Thomas Merton 1915-1968
He was a Trappist monk who for twenty-seven years, between 1941 and 1968, rarely stepped outside of the rural monastery in which he lived. So what could such a person possibly teach us about ourselves? As it turns out, a whole lot. From the opening paragraph of his autobiography:
"On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in the year of a great war and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers."
The oldest of two sons of an American mother and a father from New Zealand, both of his parents would be dead by his sixteenth birthday and his life and education would be financed by his maternal grandfather, a successful American businessman. After a disastrous year at Cambridge in England, where his excessive consumption of alcohol and sex resulted in a poor academic performance, he was sent back to America to finish his studies at Columbia University in New York City. After a brief flirtation with radical politics and the American Communist Party, he found himself drawn to the writings of several Catholic writers and philosophers. Responding to the world of 1939, a world which seemed to be headed toward utter destruction and chaos, he had an almost unexplainable desire to convert to Catholicism - but more than that - he wanted to become a priest. On November 16, 1938, he was baptized a catholic.
On December 10, 1941, three days after America declared war on Japan, he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane outside of Louisville, Kentucky. He became a Trappist Monk.
"I rang the bell at the gate....the window opened, and Brother Matthew looked out between the bars...
'Hello, Brother', I said.
He recognized me, glanced at the suitcase and said: 'This time have you come to stay?'
'Yes, brother, if you'll pray for me', I said.
'That's what I've been doing," he said, "praying for you'....
So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom."
In 1948, he was encouraged by the Abbot of the monastery to write his memoirs. Incredibly, the resulting effort, The Seven Storey Mountain, turned out to be one of the best selling books of the year. As Merton had been inspired by the events of the prewar world to enter a life of contemplation, so were thousands of people of all faiths inspired by the events of the post war world to question the very tenets of the so-called "American Century." Tom Merton not only planted the seeds that would eventually bear the fruit of what would evolve into the anti-war movement, he spoke out against racism at a time when most people didn't even know the definition of the word. From Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
"Blaming the Negro: this is not just a matter of rationalizing and verbalizing. It has become a strong emotional need of the white man. Blaming the Negro...gives the white a stronger sense of identity, or rather it protects an identity which is seriously threatened with pathological dissolution. It is by blaming the Negro that the white man tries to hold himself together...The Negro could really wreak havoc in white society by psychological warfare if he knew how to use it. Already the psychological weapon of nonviolence has proved effective as an attack on the white man's trumped-up image of himself as a righteous and Christian being."
He was vehemently anti-war even in times of relative peace. It should come as a surprise to no one that, like all voices of reason and sanity in the era in which he lived, he had a file in J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Through the machinations of various operators within the Catholic church and without, they even managed to have him censored for a period.
"A letter arrives stamped with the slogan 'The U.S. Army: Key to peace.' No army is the key to peace, neither the U.S. Army nor the Soviet Army nor any other. No "great" nation has the key to anything but war. Power has nothing to do with peace. The more men build up military power, the more they violate peace and destroy it."
His wisdom and correspondence were sought out by a broad range of people: from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Boris Pasternak and Martin Luther King. Toward the end of his career, comedian Lenny Bruce would end his nightclub performance with a recitation of a Merton poem which was a "defence" of concentration camp commandant, Adolf Eichmann:
I was a soldier,
a good soldier.
I saw the end of a conscientious day's effort.
I saw all the work that I did.
I, Adolf Eichmann,
watched through the portholes.
I saw every Jew burned
and turned into soap.
Do you people think yourselves better
because you burned your enemies
at long distances
Without ever seeing what you'd done to them?
Toward the end of his life, Thomas Merton was developing a profound interest in Islam, Hinduism and, specifically, Buddhism; trying to find a way to bridge the gap between eastern and western religions. In the autumn of 1968 he was invited to attend a conference of monks and nuns in Bangkok. It was here, on December 10, 1968, within an hour of having addressed the group, that his life ended in the room in which he was staying. He was electrocuted after touching a stand-up fan that had faulty wiring. He was fifty-three years old.
There is no question that in the year of 2007, nearly forty years after his untimely death, Thomas Merton still matters. He reaches out to us across the decades, an articulate and passionate advocate of Peace and Love and Silence. It was his prayerful belief that only by obliterating the noise of our lives - whether it be the electronic noise of our immediate surroundings or the noise of our minds - could we achieve a pure communion with God.
It would be nice if he were still here. Come to think of it: he is.
Pray for peace.
Meditate for peace.
Shout for peace.
Be silent for peace.
"Everyone who has read the gospel realizes that in order to be a Christian, one must give up being a fanatic, because Christianity is love. Love and fanaticism are incompatible."
SUGGESTED BOOKS BY THOMAS MERTON:
Seven Storey Mountain
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
The Sign of Jonas
New Seeds of Contemplation
The Waters of Siloe
The Ascent to Truth
Thoughts in Solitude
SUGGESTED BOOK ABOUT THOMAS MERTON:
"The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton" by Michael Mott
There are a few good books about Merton's life. This one is the best. It is the mountaintop of biographies.
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