A monk of our time
Chris McDonnell CT December 11 2020
In September 2015, Pope Francis addressed the US Congress and chose to mention four great Americans, one of whom was a Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton. Maybe not a household name but one identified with significance by Francis.
This weekend we remember a date, December 10, the date he entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in 1941 and the same date on which he died in Asia in 1968.
Merton was born on January 31st 1915, in the French town of Prades, his Father a New Zealander and his Mother American.
Some people whom you meet open doors and offer you a whole new experience. I first came across Thomas Merton in the summer of ‘87 when, during a family holiday, I read The Seven Story Mountain, first published in 1949. It was a record of his journey from an agnostic youth to acceptance as a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. To me it was a startling book that kept me involved, for here was the story of a man on an improbable journey.
Just as that book led me into Merton’s writings, so too in subsequent years did Merton lead me in to the writings of many others and in doing so, educated me. Over the years, I have searched bookshops for his writings and books about him and as a result have ended up with an extensive collection of my own. I never cease to wonder how he was able to produce so much in such a short time, when each day the monastic timetable determined his life – and all without the benefit of a laptop.
In his early years, he spent time in England, at school in Oakham the county town of Rutland. He had lost his Mother through illness whilst still a young child, he was only six years of age when she died. He travelled about with his Father, an artist. He was to be orphaned in his mid-teens and his care passed to an appointed Guardian.
He gained entry to Cambridge on a scholarship in ‘32 but left without completing his degree two years later. In the mid-thirties he arrived in New York City and enrolled at Columbia, graduating in 1938, to begin work on his MA. It was in the same year that, by a circuitous route, he was received into the Church at Corpus Christi parish, and so began the journey that would eventually take him to Kentucky and entry to the Abbey of Gethsemane on December 10th 1941. It was on that same date, some 27 years later, that we heard of his premature death at the early age of 53.
With the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, written under the instruction of his Abbot, a man perceptive enough to realise Merton’s talent, his output of poems, articles and books continued through the Fifties.
Just as his entry to the Abbey was in sharp contradiction to his earlier years, so too the final decade of his life offered a clear contrast to his formative monastic years. He remained a monk. His restlessness caused him to examine the possibility of leaving Gethsemane and seek a more solitary life, but that never happened. The nearest he got to it was his final three years spent in the hermitage in the grounds of the Abbey. With his many visitors that was far from solitude.
During a medical visit to a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, he records this comment in one of his Journals – Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
That text has become famous and in recent years the Louisville City Council have erected a plaque inscribed with those words to mark the place where, in March 1958, he had his insight.
From here on so much changed. He developed a personal concern for the critical causes of the late 50s and early 60s, be it Civil Rights or in the later years, the war in Vietnam together with issues related to nuclear weapons. His willingness to explore beyond the boundaries of his own Christian faith was ground-breaking in his time. In a move not unfamiliar to us in later years, Merton was forbidden to publish any views on the morality of nuclear warfare. He got round that by writing to friends who mimeographed his texts and passed them round. They were finally published in 2006 under the title The Cold War Letters.
There has been a continual stream of publications since his death, both of Merton’s own writing and of books about him. His correspondence was extensive, part of which was published posthumously in five volumes. He kept Journals throughout his life, informative in respect of his day-to-day monastic experience. They are published in seven volumes.
John Harriott, writing in The Tablet, described how Merton would, in retrospect, be regarded as the archetypal example of a monk of the late 20th Century.
His untimely death came, not in the US, but in Bangkok in Thailand where he had gone to address a conference of Asian religious leaders. He gave the final address before lunch to the assembled monks and nuns. After lunch he was found in his shower room, electrocuted by a faulty fan. He was given the last rites by the Benedictine Archbishop, Rembert Weakland.
He was indeed priest, man, monk and writer who lived out his vocation fully in spite of many difficulties and trials, a real person whose faith struggle was evident in the words he shared with his readers.
Of all his books, Thoughts in Solitude, Contemplative Prayer and The Journals, particularly Woods Shore Desert have meant most to me.
It was no surprise that Francis remarked on Merton as an American of significance. His life did not follow the patterns of holiness we have often come to expect of saints. His was a real experience, recognising his place in the midst of a secular society and acknowledging the contribution that he might make. It is remarkable that the year of his death – 1968 – was also the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King in April and the shooting of Robert Kennedy in June.
The Vietnam War was at its height. The final irony of the story is that following his death, his body was returned to the US in a B52, along with the American war dead of that week.
Read Merton’s own words for yourself and find out what all the fuss is about. He is unlikely ever to be formally canonised – no matter. His life is significant in helping so many others on their own pilgrimage. He was truly a man on an Advent journey of mystery and trust, confident in the Lord.