05 August 2007

Thomas Merton, a brief public defense


Recently I participated in a discussion about Thomas Merton. It was a discussion in which some were quite critical of him, his later writings, and concluded that he was no real monk (he was said to be "inauthentic" and even supposedly hypocritical), and his later writings were to be eschewed except by "more advanced souls" who would not be led astray. Well, some of this discussion rankled with me, not only the idea that another monk could publicly state that, "He talked the talk, but he really didn't live the life," and especially the idea that Merton's work was B.S, in the sense that Merton had pulled the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting and gullible world. I believe that to be a misconstrual of Merton's actual meaning, even if the exact words are correct. The simple fact is I owe my vocation to Thomas Merton in some senses, and because of that, I also owe him a public defense. The following is an excerpt from the comments of a critic of Fr Louis's, and my response.

[[A Trappist monk once told me that Fr Merton entered into a room and saw bookshelves full of all his writings and he laughed. A friend who was with him asked him why he was laughing. He nodded towards his writings and replied " half of that is just B.S!!!! ]]

And Aquinas, at the end of his life, characterized all of his writings and thought as just so much straw, dross, waste ready for the fire. There are two ways to read the term bullshit. The first either is or includes a verbal or active sense: it implies the act of fraud or hypocrisy --- as a freshman in college might BS their way through a presentation without really knowing what they are talking about. The second is simply a comment on the quality of the work. It means that in comparison with real brilliance or the incommensurability or ineffability of the thing being described, one has done a terrible (that is, all-too-human) job. In fact, we don't know how Merton was using the term (as an apophatic contemplative he could simply have recognized every statement about God experienced in prayer is also a kind of betrayal of the God of intimacy who is always wholly other too), but I don't think we should conclude facilely that he meant his work was "fraudulent," any more than we should do so with Aquinas' comment about his own work.

You have actually cited only two monks who made comments regarding Merton, and the simple fact is, we may be seeing their flaws (judgmentalism, envy, narrowness of vision for instance) more than we are seeing Merton's. (Anyone living in community for any time at all will recognize the phenomenon that occurs when a fellow Brother or Sister is brilliant or particularly gifted in some way, and those who are more mediocre in many (or at least some of those same) ways, evaluate them.Monasteries do not lack for pettiness just because the members are monks and nuns.) But we must ask ourselves, in light of such accounts, "If Father Louis was not living the life, why was he permitted to move through all the stages of formation, profession, ordination and the like? If his work was hypocritical, then why did the Order allow it to be published? Why was he allowed (indeed at times exhorted and commanded) to continue an activity which was contributing to and would therefore have exacerbated his hypocrisy? If he was not REALLY Cistercian, why, in fact, was he allowed an intimate role in the formation of novices, juniors, etc?" Other Cistercians and monks of other Orders and monasteries recognize Merton as "the real deal," and they know quite well, there is no ideal monk, no one who REALLY lives the life without ALSO struggling with the life.

Merton was a flawed individual, yes. But he was neither a dilettante, nor simply a monk "wannabe." There is, as far as I can see, no stage in Merton's life when he gave up on growing and maturing in his vocation. Did he match peoples' stereotypes of either monk or hermit? No, but then he did show us that stereotypes are far less real, less authentic than a flawed character struggling to grow in Christ and monastic life day by day. Hermits know there is no single pattern for eremitic life. There are constants or fundamental elements, yes, but it is both a flexible and extremely individual life. Looking at another brother/sister monk or hermit (presuming the one doing the looking is also a monastic), one can make serious errors in evaluating her or his life in two ways: one can focus on the constants, the fundamentals of the life and miss the individual elements which are as significant in the whole, or one can focus on the individual elements and either miss or downplay the fundamentals that are there while concluding the person is "not really living the life." In both cases, one has erred in determining what is authentic. In any case, some of us find that Merton's writings ring true, and that one cannot write thusly about something one does not KNOW in the biblical sense. Monastic gossip (and I am sorry, but I honestly can use no other word for the disedifying accounts mentioned) is not necessary to draw such a conclusion.