Thomas Merton, American Catholic

merton_woodsBy way of Carl Olson comes Can You Trust Thomas Merton? – an evaluation of the Trappist monk and contemplative Thomas Merton which appears in This Rock, by Dr. Anthony E. Clark.

As with most critical evaluations of Merton, Clark mentions some by-now-familiar pieces of controversy in Merton’s life — His fathering a child during his hedonistic and womanizing years in Cambridge, where to quote him directly, he “labored to enslave myself in the bonds of my own intolerable disgust” and his on-again, off-again relationship with his superior, abbot Dom James Fox.

But it is not so much Merton’s “sins of the flesh” which are perceived as a danger (something which even the greatest saints were certainly not immune — is it more than coincidence that Merton’s Hindu friend Brahmachari would recommend Augustine’s Confessions?) as his exploration of the world’s religions, particularly Buddhism, the character of which, according to Dr. Clark, “often appears more like replacement than rapprochement.”

Merton’s life was tragically cut short during his Asian journey, but he died insisting that “Zen and Christianity are the future,” and that “if Catholics had a little more Zen they’d be a lot less ridiculous than they are.”

According to Dr. Clark, while it be “would be unfair to call Merton an unfaithful Catholic, or to insist that he became a Buddhist before his death,” his ideas, particularly those expressed in later writings should be read with caution as they are likely to be “more confusing than helpful, for they conflate and confuse Buddhist and Christian teachings.”

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The writings of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day were both very influential in my own early college years as a budding Catholic (I was received into the Church my junior year). Like Dr. Clark I have little reservations about recommending his earlier, “orthodox” works, and adding a caution to his later ones. This is not to say that one may not benefit from the latter, but rather — to concur with Justin Nickelson’s comment on Olson’s post, “not everybody is in a position to, perhaps, separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ in theological, spiritual, philosophical writings. Thus, perhaps being safe than sorry is a good thing.”

That said, some additional thoughts:

I do not think a Catholic interest in, and personal investigation of, Buddhism (or any other religion) is not in itself something that we should regard as inherently suspect. Not to infer this of the author of the present article (Dr. Clark reveals that he is presently “living in China doing, among other things, research on authentic Buddhist teaching” and has just recently returned from a residence in a Tibetan Buddhist village in the Himilayas) — but that this is the unfortunate impression received from certain commentators on Carl Olson’s post, suggesting that Merton’s investigation of Buddhism was an indication that he had “gone wobbly”:

He seems not to have placed full trust in Christ but instead to have gone off and looked for the truth elsewhere. How else can one explain his dalliance with Eastern religion?

I think this is a great injustice to Merton and again, concur with Justin: “if one hasn’t read any of Merton or other authors, or, worse, hasn’t read anything at all, they must be careful: Slander is applicable to ‘dead theologians’ as well.”

Those familiar with Merton’s writings will uncover passages even in his later works which call into question the assumption that he “strayed from the faith”. Let us consider but two passages — the first by way of Teófilo (Vivificat!), from 1965, which reveals Merton’s “Theo-centric and Christo-centric” approach in the midst of his Eastern investigations:

The Feast of the Sacred Heart was for me a day of grace and seriousness. Twenty years ago I was uncomfortable with this concept. Now I see the real meaning of it (quite apart from the externals). It is the center, the “heart” of the whole Christian mystery.

There is one thing more – I may be interested in Oriental religions, etc., but there can be no obscuring the essential difference – this personal communion with Christ at the center and heart of all reality, as a source of grace and life. “God is love” may perhaps be clarified if one says that “God is void” and if the void one finds absolute indetermination and hence absolute freedom. (With freedom, the void becomes fulness and 0 = infinity). All that is “interesting” but none of it touches on the mystery of personality in God, and His personal love for me. Again, I am void too – and I have freedom, or am a kind of freedom, meaningless unless oriented to Him.

(Source: Dancing in the Water of Life: The Journals of Thomas Merton (1953-1965).

