THOMAS MERTON was not a saint. But he does offer a model of
Christian discipleship which is open, questioning, passionate, and
engaged. All this despite the fact that - or perhaps because - he
was a Trappist monk.
Tom Merton, as he was known by his mother and his friends, was
the son of artists who had met in Paris, married in London, and
settled in France, not far from the Spanish border, just before the
outbreak of the First World War.
It was there that Merton was born; but the years of his
childhood and adolescence were punctuated by a series of events and
tragedies that undoubtedly left their mark.
His mother died when he was only six. In the years that
followed, he journeyed to the United States, Bermuda, and France,
with or without his father, and with or without his younger
brother. There were conflicting demands of freedom and discipline
as he moved from place to place, and from school to school.
His father died just before his 16th birthday, and he was
rejected by his godfather-guardian three years later, at the end of
a disastrous and self-destructive year at Cambridge University.
The next sequence in his life proved to be a time of transition.
Merton made his way to the US, and took up his studies at Columbia
University. He began to write. He took full advantage of all that
New York had to offer - the bars, the jazz, the theatre.
He was part of a circle of people - tutors and fellow students -
who were to become lifelong friends, and with whom he would talk
about everything. And he found God; or perhaps God found him.
RELIGION hardly impinged on him during his years in England. In
the late 1930s, however, partly through reading, conversations with
friends, and through his search for himself, he discovered the
faith and piety of the Roman Catholic Church, together with his
vocation to the priesthood and the religious life.
It was, none the less, to the surprise of some of his friends
that Merton became a Trappist monk, choosing to realise his
vocation at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown,
Kentucky. But he was a young man who always had to go the whole
way. He might say, "I want to give God everything," but the life he
had chosen was the most rigorous of all the possibilities open to
someone wanting to enter the religious life.
And yet what had emerged from his early years was a beguiling
combination of characteristics. He had great natural ability,
together with an independence of mind and spirit. He had a
refreshing, if somewhat mischievous, good humour, together with
deep-seated neuroses. These revealed themselves over the years in
his restlessness, his endless self-questioning, his ability to lose
all sense of proportion, and his capacity to denigrate himself and
Merton's contradictions continue to perplex. Yet running through
it all was an abiding, absorbing passion for God, and for people,
and for the questions with which he wrestled.
Some wondered if he would stay the course. He was not a
"natural" hermit - people mattered to him. Conversation, ideas, and
argument were his stock in trade. He was companionable, and enjoyed
the company of women; and his brief relationship with a student
nurse in his later years - together with his honesty in writing
about it so fully in his Journals - says much about the
man, and some of the inevitable conflicts. Yet he was resolved on
this austere life of solitude and silence.
And, although Merton took his monastic vow of obedience
seriously, he could not be easily constrained. He was a free
spirit. Despite his life of withdrawal, through his writing he
became an international bestseller, acknowledged on every side as
one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century.
Having vowed silence, he none the less became one of the most
strident voices in the 1960s, as he wrote about civil rights,
nuclear weapons, and the war in Vietnam. He had embraced a
pre-conciliar Roman Catholicism, but he became a stern critic of
his Church - particularly its bureaucracy and triumphalism - and he
pioneered a dialogue with other faiths.
MERTON (justly) portrayed himself as a man of paradoxes. The
discontents that surfaced throughout his adult life disturbed and
distorted his relationship with his community, and yet he carried
substantial responsibilities - as Master of the Scholastics, as
Master of Novices - over a period of 14 years, shaping the monastic
formation of those who were testing their vocations.
But he had important questions to ask about the place of
monasticism - and of the whole tradition of desert spirituality -
in the life of the Church in the modern world.
The abiding impression of Merton from his journals, letters,
books, articles, and poetry is his passion for God. He was so much
more than a monk: he was also a writer, a contemplative, a social
critic, and an ecumenist.
He was a source of fascination for large numbers of people all
over the world. And, more than that, in the years since his death,
he has been seen increasingly as a man who continues to speak with
a prophetic voice.
He was down-to-earth, direct, and spontaneous in his dealings
with people, a man of great personal charm, with an inner freedom
and a disarming friendliness. Those who knew him best recall
gaiety, infectious humour, and belly laughs.
