Why Merton?

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I have been persisting, albeit irregularly, in returning to Thomas Merton and his book The Ascent to Truth as a topic for posts here over the last few months. I thought it might be useful both to you and to myself to explain why I think Merton, and this book, are important enough to keep me returning to them as the subject for some very inadequate reflections.

Merton 1.jpg

Merton entered the Trappist monastery of The Abbey of Gethsemane, in Kentucky, in 1941, coincident with the entry of the United States into World War II. A few years before joining the Trappists he had tried to become a Franciscan, but because he had fathered a child out of wedlock while going to school in England, the Franciscans wouldn’t have him. For the first few years he was at Gethsemane he did not write, in fact, he had pretty much given up on his earlier hope of becoming a writer. However, in the late 1940’s his abbot encouraged him to begin writing, and in 1948 The Seven Story Mountain was published to great acclaim. With the publication of The Seven Story Mountain Merton became at once a best-selling author and an important literary figure in the United States.

Unlike many literary figures of his time, Merton stood out as not only a practicing Catholic but also a Trappist monk, living under vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and, lets not forget, silence, in a monastery in Kentucky. Merton was unique also in that he wrote seriously, for a popular audience, about “exotic” topics such as contemplative prayer and the works of great Catholic saints such as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. He engaged a culture that was becoming increasingly secular, not only from the perspective of Catholic teaching and Tradition, but also out of the mystical traditions of the Church. In doing so, he became a living contradiction, which may explain the nervous breakdown he experienced sometime in 1952 or 1953.

However, as influential as Merton was during the last 20 years or so of his life, he was also greatly influenced by the “world” that he had left behind on entering the monastery. Merton’s response to the world, and the evil he saw in it, was God, approached from the point of view of the contemplative.

Merton was like many Americans who lived in the 1950’s and ’60’s: after World War II America and the Soviet Union seemed on the verge of a nuclear war that threatened to destroy everyone and everything. Merton viewed this simply as evil let loose in the world. He saw, correctly I think, the world at a crucial turning point in human history. As a Christian he saw the choice facing the world of his day as either total nuclear self-destruction or a mass turning to God and rejection of evil. The choice for Merton was black and white, good vs. evil. He saw Christianity as the only possible moral and religious choice, but a choice that would only prove fruitful if Christians chose to live out their vocations as Christians. Merton writes that the only way for Christians to really live out their vocations was not through greater activity, not even Apostolic activity, but rather through silence. Merton simply proposes the truth that Augustine wrote in his Confessions - our hearts are restless until they rest in God. There is no other source of grace. He saw contemplation as a vital element of interior growth, and he believed that as individuals grew closer to God they would change, and thus societies would change. Merton saw the Christian faith as vital to the redemption of the world, not only from sin and death, but from absolute self-annihilation. He wrote: “The only thing that can save the world from complete moral collapse is a spiritual revolution. Christianity, by its very nature demands such a revolution.”

Merton, however, did not end up rejecting the world entirely. He came into contact with an enormous array of people from all walks of life, from Jacques Maritain to Eveyln Waugh; the range of his correspondence is almost staggering. This contact with the world left him open to the other influences of the 1950’s and these affected his later books. Remember, during the 1950’s we had the “Beat” generation, the civil rights movement with it’s non-violence, Americans began to turn to the East and Zen as a possible source of spiritual strength, and there was the call for the Second Vatican Council. All these things had an impact on Merton and his later writing. But they are not so evident in The Ascent to Truth. In this book we have a simple choice presented to us, good vs. evil. And we have a very traditional Catholic presentation of what it means for an individual to choose good and base his life on that choice. “Repent, and turn to the Gospel.”

5 Comments

Wow, good post. Something is to be said, that as a monk, one is truely, "in the world" but not "of it." But even then, Merton was still an influence upon the world, then and now.

Daniel

Thanks for your comment. I think Merton was, indeed, in the world and there is no doubt that he was influential, and continues to be. At least judging by the continued sales of his books.

Paz y bien

I knew very little about St. Thomas Merton before reading this. Thank you.

Wonderful post. I gained a deep respect for Merton in college when I took a semester-long seminar about his writings. I've been slowly working my way through his published journals for the past year.

Nicole

Thanks for your comment. I hope to be able to someday study Merton seriously myself. His journals are quite interesting, I have read them but I hope to return to them later this year.

Thanks again,

Ron

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on February 28, 2004 7:48 AM.

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