Secondly, consider a passage from one of Merton’s books which bear This Rock‘s admonition to “read with caution” — one of my favorites, in fact: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968). Here, in the (what could be called feverish) climate of the Second Vatican Council, of ecumenism and openness, Thomas Merton offers a reflection on what his contemporaries were writing off as the defunct notion of “heresy“:

But has the concept of heresy become completely irrelevant? Has our awareness of the duty of tolerance and charity toward the sincere conscience of others absolved us from the danger of the error ourselves? Or is error something we no longer consider dangerous?

I think a Catholic is bound to remember that his faith is directed to the grasp of truths revealed by God, which are not mere opinions or “manners of speaking,” mere viewpoints which can be adopted and rejected at will — for otherwise the commitment of faith would lack not only totality but even seriousness. The Catholic is one who stakes his life on certain truths revealed by God. If these truths cease to apply, his life ceases to have meaning.

A heretic is first of all a believer. Today the ideas of “heretic” and “unbeliever” are generally confused. In point of fact the mass of “post-Christian” men in Western society can no longer be considered heretics and heresy is, for them, no problem. It is, however, a problem for the believer who is too eager to identify himself with their unbelief in order to “win them for Christ.”

Where the real danger of heresy exists for the Catholic today is precisely in that “believing” zeal which, eager to open up new aspects and new dimensions of the faith, thoughtlessly or carelessly sacrifices something essential to Christian truth, on the grounds that this is no longer comprehensible to modern man. Heresy is precisely a “choice” which, for human motives . . . selects and prefers an opinion contrary to revealed truth as held and understood by the Church.

I think, then, that in our eagerness to go out to modern man and meet him on his own ground, accepting him as he is, we must also be truly what we are. If we come to him as Christians we can certainly understand and have compassion for his unbelief — his apparent incapacity to believe. But it would seem a bit absurd for us, precisely as Christians, to pat him on the arm and say “As a matter of fact I don’t find the Incarnation credible myself. Let’s just consider that Christ was a nice man who devoted himself to helping others!”

This would, of course, be heresy in a Catholic whose faith is a radical and total commitment to the truth of the Incarnation and Redemption as revealed by God and taught by the Church. . . . What is the use of coming to modern man with the claim that you have a Christian mission — that you are sent in the name of Christ — if in the same breath you deny Him by whom you claim to be sent?

Strange that this very book — selections culled from Merton’s personal writings during the 1960’s and arranged by Merton himself in 1965 — was published in 1968, the same year that Merton embarked on his “Eastern journey” to Asia and “drifted” from Christianity.

Yes, Merton was open to new aspects and dimensions of the Catholic faith — he was eager to reach out to others, and his writings are a treasure of engagements with nonbelievers and believers of all religions: Christian and non-Christian. (Not as well known, but no less interesting, is Merton’s interest in Sufism — by way of his correspondence with the Franciscan scholar of Islam Louis Massignon and later, with the Pakistani Abdul Aziz).

But — at the cost of abandoning his Christian faith?

The suggestion that Merton would see fit to include a lengthy passage from his journals sharply critical of a spiritual relativism that denies the fundamental claims of Christianity . . . and then proceed a few years later to rush headlong towards the East — away from the Incarnated and Risen Christ — seems to me rather tenuous.

Finally, consider the testimony of Merton’s friend, Jim Forest:

Because Merton was drawn to develop relationships with non-Christians — Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists — casual readers occasionally form the impression that Merton’s bond with Christianity was wearing thin during the latter years of his life and that he was window-shopping for something else. It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton’s life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton’s hermitage — he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious. The Dalai Lama has remarked, “When I think of the word Christian, immediately I think — Thomas Merton!” [“Thomas Merton, His Faith and His Time” lecture given at Boston College 13 November 1995]

There is no question that Merton’s years on this earth were as tumultuous as the times. He was a Trappist monk commmitted to the pursuit of solitude and contemplation, and at the same time a prolific writer (encouraged in part by his superiors) with an understandable interest in the issues occupying the world outside the monastery gates: the civil rights movement; the proliferation of nuclear arms; the Vietnam war. He was a hermit, residing in a toolshed in the Kentucky woods; and yet his life was replete with a perpetual stream of visitors (and an even greater flood of correspondence). He held these and many other facets of his life in constant tension. As Robert Royal says in The Several Storied Thomas Merton (First Things February 1997): “a kind of multiple personality disorder keeps turning up in writers—and writers with a religious bent seem particularly susceptible … of all the great modern religious writers, no one harbored within himself a larger cast of dramatis personae than Thomas Merton.”

