Michael McVeigh, Melbourne Catholic Magazine
Fifty years after his death, Thomas Merton’s writings still attract many people seeking wisdom and spiritual guidance. But Fr Michael Casey OCSO says the man behind the words was more complex than one might think.
At the International Symposium on Thomas Merton in Rome in June this year, the question was asked, ‘Would Merton have still been a writer if he was living in our times, or would he have been a blogger or tweeter?’
There’s an element of irony to the question. The Cistercian monk might have been a bestselling author in the 1950s and 1960s, but today Merton is still a multimedia celebrity. Quotes from his books and journals can be found everywhere on blogs and social media. A Twitter account that posts daily snippets of his wisdom has more than thirty thousand followers. A number of other Twitter accounts also bear his name and feature his words.
But beyond the wisdom that he left, few seem to have much of an understanding of Merton as a person.
‘People tend to project their own image onto him’, says Australian Cistercian Fr Michael Casey, who was one of the keynote speakers at the symposium. ‘He becomes almost a hologram. A hologram may be an interesting kind of reality but it’s not the real person, and Merton was nothing if not unpredictable.’
A rich and complex personality
Thomas Merton died in Thailand fifty years ago this year, on 10 December 1968, at the age of 53. Despite living a secluded life, he had become famous through his bestselling books, and his wisdom was sought by many contemporaries both Catholic and non-Catholic, from peace activist Daniel Berrigan, to musician Joan Baez, to the Dalai Lama.
Fr Casey says one of the things that interests him about Merton is that he is so attractive to such a wide variety of people.
‘If you attend a symposium on Merton, as I did in Rome in June, where there were 30 or 40 people presenting papers on different aspects of Merton, it’s as though there’s a whole rainbow of approaches and opinions about what he was, what he meant, what he taught, what he thought, and what he didn’t think’, says Casey. ‘He’s obviously a very rich and complex personality.’
Reading his bestselling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, we might know Merton as a highly educated man, from a highly secular world, who found a home in Catholicism.
Merton spent his childhood in France, the son of a New Zealander father and American mother. He studied in England and the United States.
‘He was a spiritual nomad’, says Fr Casey. ‘He was always wandering, always seeking for something. When he found it, he was not satisfied with it for long. He tended to move on, to be ever looking for something in which he could find a degree of fulfilment and satisfaction of his own spiritual yearnings and longings.'
‘Everywhere he went he was an outsider, and it’s from this perspective that he becomes clearly able to see some of the liabilities that would perhaps be invisible to natives living in those environments. This was the kind of vision that inspired him at once to be very critical of what he was seeing, and all the more energetic in envisaging a superior kind of alternative.’
Merton’s 1948 autobiography ends with his decision to become a monk and his arrival at Gethsemani, but his story, of course, continued. He had found a home but it wasn’t a completely happy one. He entered monastic life before Vatican II, and while he welcomed what it meant for the Church, he was critical of the abbots in charge of his community and many of the changes that took place. He also experienced struggles in his own life, falling in love with a young nurse he met while recuperating from back surgery in 1966.
‘He always writes most eloquently when he’s got something to criticise’, says Fr Casey. ‘In many ways he was very perceptive about some of the liabilities that monasticism carried in the period before the Second Vatican Council. He’s very clear in what’s wrong with monastic life, and this provides him with the opportunity to reverse the picture, as it were, and to envisage a monastic life which is free of these liabilities - which is much more open to the world, much more flexible, but at the same time is much more conscious of its own particular discipline and the need to maintain its own focus on what are the essential monastic values.’
While Merton experienced challenges in monastic life, he also conceded that it was better than any life on offer outside the monastery. Indeed, two days before his death on his long-awaited trip abroad, Merton wrote a postcard to a friend: ‘I have not found what I came to find. I have not found any place of hermitage that is any better than the hermitage I have, or had, at Gethsemani, which is after all places, a great place.’
Understanding Merton through his words
We might think of Merton as a man of consistent wisdom and insight. But those who study his writing - his books, his letters and his personal journals - get to know a more complex belief structure. His encounters with different people, and different viewpoints, were highly influential.
‘It’s clear, for example, in his journals after he would meet somebody he would be full of them, and full of their positions. If it was a zen master, then for the next week he would be full of interest in zen. But this would fade with the next interesting person that he encountered.’
There were, however, certain themes that emerged in Merton’s writing, which developed and deepened over time. One was what Fr Casey calls the ‘journey to abstraction’, the movement away from the ‘concrete, from the visible, from the accepted, from the obvious’ into something more abstract.
Another is the idea of the ‘deep self’. Fr Casey says Merton’s distinction between the public self - or the outer self - and the biographical or internal self, is one of the central themes of his spiritual texts.
‘His great understanding of spirituality was that it’s this moving away from this exterior self - this superficial self - and finding the deep self, the real self, the inner self.’
Fr Casey notes that in Michael Mott’s biography of Merton, the author takes a moment in his account of the funeral to note how each person there seems to be marking a different aspect of the monk. The author wonders how many different Thomas Mertons are being buried.
There is at least one Merton that wasn’t buried that day. That Merton is a wisdom figure whose legacy will last well into the future.