The Monk Who Wouldn’t Go Away

Today is Thomas Merton’s birthday. Merton played a big role in Michael Spencer’s spiritual development. In one of my conversations with Michael, I asked where I should start in reading Merton. He said I had to read The Seven Storey Mountain first in order to really understand Thomas Merton. I have since enjoyed many a great hour with Merton’s other writings, prayers and sketches. His journals are especially rich and deep for me. He is not an easy person to grasp—as a matter of fact, he cannot be grasped at all—but he is an easy person to like, for he was of all men most human. Here is Michael Spencer’s tribute to Thomas Merton.

One of the joys of having a hero is sharing him/her with someone else. If you know me very long, you’ll hear about my hero, Thomas Merton: monk, writer, poet, activist, Christian, enigma, good looking bald man. Merton (1915-1968) is one of the most significant religious writers of the twentieth century and a lasting influence on untold numbers of Christians (and non-Christians) from every tradition and culture. For those of us in the Bluegrass state, he also holds the distinction of being perhaps the most significant religious figure to reside in Kentucky, being a monk at Our Lady of Gesthemeni monastery near Bardstown for twenty-seven years. He is buried there today.

Merton is a strange kind of hero for me. I am a conservative Reformed Protestant. He was a liberal Roman Catholic who could easily have become a Buddhist. Merton was a former communist sympathizer turned Democrat who found Gene McCarthy too tame. I am a libertarian-Republican who wishes Pat Buchanan’s brain could be surgically altered and put in George W’s body. Merton befriended and praised the sixty’s liberal pantheon; wrote poems about them, wrote letters for them. I think those people- Baez, Berrigan, etc- were alternately amusing and frightening. Merton hated systematic theology and loved modern literature. I hate modern literature and love systematic theology. Merton choose monasticism over marriage. I think that was a crying shame. Merton thought a good time was walking barefoot in a cornfield reading Muslim mystics. I’d prefer a Dave Mathews show. He loved jazz. I love bluegrass and rock. Merton died by touching a faulty electrical fan after taking a shower, thus becoming the patron saint of all clumsy people. I haven’t yet decided how I’m going to go, but it could possible involve all the White Castles I can eat.

So how did I ever pick this guy to be my hero? Certain qualities have such an innate attraction, that when you encounter them in anyone, no matter how different from you they might be, they draw you into admiration. Tom Merton made an unforgettable impression on everyone who met him. No one ever nominated him for perfection. He could be selfish, manipulative and vain, often putting his friends through absurd abuses to get him out of the monastery and into the city. He gossiped, and often whined. He seldom paused to be content, and often enjoyed being an irritant. He sometimes drank too much and could hold a grudge for years. Yet, the unanimous verdict of those who knew him in life and those who know him through his voluminous literary output is that Merton was an authentic human being of the rarest sort and master of the things of the spirit. Words like genuine, self-knowledgeable and deeply spiritual occur again and again in descriptions of Merton. People sought him out from all over the world because of what they sensed in his writing. I’m no different. If he were around today I’d be throwing rocks at his window like the rest of the gawkers. “Come down, Tom, and put on some Coltrane.”

It is Merton’s honest humanity and thorough Christianity that won my admiration. In my particular evangelical suburb, Christian piety takes some bizarre turns, focusing on all varieties of robotic behavior, enforced personality traits, phony religious experiences and outright lies. Merton was the first modern Christian writer I encountered that was completely and totally himself and at home in his own skin. As much as I admire C.S. Lewis, Lewis never had the insight into his own perplexities and contradictions that Merton records. Only in The Screwtape Letters and A Grief Observed can you see the kind of human experience that lurked under Lewis’s scholarly persona. Even in his early, more traditionally pious writings, Merton showed remarkable and brave integrity in recording the terrain of his soul. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, will always be a classic of conversion biography, but the editors had to mark out tracts of Merton’s honesty deemed too controversial for the Christian reader. He never broke the habit of engaging the real self with the God of Jesus Christ. While his interest in Eastern religions might seem to open the door to a denial of the self, Merton always affirmed that it was the self, as made and loved by God, that we must accept in total honesty.

