Friday, 10 December 2021

Praying in Advent 2021:
13, Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, pacifist and pioneer in interfaith dialogue

Patrick Comerford

As we come to the end the Second Week of Advent – a week disrupted for two or three days and nights by Storm Barra – I am facing into another busy weekend: there are notices to send out for Sunday’s services, and finishing touches to be put to sermons and the details of services.

But, before this busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (10 December 2021) for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in my Advent calendar, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Advent;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My choice of a saint this morning is Thomas Merton (1915-1968), who is honoured with a feast day on 10 December in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church and some other member churches of the Anglican Communion, though not (yet) in the Roman Catholic Church.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist or Cistercian monk who was a writer, theologian, mystic, poet, pacifist, and a pioneer in interfaith dialogue. His life story is an ecumenical bridge between Anglicans, Quakers and Roman Catholics, between contemporary Christianity and the Desert Fathers, and between Christians and other religious traditions, particularly Zen Buddhism.

As my faith was developing and maturing, I was strongly influenced by his best-known book, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), and his New Seeds of Contemplation (1962). His spiritual writings continued to influence me when I was on a student fellowship in Japan and when I was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Thomas Merton wrote more than 50 books over a period of 27 years, mostly on spirituality, social justice and pacifism, and many essays and reviews. His most enduring work, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), was listed by National Review in the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century.

Thomas Merton was born in France in Prades, Pyrénées-Orientales, on 31 January 1915, and was baptised in the Church of England. His parents were of Welsh origin: his father, Owen Merton (1887-1931), a New Zealand-born British painter, and his mother, Ruth Calvert Jenkins Merton (1887-1921), an American Quaker and artist, met at a painting school in Paris.

During World War I, the Merton family left France for New York in 1915, and Thomas Merton’s younger brother, John Paul, was born in Flushing, Queens, on 2 November 1918. The family was planning to return to France when Ruth was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and she died in hospital on 21 October 1921 when Thomas Merton was six.

Thomas Merton went to the Lycée Ingres, a boys’ boarding school in Montauban, before entering Clare College, Cambridge, in 1933 to study French and Italian. But after many personal problems in Cambridge, he moved to Columbia University in Manhattan, in 1935, and graduated with a BA in English in 1933. After meeting Mahanambrata Brahmachari, a Hindu monk, he started to read The Confessions of Saint Augustine and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.

He explored Catholicism further, and in August 1938 attended Mass for the first time at Corpus Christi Church, near the Columbia campus. There he was received into the Roman Catholic on 16 November 1938.

Merton received his MA in English from Columbia University in 1939, and decided to pursue a PhD at Columbia. But on 10 December 1941, he arrived at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani at Bardstown, Kentucky, asking to join the Cistercian order. Three days later, he was accepted as a postulant by the Abbot of Gethsemani, Frederic Dunne, and he became a novice on the first Sunday in Lent in March 1942.

His brother John Paul visited him in Gethsemani in July 1942. John Paul was baptised at a nearby church in New Haven the following day, and then left for World War II. It was the last time they met: John Paul died on 17 April 1943 when his plane failed over the English Channel.

Initially, Thomas Merton felt writing was in conflict with his vocation. But the abbot saw he had talent for writing and asked him to translate religious texts and write biographies on the saints. His first book of poetry, Thirty Poems, was published by New Directions in November 1944. In 1946, New Directions published another poetry collection, A Man in the Divided Sea, and his manuscript for The Seven Storey Mountain was accepted for publication by Harcourt Brace.

Thomas Merton took his final vows on 19 March 1947, and The Seven Storey Mountain was published to critical acclaim the following year. His abbot, Frederic Dunne, died on 3 August 1948 on a train journey to Georgia, and this was painful for Merton, who had come to see the abbot as a father figure and mentor.

Thomas Merton applied for American citizenship in early 1949. His publications that year included Seeds of Contemplation and the British edition of The Seven Storey Mountain as Elected Silence.

He was ordained deacon on 19 March 1949, priest on Ascension Thursday, 26 May 1949, when he was given the name Father Louis, and said his first Mass the following day. He remained a member of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, until his death.

By the end of 1949, The Seven Storey Mountain had sold over 150,000 copies. He revised Seeds of Contemplation several times, and it was republished as New Seeds of Contemplation in 1962. He and became a more contemplative writer and poet, known for his dialogues with other faiths and his non-violent stand during the race riots and Vietnam War in the 1960s. His personal radicalism was rooted in non-violence, based on simplicity and expressed it as a Christian sensibility.

By 1965, he was living in a hermitage on the monastery grounds. At the end of 1968, the new abbot, Flavian Burns, approved a tour of Asia, when he met the Dalai Lama and other leading Tibetan Buddhists in India, and stayed in Darjeeling.

Merton’s studies of the Desert Fathers and apophatic theology informed and enriched his dialogue with Zen Buddhism. His The Wisdom of the Desert opened a dialogue with DT Suzuki on the Desert Fathers and the early Zen masters, leading to Zen and the Birds of Appetite.

In his understanding of Judaism, Thomas Merton wrote to Erich Fromm ‘I am a complete Jew as far as that goes,’ and he told Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1964 ‘my latent ambitions to be a true Jew under my Catholic skin,’ showing perhaps a tendency to essentialise the Jewish experience and neatly assimilate it into his own Catholicism.

He had surgery for debilitating back pain in April 1966. While he was recuperating in hospital in hospital, he fell in love with Margie Smith, a student nurse referred to in his diary as ‘M.’ He wrote poems to her and reflected on the relationship in ‘A Midsummer Diary for M.’ His biographer Michael Mott says that after his time with M., ‘Merton never again talked of his inability to love, or to be loved.’

Thomas Merton said his last Mass in Bangkok on 8 December 1968 before attending a monastic conference at Sawang Kaniwat, a retreat centre near Bangkok. He gave a talk at the morning session on 10 December, but was found dead that afternoon in his room, with a short-circuited floor fan nearby. He may have died from heart failure and an electric shock, but there was no autopsy. His body was flown back to the US on a US military aircraft returning from Vietnam, and he was buried at Gethsemani Abbey.

On the very same day – 10 December 1968 – Karl Barth also died. He was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, and Pope Pius XII regarded Barth as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Merton’s former family home at 18 Carlton Road, Ealing, a short walk from Ealing Abbey, is now a home of the Sisters of the Resurrection.

Thomas Merton is widely recognised as an important 20th-century mystic and writer. He was one of four Americans mentioned by Pope Francis in his speech to a joint meeting of the US Congress on 24 September 2015. Francis said, ‘Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.’

Daniel and Philip Berrigan considered Thomas Merton a kind of mentor and guide, and he had a strong influence on Archbishop Rowan Williams and on the Nicaraguan liberation theologian Ernesto Cardenal.

Thomas Merton’s poetry has been compared by many writers and critics with the poetry of Leonard Cohen, who explored Zen Buddhism while remaining a Jew. During his time at the Zen Buddhist monastery at Mount Baldy, Leonard Cohen and Roshi visited Gethsemani to experience something of the life of a Christian monastery and to pay their respects to Thomas Merton’s memory.


Matthew 11: 16-19 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’’.’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (10 December 2021, Human Rights Day) invites us to pray:

Let us celebrate the fundamental rights we share with one another and safeguard the rights of our fellow human beings.


Yesterday: Aeneas Francon Williams

Tomorrow: Karl Barth

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

‘Shall I … wake up the dirty ghosts under the trees of the Backs, and out beyond the Clare New Building’ (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain) … punting on the Backs, behind Clare College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

No comments: