December 18, 2008
Thomas Merton, the man who invigorated American spirituality in the mid-twentieth century, was killed in Southeast Asia forty years ago, on December 10, 1968.
It was, in actuarial terms, an act of God. After giving a lecture at a conference on East-West monasticism near Bangkok, Thailand, he went to his room, touched a faultily-wired floor fan, and was electrocuted. He was 53 years old.
Merton's life was larger than life, even though he spent over half of it behind the walls of a monastery.
Born in France in 1915 to a cosmopolitan family — his father was a landscape painter from New Zealand, his mother an independently wealthy poet from New York — and orphaned by age 16, he led a raucous, randy life at English boarding schools, Cambridge University, and finally Columbia University in New York. At Columbia, working on a master's degree in literature, he was introduced by a philosophy professor to the Catholic intellectual tradition; it presented him with the unified worldview he had long sought to integrate his fragmented life. In 1938 he became a Catholic, and three years later entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky.
It was a radical and most incongruous lifestyle choice. Merton was a brilliant young writer with a compulsive drive for fame. And, as biographer Michael Mott describes him, "He liked people, he was gregarious, he liked women, he liked talk, lots of talk, argument, and laughter." Yet he chose a religious order based on isolation from the world, perpetual silence, manual labor, and hours of formal prayer — and generally suspicious of things intellectual. Some of his friends predicted he wouldn't last a year.
Fortunately — or providentially — the abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, was a cultured man who saw in Merton's diaries and notes a fresh and unique way of describing monastic life to the world outside. He suggested an autobiography.
In 1948, Harcourt, Brace published The Seven Storey Mountain, named after the rings of spiritual progress in Dante's Purgatorio. In a year it had sold 300,000 copies, and by the end of the first edition's run, double that. Its readership, like Merton himself, was eclectic, not exclusively Catholic. People of every sort, from orthodox to agnostic, identified with its colloquial style and its uncanny commonality: Merton's search for meaning, wholeness, and peace was everybody's, especially after the trauma of World War II, though his particular path to them was surely not.
His first book of popular reflections on the spiritual life, Seeds of Contemplation, appeared a year later, and sold almost as well as the autobiography. When I was in high school in the mid- 1960's, I bought it at the suggestion of my parish priest and devoured the slender volume in one gulp. I've re-read it at least half a dozen times since then.
Most spiritual writing is, predictably, other-worldly; much of it is saccharine. Merton's is neither. It is concrete, staccato, sometimes abrasive, thoroughly masculine: in a word, worldly. Take this passage, for example: "But if you have to live in a city and work among machines and ride in the subways and eat in a place where the radio makes you deaf with spurious news and where the food destroys your life and the sentiments of those around you poison your heart with boredom, do not be upset, but accept it as the love of God and as a seed of solitude planted in your soul ...."
Some years ago I found a first-edition copy of Seeds of Contemplation in the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village. Written in pencil on the flyleaf is:
Bank of the Manhattan Company
40 Wall Street
N.Y. 19, N.Y.
The book is marked up with underlinings and marginal notes in pencil, blue-black fountain-pen ink, and red ballpoint. Mr. Finnigan, the Wall Street banker, must himself have re-read it several times.
Merton's literary talent was for drawing you into a life you couldn't imagine living yourself. Book by book, and especially in the journals he kept specifically for publication, you develop a relationship to this man, as if you actually know him: caustic and light-hearted, serious and impish, insatiably curious about everything.
Just as he was no plaster saint, he was no academician but an authentic intellectual. In his journals he energetically engages the biggest thinkers in the biggest thoughts. He carried on lively correspondence with people as varied as Boris Pasternak and the Dalai Lama, and he wrote about Thomas Aquinas and Karl Marx as if he'd corresponded with them too.
When the reforms following the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960's allowed monks more personal freedom and access to the media, Merton's writings turned political. He alienated many conservative Catholics by his agitation for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Released from the repressive severity of the old monastic rule, he fell in love with a young nurse he had met while a patient in a Louisville hospital. Though accounts of this evidently platonic romance surfaced years after his death, from his private journals and the recollections of his friends, many people were already thinking that the trip to Asia, his first extended stay outside the monastery, was a proximate preparation for leaving religious life, as so many priests, brothers, and nuns were doing at the time. Was he considering such a step? And if he'd done so, how would it have affected the countless readers who had drawn so much from him for so long?
Thomas Merton died 27 years to the day that he entered the monastery of Gethsemani.
Was it an act of God?