Friday, April 12, 2019

On Thomas Merton, contra Garry Wills

I came into the Church not only by the philosophical route (studying Aquinas at a Lutheran college) but also by way of discovering the writings of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day (both of whom profoundly influenced my decision to convert). I wouldn't characterize myself as a "devotee" of Merton, but I've appreciated his work, particularly his private journals as well as his contributions to interreligious dialogue (where if anything I like him for his ability to engage Buddhism, Hinduism and Islamic Sufism with a clarity and precision that is often found wanting in the casual syncretism of contemporary dialogue today).

Which brings me to the newly published review by Garry Wills of Mary Gordon's On Thomas Merton, now making its way through Facebook and Twitter: "Shallow Calls to Shallow: On Thomas Merton 50 Years After His Death" (Harpers April 2019). True to form, Wills' take on Merton is particularly caustic, from his dismissal of the Seventh Story Mountain ("not much more than third-rate Joyce, fourth-rate Eliot, and some out-of-date Surrealism") to deriving rather great enjoyment in selectively-excerpted details of an affair, ultimately writing off of Merton as simply another phony:

[Merton's attempts to conceal the affair] are one with a pattern built into his “apostolate” as the with-it monk. He pretended to love the monastic community he thought full of “half-wits,” whom he wanted nothing more to do with, as part of the quest for a “greater solitude” he used to increase his audience of fans and the famous. He wanted the best of both worlds, as a holy preacher and a covert sinner.

On the matter of Merton's affair

Taking stock of Merton's affair, it's understandable how one might arrive at the conclusion: "Thomas Merton was a bad horrible individual. He abused the power of his office to prey sexually on an emotional vulnerable woman half his age, just because he could." The relationship certainly had aspects that were exploitative: she was a volunteer nurse, he a renowned and celebrated author. She was reportedly 25 (though some accounts place her even younger), he was 51, and in her care. Whether "M." would cast herself as helpless victim we do not know: she would go on to marry another and has opted to maintain a perpetual state of silence about the subject; Merton on the other hand chronicled every step in his journal, which was posthumously released.

Re-reading those passages from 66-67, my sense is less of Merton as predator than a celibate monk utterly blindsided by a dizzying, intoxicating plunge into eros -- though whether the relationship ever actually resulted in sexual "consumation" is questionable (Wills infers that it happened; textual evidence however is lacking). In any case, Merton should have known better, and the entire matter comes across as more confusing than Wills lets on. The content of the journal entries from this period vacillate between lovesick rationalizations, romantic celebrations, and moments of genuine moral anguish as Merton reconciles what he perceives as his love for "M." (and "M.'s" professed love for him) with his religious vocation and priesthood.

As to the question of whether he eventually repented, Merton seems to have achieved a state of regret with time, distance and perhaps -- though not absolving him of his moral responsibility -- attaining some measure of sobriety as well. I can't say I particularly cared for Mark Shaw's book on the affair (Beneath the Mask of Holiness), but he did make an interesting observation:

... a valid interpretation based on his journal entries leaves little doubt alcohol was, at the least, a contributing factor in the romance with Margie. Certainly his words indicate alcohol was a constant companion as the relationship intensified, perhaps a fortifier of the courage he needed to keep the love flame alive, despite a reality check now and then. His passion for Margie was intense, and the alcohol may have bolstered his feelings of manhood. Few Merton scholars have approached this subject, perhaps out of respect for him, or because no one has heretofore connected the dots between his pre-monastic conduct and Merton’s intermittent drinking during the Margie affair. It does appear that after he had finally decided to choose God over Margie, the drinking was curtailed, evidence that alcohol was less of a crutch than before.
Nonetheless, two years later he would write:
"It was a humbling experience: What I see is this: that while I imagine I was functioning fairly successfully, I was living a sort of patched up, crazy existence, a series of rather hopeless improvisations, a life of unreality in many ways. Always underlain by a certain solid silence and presence, a faith, a clinging to the invisible God – and this clinging (perhaps rather His holding on to me) has been in the end the only thing that made sense. The rest has been absurdity …. I will probably go on like this for the rest of my life. There is "I" – this patchwork, this bundle of questions and doubts and obsessions, this gravitation to silence and to the woods and to love. This incoherence!"
And a year after that, in 1967:
"I was literally shaken and disturbed, knowing clearly that I was all wrong, that I was going against everything that made sense in my life, going against everything that was true and authentic in my vocation, going against the grace and love of God." (4/10/67).