I have found the most appealing Merton in his journals and letters. Seven volumes of the journals have been published, along with several collections of letters. (And of course many books and articles.) I would venture to say that Merton is the most extensive journalist and correspondent of any modern Christian writer. Merton’s life is never far from his pen, and his honest soul hardly wavers. In these journals, we experience Merton’s growth from a monk withdrawing from the world to a Christian engaged with the world and wrestling with the place of a monastic calling. Merton evolves from a confident advocate of monasticism to an articulate critic of the institutional church. With a breathtaking range of reading and interests, the Merton reader will explore politics, prayer, peacemaking, fame, mysticism, Asian religions, the foibles of romance, the absurdity of institutional Christianity, and a constant excursion into a godly appreciation of nature. Merton’s journals are an education, a journey and an exploration of the soul. He is funny, catty, spontaneous, profound, insightful, opinionated and so recognizably human that it is hard not to see yourself in page after page. To walk with Thomas day by day is to walk with Thomas and God, and that is what all of us should be going for.

Thomas’s gift to me has been sanity and security. Because of him, I have stopped trying to be a good Christian and devoted myself to being the prodigal on his knees, enjoying the undeserved love of the Father. To try and stand and be the older brother has no appeal to me. Thomas Merton’s conscientious recording of his own human journey into self-knowledge and God’s love has been the model for me of what a “relationship with God” (evangelical jargon) actually looks like. Even though he lived in the most religious and structured of monastic communities, it is the person, not the monk, that drew me into this friendship and helped me to be the person loved by God, not the preacher/teacher performing for God.

Merton’s last recorded words were “…and now I will disappear.” Thankfully, he didn’t and shows no signs of doing so. I commend him to lovers of honesty everywhere.

(To meet Merton, try The Thomas Merton Reader or Michael Mott’s excellent authorized bio, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. A great new book is selected journal readings called The Intimate Merton. The Collected Poems are vast and moving and puzzling. Pure enjoyment can be found in The Seven Storey Mountain (autobiography of his early life) and The Sign of Jonas (early journals.) His finest devotional work is New Seeds of Contemplation. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is a good political book. Also, Merton was much photographed. Try The Pictorial Thomas Merton by Jim Forrest. Personal favorite: Learning to Love. (Journal Vol 4 containing his brief, life-changing, love affair with a student nurse almost thirty years his junior. Attaboy Tom.)

27 thoughts on “The Monk Who Wouldn’t Go Away

  1. This was a wondeful on Fr. Thomas Merton OCSO., a man who proclaimed the gospel with his Life. We are so blessed that he was a journalist in the truest sense. What a Gift! Blessed Be . . .


  2. My uncle is Cistercian/Trappist who is a contemporary of Merton’s and served with him so to speak. I have spent some time at the monastary in Spencer, Mass. and they are a heady bunch. There was a rabbi speaking to them when I was there one time about a particular type of story that the rabbis would make up such as where the stones came from that were used to slay Goliath and what happened to them afterward. I think the monks are generally open and unafraid if they think something will draw them closer to God, so they will listen to anyone and then decide for themselves.


  3. This was the post that hooked me on Michael Spencers writings. I’d read several of Mertons books and being from a similar background as Michael, and being attracted to biblical scholarship, oriental philosophy, Buddhism and Catholicism (not always in that order), I’d found a fellow traveler.

    I know that Br. Louis and Br Michael are tossing a baseball around and laughing at the rest of us who’re still stumbling about here on the dark side of the veil. I hope they’re also praying for us.


  4. Some interesting sections from and also the page following that one:

    “It was Zen’s concentration upon direct experience instead of doctrinal formulations and its sometimes brutal rejection of the false self, or ego, that spoke directly to Merton, who believed God was experienced in the center of the true self.”

