Thomas Merton: A Modern Man in Reverse

From his background of Christian scholarship and monastic practice, the VERY REVEREND DOM AELRED GRAHAM, O.S.B., has written the only full-length appraisal of Thomas Merton that has so far been printed. Dom Graham, who was born in England in 1907, became a Benedictine at Ampleforth Abbey in 1930, spent four years at Oxford. and in his books, of which Catholicism and the World Today is the most recent, as in his work for the London Times, has revealed his deep interest in the relations between the Roman Catholic Church and democracy. He is now Prior of Portsmouth Priory in Rhode Island.



IT IS high time that somebody took a long steady look at Thomas Merton. From out of the silent Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a TrappistCistercian monastery in Kentucky, this remarkable young man (still well under forty) is creating no small stir among those who concern themselves with the things of the spirit. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, enjoyed enormous popularity, “It is a book like this that men will turn to a hundred years from now,”wrote Clare Boothe Luce, “to find out what went on in the hearts of men in this cruel century.”But other Catholics, in private at any rate, have placed a question mark against the name of Merton. A saint ? —or an ecclesiastical Whittaker Chambers? An exponent of Christian holiness? — or a preacher of pseudo-perfectionism?

The standpoint of the present essay is not that of a detached, impartial critic; it is Merton’s own: the presuppositions of the Catholic faith and the Benedictine tradition. Baptized rather more than seven years before his birth and over thirty before his reception into the Catholic Church, I preceded him by a decade in taking the monastic vows to which both of us are pledged. True there is a difference here. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, to be echoed later by the Abbé do Rancé, has indoctrinated his Cistercian followers with a low estimate of the kind of Benedictine community to which I belong — the “Black Monks,” as they are known to historians. They, so the story runs, have fallen away from the primitive simplicity of St. Benedict’s Rule: the Cistercians are the only authentic Benedictines. Thomas Merlon clearly shares this view.

The early Cistercians were “shamed” at “the realization that, in the course of centuries, monks had devised specious excuses for softening the Rule and making its burden easier and easier on the flesh.” Today their case is even more deplorable. There must be many hundreds of Benedictines in this corrupt generation who, like myself, occasionally taste a little wine or indulge in the pleasures of a swim. Thereby, it would seem, they are expunged from the register of their profession. “Monks neither drink wine (in America) nor do they swim,” wrote the subject of our essay in 1949. If I am debarred from saluting him on terms of vocational equality, he may be placated at the thought that I write under the chosen tutelage of one of the greatest of his Cistercian forebears, Aelred of Rievaulx.

Thomas Merton was born in France on January 31, 1915, though his parents were not French. As a child he was much influenced by his father’s ideas about “truth and morality.” He had heard his parent advising “a shrew of a Frenchwoman, one of those spiteful sharp-tongued bourgeoises . . . that if she had any sense, she would love other people if only for the sake of the good and health and peace of her own soul, instead of tearing herself to pieces with her own envy and spitefulness.” The theme of love, not as evoked by people’s intrinsic lovableness, but as an alternative to the miseries inflicted on self by envy and spitefulness, for the peace of one’s own soul, will occur again in the life of Thomas Merton.

He spent some years in an English public school, learned to pray a little, but later was to look back on this as “my religious phase” — “like practically everyone else in our stupid and godless society.” At school he resisted the “deadly infection” of the Classics with all his will. “I do not exactly know why I hated Plato: but after the first ten pages of The Republic I decided that I could not stand Socrates and his friends, and I don’t think I ever recovered from that repugnance.”He was “building up a hard core of resistance” against everything that displeased him.

Fortunately not every prospect displeased. At sixteen came the inevitable: he fell in love with a twice his age. Charmed by a temptress with “big wide-open California eyes, he experienced, not the tender amours of normal youth, but “that devouring, emotional, passionate love of adolescence that sinks its claws into you and consumes you day and night and eats into the vitals of your soul.” He recovered and went to one of England’s ancient seats of learning. Or rather, as he now recalls the event, “I swept into the dark, sinister atmosphere of Cambridge and began my university career.”

Again he was unhappy; though he makes allowance for those who could not share his melancholy. “I am even willing to admit that some people might live there for three years, or oven a lifetime, so protected that they never sense the sweet stench of corruption that isall around them.” It seemed to him that Cambridge and, to Some extent, the whole of England wore pretending. Most of the people around him were “already morally dead.

