Thomas Merton was funny, daring and loquacious. That got him into trouble with the Church authorities, but it didn’t stop him becoming a great modern spiritual guide

As we mark the centenary of Thomas Merton’s birth this week many are holding him up as an exemplar of the Catholic faith. No one would have found this funnier than Merton himself, for the Trappist monk was a seeker of sanctity, but not of sainthood. Let me explain.

Merton’s modest view of himself comes over clearly in his correspondence with his great friend, the American poet Robert Lax. Their so-called “anti-letters”, written in a comic style, show that Merton thought the notion that he was a model for anyone was hilarious. He understood that the essence of the spiritual path was to abandon self and be lost in God. Spiritual life was not about inflating the ego, but having compassion and love for others, for in everyone we come across we meet Christ. Bob Lax believed that, too, and spent many years living as a hermit on Patmos, the Greek island mentioned in the Book of Revelation.

Merton’s legacy has been hotly disputed ever since his untimely death in Thailand in 1968. When the Catholic Church in America was putting together an adult catechism in 2005, Merton’s life and work featured prominently in an early draft.

Then two writers – Mgr Michael Wren and Kenneth Whitehead – published a sharp critique of the decision to include Merton. They described him as “a lapsed monk”, who wandered around the East “seeking the consolation of non-Christian spirituality”. They also referred to him as a “one-time professed religious” who had “left his monastery”.

Those claims were baseless. The most basic research would have revealed that Merton had died as a monk of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where he is buried. When he died, as a result of a tragic accident involving a faulty electric fan, he was attending an interfaith conference in Bangkok with the full support of his abbot. While he was in Thailand he diligently observed the monastic office, celebrated Mass daily and wore his habit on most occasions. Not bad for “a lapsed monk”.

Astonishingly, the American bishops took the critique of Merton seriously. He was removed from the draft, purportedly “on grounds of gender balance”. A lively controversy ensued and there was a petition for Merton to be reinstated. But the American Catechism eventually appeared without the Merton section. As we mark 100 years since Merton’s birth on January 31, it’s worth reflecting on why his life and work can still provoke such intense and contradictory reactions.

Merton lost his mother when he was a child and his father died when he was an adolescent. He lived at various times in France and England, and then in America. He was not brought up in a religious environment, though his father was an artist and certainly a spiritual person.

In England, Merton lived under the guidance of a guardian who lost patience with him during his somewhat dissolute years at Cambridge. He was banished to America, where he attended Columbia University. There he made lifelong friends and outstanding teachers influenced his spiritual search.

Merton became a Catholic, ultimately joining the Trappists in Kentucky. His first abbot recognised his gifts as a writer and encouraged him to develop them. This led to the famous autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (published in Britain as Elected Silence, with a foreword by Evelyn Waugh). The work became a bestseller and has inspired countless men and women to enter religious life.

So far so good, perhaps, but of course life does not stand still, even for contemplative monks. Merton gradually realised that parts of the autobiography idealised monastic life. In particular, he somewhat regretted his famous comment that in his monastery he had found “the centre of America”, for there, in prayer and silence, was the authentic life.

He grew to understand that we are all intimately connected as sons and daughters of God, and we don’t have to be an enclosed monk or nun to lead a contemplative life. He spoke movingly and tellingly of the “hermitage of the heart”, explaining that even in our busy day-to-day lives we can find time for silence and reflection.

Merton continued to write, and a wide range of thoughts and reflections emerged from his disciplined monastic life. Most were about the search for God. This profound aspect of Merton is often lost as people tend to focus on his personality, overanalysing his character while neglecting his insights into spiritual life. (There are notable exceptions, including the recently published Divine Discontent by John Moses, dean emeritus of St Paul’s Cathedral.)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Merton’s writings began to reflect a commitment to justice for the poor, civil rights for black Americans and support for the peace movement. All of this grew out of his monastic life, as well as Catholic theology. It’s no accident that both St John XXIII and Blessed Paul VI had a deep regard for his writings and communicated with him.

Those made uncomfortable by his writings labelled him “political” and succeeded in having him banned from publishing anything on peace issues. Merton took this literally and didn’t publish anything on such matters. But he did write letters about peace to friends and encouraged them to share them with others. These were eventually published as The Cold War Letters. When Merton was asked what he thought of John XXIII’s famous encyclical Pacem in Terris, which appeared to share many of Merton’s views, he replied: “Isn’t the Pope lucky he isn’t a Trappist?”

Merton was allowed to correspond more than is usual for a Trappist monk. His correspondence reflects the depth of the experience that he drew from silence and meditation.

He also engaged other Christians, hosting inter-denominational discussions at the monastery as early as the 1950s. Today, Merton is remembered in the Anglican calendar on December 10, the date of his death. Anglicans seem to have a more rounded approach to holiness in that they are concerned not with canonisations, but with the witness of people who are worth remembering, even though they have imperfections. That seems more real than the conviction that only perfection is worthy of imitation.

Merton also famously reached out to Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. He had a particular affinity with the latter’s contemplative aspect and was regarded by Buddhists as one of the few Westerners who truly understood their tradition. Merton’s short preface in the book Thomas Merton on Zen is regarded as one of the finest summaries of the Zen tradition ever written.

While in Asia, he met the Dalai Lama three times. The meetings were marked by great friendliness and laughter. The Tibetan leader said it was only after meeting Merton that he began to fully appreciate Christianity. Whenever he is in America the Dalai Lama visits Merton’s monastery if he can and spends time at his grave.
There is no doubt that Merton was a fallible human being (as we all are). But those who were outraged that he wrote about justice issues failed to see the heart of the Gospel in what he had to say. Others were scandalised that he fell in love, late in life, with a nurse who was attending him in a local hospital. But he made no attempt to hide that unique human experience and how it informed his vocation as a monk.

Few of Merton’s critics realise that he was pivotal in reintroducing the hermit vocation to the Cistercians. He was eventually allowed to live in a hermitage in the monastery grounds, though he remained busy. His friend Jim Forest, who wrote a fine biography of the monk, teasingly described him as “the hermit of Times Square”.
Merton’s last writings demolish the claim that he was a “lapsed monk”. His Asian Journal, published posthumously, shows him reflecting deeply on his “home” at Gethsemani and his appreciation of the Trappist community there, who were his family even if they drove him to distraction at times.

In preparation for this article I went into a religious bookshop in London and found a couple of books by and about Merton. Then I went to Foyles and there in the religious section found 22 books by or about Merton. Their jackets were pristine. The manager said they were in mint condition because Merton’s books sold so well and
she had to constantly replace them.

Actually, it would be good if fewer books were written about Merton and people went directly to his writings. For he tells us about our need for God, and how the love of God should inflame our hearts and minds to compassionate love for our fellow human beings, especially the neediest. As Bob Lax wrote: “The greatest thing you can do in this life is to cultivate and experience compassion. Life is about entering the heart and making it the fount of your being.”

Merton’s writings still have the power to change lives, guiding seekers to the God who loves them unreservedly and calls them to love their fellow humans in that way, too. This is the hidden vocation of Thomas Merton, which continues so remarkably a centenary after his birth.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (30/1/15)