

“By what right do we protest? Against whom or what? For what? How? Why?” These are questions Merton raised and which still haunt me. The whole retreat was more a questioning than an answering experience. Merton impressed on us that protest, however necessary, is a dangerous calling. If it lacks sufficient spiritual maturity, protest can make things even worse.

Part of our discussion was to consider the trajectory of technology in the modern world, technology’s implied credo being summed up in a few apocalyptic words: “If it can be done, it must be done.” In the context of technology, whether on its battlefields or in its almost monastically-sheltered laboratories, the human being, far from being a little less than the angels, is merely a “bio-chemical link” serving as a shaky bridge between the solid-circuit perfection of cybernetic systems and conscience-free computers.

By way of counter-point to man as “bio-chemical link,” we repeatedly turned our attention to a man who was executed in Berlin on August 9, 1943 — Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic peasant farmer with modest education and a wife and three young daughters to worry about who, despite strong opposition from his pastor and bishop, refused military service in Hitler’s armies. In 2007 he was beatified, but in those days had not yet been assigned a halo. Uncanonized though he was, he impressed us as a saint for our time. We were struck by this isolated peasant’s ability to see clearly what bishops and theologians in the Nazi era didn’t dare see, still less proclaim. We had every reason to expect the same lack of moral leadership from our own Church leadership as the Vietnam War began to unfold. In the years that followed, those of us participating in the retreat all played a significant role in opposing the war in southeast Asia and helped encourage widespread conscientious objection. We dared to envision a Church that would put its weight behind those who refused to wage war and who refused to reduce human being to “bio-chemical links.” “If the Church,” said Merton, “could make its teachings alive to the laity, future Franz Jägerstätters would no longer be in solitude but would be the Church as a whole reasserting the primacy of the spiritual.”

My main contact with Merton was through correspondence. From the end of 1961 until his death seven years later, on average there was a letter or note from him nearly every month. His side of the exchange takes up about fifty pages of a book of Merton’s letters with the title The Hidden Ground of Love. There were also many envelopes containing copies of essays he had written and book-length works such as the manuscripts of Peace in the Post-Christian Era and Cold War Letters, the latter two published only in recent years.

Looking back, I realize Merton became for me what in the Orthodox Church we call a “spiritual father” — someone to whom you open your soul and who in turn can help you stay on the path of the Gospel and help you find your way back to that path when you stray, as I certainly did time and again. If I had understood spiritual fatherhood better, perhaps I would have made better use of his readiness to help me see the way forward and would have made fewer false steps, but even so it was an extraordinarily fruitful relationship.

To give you an example of his guidance, let me share with you a letter he sent me in 1966. The Vietnam War was getting worse by the day and I felt overwhelmed by the failure of all our efforts to end it. Here is what Merton had to say:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right…

The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion….

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand….

Enough of this … it is at least a gesture…. I will keep you in my prayers.

What keeps Merton so fresh all these years after his death? Why is he still such a helpful presence in so many lives?

In Thomas Merton we meet a man who spent the greater part of his life trying with all his being to find the truth and to live a truthful life. Though he chose a celibate vocation in an enclosed monastic environment in which sign language was used far more than words, he nonetheless had a voice which reached far beyond the abbey’s borders. With tremendous candor, he exposed through his writings his own struggles and the fact that he was like the rest of us, often wracked with uncertainties and no stranger to the temptations each of us faces. At a time when there was little inter-religious contact, he challenged his readers to seek God not only within their particular community but across national as well as cultural and religious borders. He did this while giving an example of how one could at the same time remain deeply rooted in Christian belief and faith. He was a man of dialogue, as we see in the hundreds of letters he wrote to an astonishing variety of people in all parts of the world, from Boris Pasternak in Soviet Russia, to T.D. Suzuki, the Japanese Zen master.

We also see in him one of the healers of Christian divisions. He did this not by renouncing anything a Catholic Christian would normally believe, but by allowing himself to become aware of anything of value in other parts of the Christian community, whether something as big and deeply rooted as the Orthodox Church or as small as the Shaker movement whose craftsmen made chairs “fit for angels to sit on.”

We see in him a pilgrim. As pilgrims tend to do, he crossed many borders, but the greater part of that journey was lived in a thinly-populated corner of Kentucky. During his 27 years as a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, he rarely traveled further than Louisville. For all his temptations to move elsewhere, he remained a member of his particular monastic community from the day he arrived until his dying day. He is a model of uncomfortable stability. His pilgrimage was one that rarely required hiking boots.

Merton gives us a model of someone with an unshakable love not only of Christ but of Christ’s mother and grandmother. Whenever he had a building in need of a dedication, such as his hermitage or other shelters of solitude, it was either to Mary or Anne. In the communion of saints, these two were his permanent patrons. Everything he did or represents is rooted, in part, in his devotion to them.

Sometimes I am asked: Is Thomas Merton a saint? Merton, who wrote unflinchingly  about his sins and failures, would of course say no. No saint sees a halo in the mirror. If you define “saint” as a perfect person, Merton doesn’t qualify, but then by that standard no saint but Mary would be on the church calendar. One must emulate even the holiest life with caution — one can go to hell imitating the sins of the saints. Yet I think the answer is yes. Few people have done so much to help so many find their way toward Christ and a deeper faith. Few people have drawn so many toward the mercy of God.

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text copyright Jim Forest

Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
e-mail: [email protected]
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