I recently attended a silent prayer retreat at The Abbey of Gethsemani in central Kentucky where Thomas Merton (Jan. 31, 1915 – Dec. 10, 1968) was ordained (on May 26, 1949) and lived most of his Christian life. He is buried there with the other Trappist monks in a simple grave marked with his ordination name – Father Francis Merton.
Although I’m not totally sold on his theology, his writings have helped me to view all creation and especially humankind as God does – created in the imago Dei, deeply and unconditionally loved and cherished.
Thomas Merton is controversial, however.
Born in France, his parents fled to America during World War I. His mother died of stomach cancer when he was young. His father, a fairly successful painter, often took Thomas with him on artistic excursions to various artist colonies – Provincetown, the Bahamas, France – which resulted in eclectic experiences but little formal education for the boy.
Before his conversion he lived a somewhat free-spirited life. His friends were shocked when he converted to Christianity and even more shocked when he became a Benedictine monk. And, not just a Benedictine monk, but a Trappist monk – the strictest of all the orders (Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO).
After becoming a monk and while recovering in a hospital, he fell deeply in love with a nurse, but denied any physical intimacy. He kept up a correspondence and telephone contact with her for some time. He didn’t hide any of this. It’s common knowledge. But neither did he reiterate it. He knew God had forgiven him and he lived in grace. Who am I to judge? Whatever his past life may have been, I celebrate grace abounding.
He is controversial among political conservatives because he was an outspoken advocate of civil rights and peace. He championed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the whole civil rights movement. He was also a forthright opponent of the Vietnam War. In spite of being a cloistered monk, he kept up correspondence with civil rights leaders, anti-war politicians and advocates, and artistic people in various fields. While a monk, he wrote some 50 books and dozens of essays and poems. Christian nationalists, militarists, and states-rights advocates don’t care much for him. Racists and war-mongers hate him. I’m with him 100% on civil rights and anti-war issues.
Merton found much to admire in Buddhism, engaged in dialogue with Buddhists, and sought theological middle ground for Buddhists and Christians. He spent time with the Dali Lama and Thích Nhất Hạnh. Some think he blurred the lines and lacked sufficient emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ as the way, truth, and life. As for his theology, I’m no expert, but I do run into things in his writings with which I disagree. Nevertheless, I try not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, instead (to mix metaphors) I seek to swallow the fish and spit out the bones. Merton was a brilliant writer. I find considerable fish when I take the time to pick at it, especially the emphasis, shared by both ancient Christians and Zen Buddhists, on world peace and compassion towards the suffering.
1968 was quite a year for deaths. Among them, Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Robert F. Kennedy, Nobel laureate Howard Florey, Astronaut Yuri Gagarin (first human in space), poet Salvatore Quasimodo, Black Panther Bobby Hutton, Dr. Charles William Mayo (Mayo Clinic), Upton Sinclair, theologian Karl Barth, John Steinbeck, Trygve Lie (1st Sec. Gen. of the UN), and Thomas Merton.
Even Merton’s death is controversial. He had remained cloistered for many years before being given permission by the abbot to travel to Thailand where he was found dead on the floor in his hotel room. There was an injury to the back of his head. He was wearing only shorts, and an electric fan was lying across his body. The official conclusion was that he was accidentally electrocuted by a short in the fan. Others think his death was a combination of electrocution and heart attack. No autopsy was performed. His body was returned to the monastery for burial. Some suggested there might have been foul play, and a conspiracy circulated that he’d been murdered by the CIA for his anti-war advocacy. Like most conspiracies, this one has no evidence to support it.
In spite of the controversies, he remains one of the most stimulating writers in modern American history. He’s in good company with Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck. His most famous book is his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain.
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