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A life of divine discontent

13 February 2015

Thomas Merton was born 100 years ago this year. John Moses, Merton's biographer, profiles the enigmatic and contradictory spiritual writer

Merton Legacy Trust & Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University

Lone voice: Thomas Merton outside his hermitage at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani

Lone voice: Thomas Merton outside his hermitage at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani

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 others.

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 is.

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 the world.

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, Books

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