THOMAS MERTON was born 100 years ago tomorrow. Just as people
remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated, I
can recall with intense clarity the moment when I discovered Thomas
I was at the Sisterhood of St John the Divine in Toronto,
several years ago, trying to decide whether God was calling me to
become a nun, or whether I had totally misunderstood his
instructions. It was a steamy summer afternoon, and my faith was
wilting. Moping in the Sisterhood's guesthouse library, my eyes
landed on Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey
His name had come up in conversations about religion's great and
good, but I had assumed that he was just another boring,
time-warped priest banging on about another "revolutionary"
interpretation of the Gospels. Having nothing else to read at the
time, I pulled The Seven Storey Mountain from the shelf,
slumped in a chair, and opened the book.
Two pages in and you could not have prised it from my hands;
five pages in, and I was frantically Googling "Merton" for his
contact information. The crushing disappointment that I was 42
years too late is still palpable.
Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Merton's prolific
output will no doubt be taken aback by the milestone: Merton seems
too modern, too "young" to be 100 years old. Read anything of his
right now and you will be struck by its modernity, its confidence
and muscularity. He wasn't afraid to throw a punch: academic,
cultural, political, religious - Merton sparred with it. He loved
God, but he was also critical of institutional religion. That
endeared him to people back in the 1950s and '60s, and it resonates
with people today. His famous prayer, with its mash-up of The
Road Less Travelled and Psalm 23, taps into the Zeitgeist: "My
Lord God, I have no idea where I am going./ I do not see the road
ahead of me. . ."
I encountered varying attitudes to Merton from nuns and monks.
One said that The Seven Storey Mountain had played a part
in his decision to enter the religious life; another, when she saw
Merton on my desk, groaned with barely disguised contempt. But the
overwhelming majority were fans. Merton had an anti-Establishment
cockiness that endears him to the quiet rebel angels in religious
When he died in 1968, tentative steps were taken to elevate
Merton to sainthood. He was a pop star for the monastic set,
abetted by the whiff of the messianic in his back story - bohemian
artist parents (a New Zealander and an American), strangers in a
foreign land (France) who were devoted to their son, and who gave
him a free-range childhood (in the shadow of the Pyrenees). The
story moves from tragedy to tragedy as the child morphs into a
pampered misfit, a bewildered orphan, an arrogant toff, and then,
like Saul, stumbles towards conversion.
The trajectory toward sainthood, however, sputtered, when a
deluge of biographies and appreciations published after Merton's
death stripped off his Vatican veneer: Fr Louis (as Merton was
named in religion) proved to be rawer than was originally glimpsed.
Merton hadn't come completely clean about his past in The Seven
Storey Mountain. The drug use and promiscuity were well known
but, after his death, there was the discovery of his part in a
teenage pregnancy, and how his wealthy guardian had paid off the
girl's family. The fact that the teenage mother and her infant son
perished during the Blitz allows us better to understand the
private torture that dogged Merton.
There was a further juicy revelation that, while still clothed
in his Trappist habit, he had had a "gal on the side" and, at the
time of his death, was considering leaving his beloved Gesthemani.
Yet, how are any of these falls from grace different from the
recently canonised Angela of Foligno, the 13th-century good-time
girl who whored her way through life, until she repented of her
behaviour, and founded a religious order?
Like almost every saint, Merton possessed a complex personality:
his unmonk-like hubris versus his humility; his pining for freedom
from his monastic vows versus his determination to stick to them;
his desire for peace and quiet versus his penchant for sneaking out
of the monastery to drink, and mingle in the local bars with
Merton was the contemplative contradiction, and this makes him
deliciously relevant and accessible. Merton's writing stimulates
and edifies, and has much to offer the current conversation about
revisioning the Church. His centenary is a perfect opportunity to
introduce this imperfect monk-priest to a new generation.
Jane Christmas is the author of And Then There Were
Nuns (Lion Hudson).