This year is the 100 anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, ordained a priest in 1949, died Dec. 18, 1968. He is considered a major 20th century Catholic spiritual writer, thinker, and even a "mystic", by some.
A Prolific and Respected Author
Merton wrote 70 books on a wide range of topics: spirituality, monasticism, prayer, contemplation, comparative religion – especially Eastern and Christian – social justice, civil rights, nuclear arms, pacifism, as well as collections of poetry.
His most popular book was his bestselling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948). It had a tremendous impact and was responsible for a great number of World War II Veterans, college students and other youths entering monasteries across the U.S. during the 50s. The magazine, National Review, featured the book in its list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century.
Merton's influence has grown since his death in 1968. There are a number of Merton study centers and groups throughout the United States. Interest in his work has played an important part in the rise of spiritual exploration during the last decades.
I believe much of his popularity can be attributed to the humanity evident in his work. His spiritual writings are very "incarnational" – filled with common sense. His ideas resonate in many of us because his spirituality courses in and through our own flesh and blood.
His book, New Seeds of Contemplation, had a strong impact on my own spirituality. During my formation years for the priesthood I reread it every year for eight years straight. In one of the early editions of the book he had a phrase that completely woke me up to a totally new kind of spiritual awareness. He writes:
“Sometimes contemplatives think that the whole end and essence of their life is to be found in recollection and interior peace and the presence of God. But recollection is just as much a creature as an automobile. The sense of interior peace is no less created than a bottle of wine. The experimental “awareness” of the presence of God is just as truly a created thing as a glass of beer” (Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pages 35 &37, emphasis added).
That was a vivid, understandable, "feelable" line about God that I had never come across in spiritual books. It took God out of the air, out of the "up there" and suddenly a "relationship" with God seemed to truly possible. It set me on a whole new level of "awe." I still pick that book up every now and then, because it never fails to stir me, to reignite my spiritual hungers, thirsts – to fan my dulled embers into flame. Merton never ceases to be a gift to me.
A Truly Inspiring Life’s Journey
Merton's humanity can be discovered and accessed by reading many of his journals and letters that have been published before and after his death. Some contain events that may make some readers uncomfortable, especially those who want those who "inspire" them to maintain a certain "aura." Merton wanted to be completely honest, from the beginning, actually. But others, such as his abbot, did not permit it. Some significant editing was done to his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain. In fact, Merton had fathered a child in England during his very care-free years. Apparently the child and mother died during the war bombardment. Many were quite shocked when this was made known after his death.
A Prophetic Voice
Many Catholics were upset with his involvement with Eastern religions, his writings urging pacifism and nuclear disarmament, his bold statements concerning civil rights. Yet, in Seven Story Mountain Merton had already written an extraordinary passage about Harlem. In the chapter, "The Sleeping Volcano," he describes meeting Baroness Catherine de Hueck and spending time at Friendship House which she had founded in Harlem.
He writes of the extensive, dehumanizing conditions he saw in Harlem. He was greatly disturbed that the Communists were very evident in offering help. But, in general, the response to our black brothers and sisters from other whites and Christians was mostly lack of interest and a failure to do anything effective. In the midst of his experience, Merton's spiritual and faith sensitivity, resulted in his writing that Harlem would one day rise in judgment against our failure because Christ lives in those brothers and sisters.
He wrote this in the mid-40s, twenty years before the civil rights movement. Merton was already the voice of a prophet crying out from a place that people thought was meant to be an isolate place – a monastery. But Merton believed the monk/religious was not to flee from the world, but to plunge into the heart of the suffering world, not only with prayers, but also with whatever gift he or she might have been given by God – writing, art, music, etc.
The Fullest of Human Beings
In April, 1966, Merton had surgery, in a Louisville, Kentucky. hospital, for debilitating back pain. During his recuperation period, a student nurse was assigned to care for him. Merton, 51 years old, fell in love with her. He wrote poems to her and reflections on their relationship. These writings describe a man deeply in love but also struggling with his desire to maintain his vowed commitments. These writings powerfully witness to many of the things he had written concerning the spiritual life: the need to be fully alive as a human being; the call to integrate all parts of ourselves into a spirituality that does not divide us into body and soul; the "yes" we give in our commitment is one that must often be repeated throughout our lives and often involves a struggle, if we are honest and truthful.