I think this complexity — the interplay of dueling roles — is a significant reason for his appeal, particularly in modern-day America. When I examine my own life and the many roles which I occupy even on a daily basis (son, brother, husband, father, worker, friend … blogger) — and throughout, the struggle to keep my feet planted on the ground, spiritually speaking; to mirror Christ as best I can (oftentimes failing rather terribly) — I find myself deeply sympathetic to Merton’s lifelong ambition to stay the course; to pray, as he did:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

How many of us can relate to this prayer?

In closing, again, Robert Royal:

Merton’s true greatness lies in having engaged in person the whole range of challenges and trials of life in the late twentieth century and yet remaining essentially faithful to his Catholic inspiration. Many of those issues we still confront: poverty and war, the relationship of Eastern and Western thought, and especially how a deep religious life may be lived in contemporary conditions. As we near the end of the century, religion-even contemplative practices-have had a tremendous resurgence. Many of the paths religious people took during the 1960s are coming more and more to look like a dead end. But the attempt to bring a deeper spirituality to the public realm-to say nothing of recovering authentic spirituality-remains a burning necessity.

Merton is beyond doubt one of the great spiritual masters of our century. His personal turmoil and the misjudgments in his social thought notwithstanding, he is a forceful reminder that what may appear the most rarefied of contemplative speculations have powerful and concrete implications for the world. God dealt Thomas Merton a difficult hand. His greatness as a man lies not only in that he was able, more or less, to keep several different persons together in difficult times under the banner of “Thomas Merton,” but that he provides an enduring witness to all of us much less gifted seekers who have to shore up our own fragmentary lives in quest for the “hidden wholeness.”

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Back in 2004 the USCCB decided to strike Thomas Merton from their National Adult Catechism, to the great protest of many American Catholics. I responded with Towards a Critical Appreciation of Thomas Merton (Against The Grain January 2, 2005), which served as a basis for this current post.

16 Responses to Thomas Merton, American Catholic

  1. Alan Phipps says:

    Very good.

    On the central coast of California, there is a garish hotel on Highway 101 that is famous for its, uh, men’s bathroom and themed rooms, among other things; the bizarre men’s bathroom attracts the curious attention of even women, and it’s a natural place to stop on your way up the highway – I have used the bathroom several times. I was astonished to discover that Thomas Merton stopped there during a trip through California in the late 1960’s. From the October 8th, 1968, entry in Thomas Merton’s Journal, Volume 7 (1967-68) titled “The Other Side of the Mountain”:

    “A feeling of over-saturation with talk, food, drink, movement,
    sensations. The Madonna Inn on the road (US 101) outside San Luis
    Obispo exemplifies the madness of it. A totally extravagant creation,
    a disneyland motel, impossible fairy caves, a waterfall that starts in
    the urinal when you piss on the beam of an electric eye, a hostess
    with a skirt so short her behind was almost showing.” (page 199)

  2. Gerard E. says:

    Some of you younger folks were just twinkles in your parents’ eyes during 1968. You tought 2008 was crazy. 1968 was ca-ray-zee. Protests and acid rock (mostly pretty good I must say) and deep deep societal convulsions. Of course, the year poor Pope Paul VI was fried and parboiled for Humanae Vitae- a prophetic document if ever there was one. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4 of that year. Thomas Merton died six months and six days later. If ever any historic figures could trigger spasms of If Only They Had Lived, it would be these two major religious leaders who passed away during The Really Crazy Year. Merton made it easy for religious leaders to show weaknesses. To demonstrate that even saints wrestle with demons, past mistakes, deep fears. Clearly shown in the recently published memoirs of Mother Teresa. But look at his proteges. For Dr. King, the REV-rund JACK-sonnnnn. For Merton, all manner of religious dissidents and wackadoos. Maybe they could have shaped and developed those following them with effectiveness. Would coulda shoulda. Bad enough they both died during The Really Really Crazy Year.