He was also more than able to push at the boundaries, to be a
nuisance: questioning and provoking as he attempted, time and
again, to renegotiate the ground-rules of his monastic commitment.
I certainly would not have wanted to be his abbot.
He was wounded and compromised in all kinds of ways, and yet he
could speak about God, and present the claims of faith and prayer.
I suspect that for many he is more impressive and persuasive
because of his vibrant but flawed humanity.
FEW things commend Merton more completely to people today than his
delight in the natural world. The woods that surrounded the abbey
in Kentucky gave him the solitude he needed for contemplative
prayer. He delighted in the colours, the sounds, and the rhythms.
And he grasped intuitively the interdependence of all life.
He had a great reverence for the holiness of all created things.
There can be little doubt that, if he had lived for another ten or
15 years, he would have been in the forefront of discussions about
the environment. He abhorred the fact that human beings - while
being in the world, and part of the whole creation - were actually
"destroying everything, because we are destroying ourselves,
spiritually, morally, and in every way".
Merton is probably best-known as a contemplative, but he
rejected any idea that contemplation was something removed from the
experiences of everyday life. It was rather, he said, about a depth
of awareness, an entirely new perspective, an openness to all that
He was absolutely clear that "The true contemplative is not less
interested than others in normal life, not less concerned with what
goes on in the world, but more interested, more concerned."
Merton has probably done more than any other spiritual writer in
the past 100 years to plead for a far greater contemplative
dimension in the life of the Church. But he knew that contemplation
also has a prophetic dimension. Contemplation - like monasticism -
is not an evasion, or escape. It requires an openness to God and to
For Merton, contemplation was the springboard for all the things
he had to say about a multiplicity of things: the decline of
Western civilisation; the fantasies and seductions of the
contemporary scene; the arrogance of the great powers; the abuses
of power by institutions; the freedom of the individual; racial
justice; and the appetite for violence.
For Merton, the boundary markers were the priority of God, of
the individual, of freedom, and of conscience.
HE LOOKED for a Church that embraced the future rather than simply
embodied the past. He wanted it to be "a stumbling block, a sign of
contradiction", and he was clear that "The Christian cannot fully
be what he is meant to be in the modern world, if he is not in some
way interested in building a better society free of war, of racial
and social injustice, of poverty, and of discrimination."
The global dimension was all-important. He found the presence of
Christ in all humankind, and what he therefore sought was a global
consciousness, a global ethic.
For him, it followed that - when it came to matters of faith - a
global vision required a global ecumenism. His faith in God, and in
the Church as the body of Christ, was never called in question, but
he believed that Christians must now live out their discipleship in
a post-Christian world. So he sought a new definition of the
Church's task, a wider ecumenism.
He set his face firmly against any kind of religious syncretism,
but, as he engaged in correspondence and conversation with Jews,
Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, he identified a shared inheritance
of faith and contemplative wisdom without which people could not
recover their humanity and their freedom.
MERTON remains elusive and enigmatic. His literary agent, Naomi
Burton Stone, who had known him as a close personal friend over
many years, admitted that everyone knew a different Merton. And he
himself acknowledged, towards the end of his life, that most people
did not know what to make of him.
Few would dissent, however, from the judgement of the editor and
publisher Robert Giroux, that "he was one of the most remarkable
men of our time," and, even more, as the retired Abbot John Eudes
Bamberger said, that "he continues to speak to us today in
circumstances that, in many respects, are marked by the issues he
identified as crucial for our world."
Those who knew Merton would recall the twinkling eye, the ready
riposte, the lightness of touch, the good humour, but also the
wounds, flaws, and torment.
His monastic call seems essential to the man. He wrestled with
his discontents within the austere framework of his vocation, which
served as the crucible and created his prophetic consciousness.
But, for the individual, Merton continues to speak a word of
hope: "Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present
in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an
understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in
books or heard in sermons."
Perhaps the contradictions in which he was caught up, the
discontents with which he lived, serve as his credentials to a
world in which we struggle to come to terms with our own experience
of disconnectedness, fragmentation, and self-destruction.
The Very Revd Dr John Moses is Dean Emeritus of St Paul's,
and the author of Divine Discontent: The prophetic voice of Thomas
Merton, published by Bloomsbury at £20 (Church Times
Bookshop £18 - Use code CT388 ).
Review by Esther de Waal,