Daily Herald

Thomas Merton’s illicit affair and the weakness of 60s Zen Catholicism

Trappist Father Thomas Merton pictured in an undated photo (CNS photo/Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University)

The Trappist celebrity monk is an icon for the post-war Church

A recent book about Thomas Merton highlights his illicit six-month affair with a young woman. Garry Wills calls the tryst between the fifty-one-year-old Trappist celebrity monk and the twenty-five-year-old woman an instance of “shallow calling to shallow.”

Merton wrote from his “monastic solitude”: “I keep remembering her body, her nakedness, the day at Wygal’s, and it haunts me.” In his poems to her, he would write of their “worshipping hands” and how “I cling to the round hull / Of your hips.”

I have never been a fan of Merton. For all his literary gifts, I could never find my way in. It is surely due to a bias of my own. His introduction to Augustine’s City of God is almost laughably bad. Over the years I’ve occasionally thought about reading his Seven Storey Mountain, but the pull was never strong enough. I couldn’t shake the hint of cocktail party mysticism about him.

That is not to say Thomas Merton was not the real thing. It is not to say that six months of “shallow calling to shallow” negates the value of his life and witness as a Trappist monk, having entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941 just as the Draft Board loomed over him. Becoming a monk was in many ways an escape from a world that was coming apart, and it was also a way of trying to bring “seeds of contemplation” in a time of enormous fear.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Atom Bomb, Merton sought to bring peace through his words — perhaps to himself, most of all. There is something of the post-war devastation in his desire for a sort of Zen Catholicism that people very much wanted in the 1960s.

There is nothing terribly surprising about Merton’s affair to me. I wish it were otherwise. But it seems like an important window into a Catholic icon of sixties optimism — an icon which was morally and spiritually depleted enough to seek solace in the “round hull of hips” when what the world really needed was a new, doubtless very different, Bernard of Clairvaux.

Pray for all souls in purgatory.