  3. Tito Edwards says:


    Fine post.

    I like this part from Thomas Merton, “I think, then, that in our eagerness to go out to modern man and meet him on his own ground, accepting him as he is, we must also be truly what we are.”

    We must be truly aware of who we are. I know too many Catholics that go to far in throwing out the best of being a Catholic just so they could retain “respect” with the modern man.

  4. rob says:

    Had he lived longer, he would have become a traditionalist.

    When you read his works, sure, he explores Buddhism, Zen, the Sufis. He makes statements that were certainly regrtettable (though not in any way out-of-the ordinary in the sixties and, let’s face it, even at his worst he was more orthodox than most of our bihsops form then until the present).

    But Merton not only “said mass every day”, he said it in Latin, though the rule shad broken down by then and lots of experimentation was going on, even before the promulgation of the Novus Ordo. I think, when that came out, Merton would have resisted the change. In his last days he records how disturbed he was at the idea of saying mass in the vernacular.

  5. dim bulb says:

    Except for THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN I’ve never read anything by Merton. One does wonder what a person who so casually concludes that He was unorthodox would do with St Justin the Martyr: “Whatever all men have uttered aright is the property of us Christians.”

  6. In his last days he records how disturbed he was at the idea of saying mass in the vernacular.

    There’s a caustic notation in one of his journals about a progressive priest who, surprised that his congregation still said the rosary, escorted them into the woods and had the parishioners bury them, “in the spirit of Vatican II.”

    It’s not clear whether Merton was speaking figuratively or referring to an actual incident that occurred. Given the horror stories of that era, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it actually happened.

  7. Tito Edwards says:

    I pray for the conversion of the Spirit of Vatican 2 crowd. We need them in our struggle with the secular world.

  8. I pray for the conversion of the Spirit of Vatican 2 crowd. We need them in our struggle with the secular world.

    This is reactionary, ecclesial fortress thinking, foreign to the spirit of Catholicism. An authentic interpretation of VII does not see the “secular world” as something to fully embrace (as the priest in Blosser’s example) or to fully reject (as in the case of Tito Edwards).

    Read more De Lubac, Tito.

  9. crankycon says:


    I think there’s a difference between the “Spirit of Vatican II” crowd that Tito’s talking about, and those who, as you say, authentically interpret VII. The SoVII crowd are almost the mirror image of the SSPXII (lots of abbreviations tonight, I know) folk. Both have distorted the meaning of Vatican II in their own ways.

  10. John Henry says:

    MI – I agree with crankycon. Tito is referring to Catholics who use Vatican II (or, more precisely, its ‘spirit,’ since the documents are tiresome to cite) as a license to create a new Catholicism in their own image. Pope Benedict XVI has frequently decried this approach. It generally begins by describing Vatican II as a radical break with traditional Catholicism, then casts about for ways to establish a ‘new’ and ‘relevant’ Catholicism.

  11. Tito Edwards says:


    I like the Vatican II documents and truly believe in their implementation. I don’t like how they have been hijacked by well-meaning Catholics who projected on them what they ‘thought’ were the actual interpretations.

    What Crankycon & JH said.

  12. Tito, John, CrankyCon,

    I realize the “Spirit of VII” types that Tito is apparently critiquing, and I agree with that critique. But I am concerned about his follow-up statement that “We need them in our struggle with the secular world,” which to me sounds like a repudiation of VII. Our struggle, as Catholics, is not against the “secular world.” We affirm grace and the presence of the Reign of God wherever we find it. Our struggle is against sin, against the anti-Reign, and against the culture of death.

  13. Kristen says:

    Just and FYI…that picture that you put next to the Jim Forest quote is actually a photo of his former secretary – Br Patrick Hart, OCSO.

  14. Thanks for the tip, Kristen — have amended my error.

  15. […] of the untimely death of Thomas Merton — Trappist monk, contemplative, mystic, writer, poet. I have already paid my own tribute of sorts here at The American Catholic — here are a few others from around the […]

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