    “Merton wrote: ‘Zen is perfectly compatible with Christian belief and indeed with Christian mysticism (if we understood Zen in its pure state, as metaphysical intuition.)’ “

    He also wrote: “This obsession with doctrinal formulas, juridical order and ritual exactitude has often made people forget that the heart of Catholicism, too, is a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations.” (Zen & Birds of Appetite, p. 39).

    “The Franciscan priest and author Murray Bodo relates that ‘the Dalai Lama credits Merton with opening his eyes to the truth that Tibetan Buddhism does not hold the world’s only truth. ‘As a result of meeting with him, my attitude toward Christianity was much changed… Thomas Merton is someone we can look up to. He had the qualities of being learned, disciplined and having a good heart.’ ”

    “For Merton, being as good a Buddhist as he could meant being a Christian more profoundly than ever which, to his delight, enabled him to be as good a Buddhist as he could.”


  5. “Br.Lawrence and the practice of the presence of GOD….which to me is just another label for abiding in Christ.”

    Yes, greg r, Br. Lawrence is wonderful too.


  6. See above. I can’t think of something offered that is offered in a more orthodox package that gives the credit to Jesus. But that’s me.


  7. @JoinieD
    Personally, I have found that practicing Centering Prayer as taught by Thomas Keating and others is preferable to doing Zen.

    And I would say the same about Br.Lawrence and the practice of the presence of GOD….which to me is just another label for abiding in Christ. If I thought the Buddhists offered something better, I’d go there, but I am not going to make that a hill to die on OR a hill to flame other believers and leave more scorched earth over.



  8. Ah… the Carmelite thing…. I have a great passion for Merton’s writings as well as St. John of the Cross, Theresa of Avilla, Cassion, etc – basically the mystic writers who embraced the threefold view of Purgation/Illumination/Union (a very eastern lung of the church thing). Good stuff….


  9. Nice to hear from you, Christiane. It has been a while since I read Merton’s writings, but I think he was interested in becoming more “aware” and he found within Buddhism that their practices could help people to become more aware. There are a number of Catholic priests who feel that they can practice Zen Buddhism “techniques” and still be Christian because those techniques were not ones that said “do this to find God.” I know that many people would feel you cannot practice any form of Buddhism and be Christian because they feel Buddhism philosophy is opposed to Christian theology. But far be it for me to tell some professing, practicing Christian that they are not Christian because they do Zen. Personally, I have found that practicing Centering Prayer as taught by Thomas Keating and others is preferable to doing Zen. There is a Christian foundation for that practice and it is different than Zen.


  10. Pendulums are great things in life. We try to live balanced, but to do so takes a swinging from one side to the other in thought and deed. Merton is one of writers I pull out when I feel a need to push the pendulum to one side, usually different than my conservative upbringing. Thanks for a great summary bio on Thomas!


  11. What was it about Buddhism that attracted Merton’s attention and admiration?
    My guess is that he found something in it that reflected an honest response to the gifts God gave all mankind: their consciences, the natural world, and the moral laws God engraved on their hearts.

    I don’t know. But the word ‘Buddhism’ is one of those seemingly innumerable fundamentalist-Christian targets of contempt, and that makes me want to know more about it.


  12. This post helps me understand much better Michael Spencer’s admiration for Merton. I haven’t read any Merton, but I am intrigued by anyone that the Imonk said is worth our time and trouble. Merton’s affinity for things Buddhist is, to me, a big turn off, but I admire honesty and transparency in life and writng.

    Thanks for the post.


  13. I read The Seven Storey Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation and maybe something else by or about Merton. I, too, was affected by his honesty and spiritual depth. I think it’s time for me to read some more of his stuff.


  14. One of the reasons I loved Micheal’s writing & blog was because he was a Reformed protestant in the SBC who liked Thomas Merton. I never knew there could be such a person.
    The ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ is the best autobiograpghy I ever read. The ‘new seeds of comtemplation’ is also very good. Anyone interested in a life of prayer & a life of transformation would enjoy his works.


  15. As novice master at Gethsemene, Merton (or “Fr. Louis”) expelled a young Daniel Quinn for immaturity. Quinn later became a well-known ecological writer. (His book “Providence” recounts the episode.)


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