Many people were very upset when they learned of this struggle. But this was Thomas Merton, the committed monk, and he was not all peaceful and serene. He was involved in a totally real struggle and he wasn’t sure where this was going to lead him. An agony in the garden? Undoubtedly. Yet for all of us, his was a vibrant example of the spiritual journey.
Death Comes to the Monk
Merton died on Dec. 18, 1968, in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had gone to give presentations at an interfaith conference between Catholics and non-Christian monastic traditions. Other participants were the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer, D.T. Suzuki, and the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. After giving a conference, Merton went to his room, showered and as he walked into the room, apparently he was accidentally electrocuted by the faulty wiring connected to a stand up fan. The fan then fell on him, leaving burnt imprints on his chest. He died twenty-seven years to the day after his entrance into the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941. He is buried at Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky.
A Link between Merton and La Salette
There are two links can be found between Merton and La Salette. The first is not particularly felicitous. On his way to Asia for the interfaith conference, Merton visited the Shrine at La Salette in France. In the journal he kept of the trip, published as The Asian Journal, he writes in a footnote, that he thought the Basilica at La Salette was one of the ugliest he had ever seen. This was in 1968 when the walls of the Basilica were still covered with crutches, arm and leg braces, and also with "ex votos" - little metal or wax mementos pilgrims left, signifying favors they had obtained through the intercession of Our Lady of La Salette. Some were in the shape of arms, legs, hearts, faces, etc.
This was not unusual and still exists in many shrines, as signs of favors granted, prayers answered. Many pilgrims draw inspiration when they see these objects. They are reminders of graces granted.
However, since 1968, the Basilica at La Salette has undergone extensive renovation and the "ex votos" have been removed and the original, raw, carved rock walls are once again in full view. It is important to keep in mind that at La Salette, most of the miracles are conversions of spirit, transformations of life, reconciliation with God, in relationships. Many of us who have worked there as chaplains can relate powerful stories of that reality.
The Basilica may not be "beautiful," but it is an amazing structure. It was built from the stone blasted, carved, chiseled from the very mountain on which it stands and done primarily by the peasant workers of the area. It welcomes thousands of pilgrims every year.
A more powerful connection between Merton and La Salette is the poem, "La Salette," found in Selected Poems of Thomas Merton published by New Directions in 1959, and later included in a collection of his poems. It was written in 1996, as the poem itself tells us, "it is a hundred years since” Our Lady appeared in 1846.
Striking, beautiful, evocative images fill the early stanzas. Those who know the details of the story of the apparition and how it was recounted have no difficulty in understanding the images. Merton focuses primarily on the message being so quickly forgotten. He looks at the consequences – what has happened since 1846 – the World Wars. And he, the pacifist, stares with horror at our world of nuclear weapons, seeing them as chariots of Armageddon. The state of our world today is the fulfilled result of an unconverted world. "La Salette" is a poem of tremendous intensity and disturbing power.
By Fr. Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O
It is a hundred years since your shy feet
Ventured to stand upon the pasture grass of the high Alps.
Coming no deeper in our smoky atmosphere
Than these blue skies, the mountain eyes
Of the two shepherd children, young as flowers,
Born to be dazzled by no mortal snow.
Lady, it is a hundred years
Since those fair, terrible tears
Reproved, with their amazing grief
All the proud candor of those altitudes:
Crowning the flowers at your feet
With diamonds, that seized upon, transfigured into nails of light.
The rays of the mountain sun ! -
And by their news,
(Which came with cowbells to the evening village
And to the world with church-bells
After not too many days.)
And by their news.
We thought the walls of all hard hearts
Had broken down, and given in,
Poured out their dirty garrisons of sin,
And washed the streets with our own blood, if need be –
-- Only to have them clean !
And though we did not understand
The weight and import of so great a sorrow,
We never thought so soon to have seen
The loss of its undying memory,
Passing from the black world without a word.
Without a funeral !
For while our teeth were battling in the meat of miracles and favors,
Your words, your prophecies, were all forgotten !
Now, one by one,
The things you said
Have come to be fulfilled.
John, in the might of his Apocalypse, could not foretell
Half of the story of our monstrous century,
In which the arm of your inexorable Son,
Bound, by His truth, to disavow your intercession
For this wolf-world, this craven zoo,
Has bombed the doors of hell clean off their hinges,
And burst the cage of antichrist,
And roused, with His first two great thunderbolts,
The chariots of Armageddon.
(Poem, La Salette, by Thomas Merton, from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF THOMAS MERTON, copyright @1977 by Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.)