Merton's life is complex, flawed, psychologically troubled, subject to human vice and sin. The vows of a priest and the solitary life of a Trappist monk do not render one immune from temptation, and that Merton stumbled (greatly) along the way comes as no surprise. But I'd venture that we can yet learn from him, and he will likely persist in leading many into the Church. Reading his journals, I still find myself profoundly awed by the rigorous, unrelenting scrutinizing to which he subjected himself; the perpetual assessment of motives and the open acknowledgement of his failure and duplicity.

Commenting to Wills' article on Twitter, Greg Hillis (Associate Professor of Theology, Bellarmine U.) observes:

"... it would have been very easy for Merton to burn his private journals or at least to tear out the pages in which he talks about his relationship with Margie (he knew the journals would be published 25 years after his death). He he knew the potential damage this might have to his reputation. To me, this manifests a remarkable humility, a willingness to allow himself to be known, warts and all."

On Merton's Turn toward the East

Somebody else alludes to having burned Merton's later books, another claiming "his mysticism is closer to Buddhism than authentic Catholic mysticism". I notice in those unfamiliar with Merton a tendency to place his interest in other religions as something of a lark, a "post-Vatican II" infatuation. It might come as a surprise, but Merton's interest in other religions came much earlier, even in college and predating his entrance into the monastery; his later exploration of Buddhism was hardly the resigned capitulation of a disinterested and "lapsed" Catholic. Jim Forrest, a longtime friend of Merton:

"It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton's life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton's hermitage -- he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious."
For another fair-minded, rather more charitable (and yet still critical, from an orthodox perspective) assessment of Thomas Merton one might turn to "A Many-Storied Monastic: A Critical Memoir of Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey" by Patrick Henry Reardon (Touchstone Sept/Oct 2011), who also dispels spurious rumors that Merton lost his faith:
a couple of decades ago a well-known Orthodox writer, learning that I had been a novice under Merton’s tutelage, expressed misgivings about him: “It seems to me,” he confessed, “that Merton was a writer first, a monk second, and a Christian last.”

I was happy to dispel that impression. From my earliest meeting with Merton (at 4 p.m. on December 28, 1955) I was moved by the sense of his deep conversion, metanoia, and the humility that exuded from his person. He said to me, “I have reached the point in my spiritual life at which I am certain that I know nothing about the spiritual life.”

In addition, it is a documented fact that Merton, unto the day he died, cultivated standard and traditional disciplines of Christian piety: the observance of the Canonical Hours, the daily recitation of the rosary, the habit of regular Eucharistic adoration, the constant recitation of the Jesus Prayer, and so forth. These were not the practices of a Buddhist.

I suppose what I find most disappointing about Will's cherry-picked tabloidesque expose is the manner in which it will (predictably) provide a vehicle for a sanctimonious pile-on in the comboxes and an altogether convenient excuse never to engage the breadth and diversity of his works. I can take heart, however, as I've learned that Greg Hillis is in the process of writing a book that looks at "how seriously Merton took his identity as a Catholic, as a priest, as a monk, and also examines his Eucharistic theology." Perhaps Wills won't get the last word on Merton after all.



  1. Coming to this very late, but I think Wills is referring to "My Arguments with the Gestapo" rather than "The Seven Storey Mountain" as "not much more than third-rate Joyce, fourth-rate Eliot, and some out-of-date Surrealism."

    1. Yes, indeed. "Gestapo" is one of 5 novels Merton wrote pre-conversion, and the only one he did not destroy, and had it published posthumously. THAT is the book Wills makes this snarky remark about, NOT "The Seven Story Mountain".