Thomas Merton looms large in the Catholic imagination as the quintessentially post-Vatican II spiritual writer. That should tell us all we need to know about the extremes of devotion and hostility he continues to elicit half a century after his death.
Some call him a hypocrite. A Trappist monk, he travelled the world giving lectures and glad-handing dignitaries. He had an affair with a much younger woman while he was supposed to be living as a hermit.
His defenders, however, see a spiritual genius who, like the rest of us, longed for a holiness he could never quite achieve. As the writer Mary Gordon quipped: “If Thomas Merton had been a writer and not a monk, we would never have heard of him. If Thomas Merton had been a monk and not a writer, we would never have heard of him.”
Gordon’s new book, On Thomas Merton, has reignited the debate. A scathing review in Harper’s Magazine by the eminent Catholic intellectual Garry Wills was the first salvo. Gordon is sympathetic to Merton, Wills not at all. He seems to share the opinion of Merton’s psychoanalyst, who told him: “You want a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying ‘hermit’.”
Granted, it’s difficult not to recoil from some of the episodes at the end of Merton’s life. He carried on his affair with Margie Smith on the monastery’s grounds. When his abbot discovered his decidedly un-Trappist behaviour, Merton said that his superior was “jealous of me”. His fellow monks he described as “Boy Scouts” and “mostly half-wits”. And – at least on Wills’s reading – what Merton felt for the young lady wasn’t so much love as an obsessive and ugly lust. “Here deep did not call to deep, but shallow to shallow,” he observed, adding that Merton “wanted the best of both worlds, as a holy preacher and a covert sinner”.
Greg Hillis, an associate professor at Bellarmine University, the curator of Merton’s journals, rose quickly to his defence. “I suggest people both read the sixth volume of Merton’s journals and appropriate the perspective of his abbot and Merton’s fellow monks,” he tweeted following the publication of Wills’s review. “They understood this relationship to be genuine, loving and transformative, if ultimately impossible.”
Hillis is at least partially right. When the abbot gave Merton an ultimatum, he chose the monastery over the young woman without hesitation. Yet Wills notes the “smugness” of Merton’s parting thoughts. Of his vocation to probing the “inner dimension”, he wrote in his journal: “This is a gift that has been given me not for myself but for everyone, even including Margie. I cannot let it be squandered and dissipated foolishly. It would be criminal to do so. In the end I would ruin her along with myself.”
The reason the monk is impossible to ignore, however, is that Merton (pictured with the Dalai Lama in 1968) typified a certain strand of inter-religious dialogue, one which claimed to take its cue from Vatican II’s emphasis on the Church’s common ground with other religions. Merton was especially interested in Buddhism – which, as Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate noted,
“realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men … may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination…”
Merton went further than exploring these similarities – and for many, he went much too far. The Sinologist and historian Anthony E Clark has written that, while Merton was not “an unfaithful Catholic”, some of his later writings are “dangerous” because “they conflate and confuse Buddhist and Christian teachings”.
Other scholars would argue that Merton had an expert understanding of Buddhism and didn’t dumb-down either religion in trying to understand their spiritual practices.
Interestingly, Evelyn Waugh once fiercely admired the monk but, over the course of their correspondence, found it difficult to mask his increasingly deep irritation. Once, Merton wrote to the novelist with a brag disguised as a complaint. The monk bemoaned his heavy workload, ranging from essays on Cistercian spirituality to poetry for a surrealist magazine. Waugh snorted: “You are plainly undertaking far too many trivial tasks for small returns … banging away at your typewriter on whatever turns up.”
In the few moments when he was left alone with his thoughts, this seems to have been Merton’s belief, too. Part of the reason he divides readers is that he appeared to be divided against himself throughout life. He worked hard for his success, but he also wrote in his journals that it made him feel “cheap”, like “an article for sale”.
Merton could, then, be a perceptive, even harsh critic of his work – but as Waugh and Wills demonstrate, there is no shortage of such critics.