Stunned, intrigued, bemused—those words describe my feelings when I saw one of my favorite writers, Thomas Merton, mentioned as a notable American Catholic by Pope Francis as he addressed Congress. Merton, the pope acknowledged, is known for contemplation. And it’s worth recalling that both Merton and the pope devoted much of their lives to the same kind of contemplation, namely, the Spiritual Exercised of St. Ignatius.
Merton, of course, interpreted the Exercises in his own creative way:
I finally decided to make my mediations [from the Spiritual Exercises] sitting cross-legged on the floor. I think the Jesuits would have a nasty shock if they had walked in to see me doing their Spiritual Exercises sitting there like Mahatma Gahndi. But it worked very well. Most of the time I kept my eyes on the crucifix on the floor when I did not have to look at the book. And so, having prayed, I began to consider the reason why God had brought me into the world (Seven Storey Mountain, p. 294).
Both the pope’s journey, from Argentina to Rome to Washington, D.C. to speak to Congress, and Merton’s personal call, which brought him “from Prades to Bermuda to St. Antonin to Oakham to London to Cambridge to Corpus Christi to St. Bonaventure to the Cistercian Abbey of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani,” are reflected in the second week of the Exercises.
Here, Ignatius wants us to see “all the different people on the face of the earth, so varied and dress and behavior. Some are white and others black; some at peace and others weeping…some well and others sick…” We imagine the Three Divine Persons as they survey creation “and behold the entire extent of the earth and they behold all nations in such great blindness, dying, and going down into hell.”
Merton no doubt imagined the swirling mass of humanity in Europe, where he grew up, headed toward a world war, and many sensual evils he knew very well from his own life and those around him. The pope, as our universal shepherd, reminded the Congress of the ongoing destruction of the environment, and special evils connected with lack of systemic acceptance for all peoples, especially immigrants.
Why Mention Merton?
Why did the pope acknowledge his admiration of Thomas Merton in a speech heard around the world? (If you’ve read much of Merton, you’ll suspect such a commendation will keep him gleeful and beaming for all eternity. Such may be his heavenly reward!)
First, Thomas Merton pioneered in making American Catholics aware of the poverty of African Americans and the great overlooked racial hatred in his own country. His autobiography indicated the potential for racial violence in Harlem, and by extension to other cities in the United States as well. The cadence of his poetry, psalm-like and hauntingly repetitive, imprinted in the nation’s awareness the children of Birmingham going down the stairs of their church (only to be blown up), or the hatred expressed even by the law-enforcement figures who were supposed to be protecting and not attacking fellow citizens.
Second, Merton recognized the evil of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was out of control, heading for a total count of roughly 40,000 weapons between the countries. The church, through the censors of his religious order, told Merton to stop writing about nuclear war. He offered superficial obedience and chastisement, only to change his titles as he wrote instead about peace.
Within 25 years, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops, under (then) Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, endorsed an essentially Mertonian outlook in their pastoral letter on nuclear war, “The Challenge of Peace” (1983). That fall the movie “The Day After” shocked even Ronald Reagan. At last count, I read that the stockpile of weapons in the U.S. and Russia had diminished to about 2,000 weapons each—drastically reduced, though still enough to bring about Armageddon.
Third, Merton embraced people from all cultures and background. He carried on written correspondence (then by mail!) with Nobel-winner Boris Pasternak (Russia) and Zen practitioner D.T. Suzuki (Japan). The latter volumes of his personal journals show his fascination and absorption with Buddhism, which culminated in a trip to the East, where he met the Dalai Lama. Merton died on this trip December 8, 1969, electrocuted by an electric fan in a bathroom.
Another Side of Merton
While Merton may be praised for his prophetic condemnation of social evils, there is another side to Merton that makes those cherishing traditional Catholicism disconcerted—or perhaps it might be better to say suspicious or mistrustful. These Catholics may wonder why the pope has put him on a pedestal. Many of Merton’s later writing hardly mention Christ at all. In his journals, the first several are imbued with God, with Christ. Toward the end of his writing life, God is rarely referenced. In one, his talent is reduced to describing the details of a martini he ordered on an airplane.
What happened to this man who ended The Seven Storey Mountain with the hope “that you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men”?
Merton’s writings of other religions and philosophies, particularly Zen Buddhism, often offer an uncritical acceptance of religions that other popes have seen as inimical to Christianity. Merton more than dabbled in these—he sought them out not only in voluminous studies but in his final peregrination, where he met the Dalai Lama.
Finally, Merton had an affair with a nurse which began when he was a patient in a Louisville hospital. The reader is referred to the seventh volume of his journal for details. While the editor of this book has titled it Learning to Love, to a psychologist it appears no more than an unfortunate but understandable infatuation that appears to have been repented and worked through satisfactorily with his Abbot.
Should these things make us wonder if Pope Francis has minimized or overlooked problems in Merton’s life?
One again turns to Ignatius and the Exercises: “In order that the one who gives these exercises and he who makes them may be of more profit and assistance to each other, they should begin with the presupposition that every good Christian ought to be more willing to give a good interpretation to the statement of another…”
Merton’s last writings also mention his reverence in saying the Mass, a faithful devotion to his breviary—and a well-worn rosary was with him when he died. One may view these as final evidence of a fully Christian life, well lived, and loving. He died a faithful monk of the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance.
Can Thomas Merton be our mentor despite questions that may or may not be valid? In “Does Thomas Merton’s Affair Disqualify Him as Being Our Spiritual Guide?” I argue that we continue to embrace his saintly ways and his prophetic insights while forgiving any flaws we may read in to his life, and may not be considered to be imperfections by God.
And what a surprise—our Holy Father apparently agrees.
William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.