When finally he came to America he was at first fascinated by New York. In retrospect, from his monastery cloister, he now sees that “it is the glad embrace she gives her lovers, the big, wild city: but I guess ultimately it is for their ruin.” Working at Columbia, however, he was less ill-at-ease than at Cambridge. Here he met the friends and read the books whose influence was to lead him away from the sins of his youth into the Catholic Church. Despite his distaste for Plato, he read Plotinus and liked him. About the distinctive world-views in these two thinkers Merton neither knows nor cares. “The truth is that there is a considerable difference between Plato and Plotinus, but I am not enough of a philosopher to know what it is. Thank God I shall never again have to try and find out, either.”

Amid many diverse occupations he made contact with the Scholasticism of Maritain and Gilson, studied Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means, and became interested in Oriental mysticism. A deep impression was made on him by a Hindu monk named Bramachari. From him Merton learned that “Christians don’t know what asceticism means.” But he was not discouraged. “Bramachari was simply saying something that has long since been familiar to readers of the Gospels.” Thomas Merton was reintroduced to the Christian tradition, as he is careful to emphasize, “by a Hindu monk!”

The preliminary pilgrimage was all but over. On November 16, 1938, Merton gratefully accepted membership in the Catholic Church. The call to the life of a cloistered religious was not long delayed. But it was to be no ordinary career of service dedicated to God that Thomas Merton would undertake. One of his friends suggested to him that he might become—“a saint.” Here, at last, was an idea! From striving after this goal only false humility and cowardice could hold him back. To his hesitancy and protestations his friend pointed out that nothing could be simpler. “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one.” This piece of theology Merton claims to have discovered in St. Thomas Aquinas — “it is something that is obvious to everybody who ever understood the Gospels.”

Meanwhile he bought the works of St. John of the Cross. He was “amazed and dazzled” at the import of what he read. “But it turned out that it would take more than that to make me a saint.” Towards the end of 1941, in pursuit of his ideal, Thomas Merton took the habit of a TrappistCistercian monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Here, we are told, is “the real capital of the country in which we are living. This is the center of all the vitality that is in America. This is the cause and reason why the nation is holding together. These men, hidden in the anonymity of their choir and their white cowls, are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for it the grace and the protection and the friendship of God.” For the privilege of joining in this enterprise the world was indeed well lost. Of Thomas Merton would not the words be verified that he himself had applied to another? — “The waters had closed over his head, and he was submerged in the community. He was lost. The world would hear of him no more.”

Thomas Merton belongs to the class of writers — intense, one-sided, humorless, propagandist, morally indignant — whose work falls outside the normal canons of criticism. Those who cannot accept it totally must be allowed to smile a little. What Merlon has to say touches too nearly the heart of Christianity for it to provoke either hostility or ridicule; but it has proved impossible to display in isolation the more significant items in his personal history and at the same time keep out a note of irony. Merton emerged from his youthful troubles, nourished by an apocalyptic imagination, to become a God-intoxicated man. Having conceived for himself a sublime ideal, he has heroically given it effect. Whatever may be thought of the content of his message or of its relevance to our times, there can be no withholding tribute to the earnestness of his convictions.


DURING the past six years Merton has published from his Trappist monastery no fewer than eight books. Four of these are prose works of considerable length; the others are collections of verse. A practiced writer, he achieves in prose the merits of force and clarity; but it is too highly charged, too diffuse and uneven, to attain distinction. Many of his verses have the authentic ring of poetry. Ring is the word for it; his chosen vocation of silence has instilled no contemplative quietness into his poems, He hears “the daily thundercrack of Massbells,” a wagon’s wheels “worrying the loose wood with their momentary thunder.”

But Merton is happier at poetry than with the disciplined exposition of divinity, “the dry verbiage of theologians.” The freer medium provides scope for his rich, creative imagination; perhaps also for that “sense of energy and resolve,” still retained, “that made me think everything was more interesting than it was.” Thus to his book, revealingly named Figures for an Apocalypse:

Go, stubborn talker.
Find your station on the loud worldcorners,
And try there, (if your hands be clean) your
length of patience:
Use there the rhythms that upset my silences,
And spend your pennyworth of prayer
There in the clamor of the Christless avenues:
And try to ransom some one prisoner
Out of those walls of traffic, out of the wheels
of that unhappiness!

Here, in its essentials, is Thomas Merton’s message. He would call men away from the “Christless avenues,” the “walls of traffic,” to share with him the blessings of contemplative prayer. Let it be said at once that he is concerned, not with any kind of philosophical speculation or aesthetic impressionism, but with what the Catholic Church holds to be the highest form of union with God to which man can attain on earth. This is the experience of God himself granted to the Christian saints and mystics. What distinguishes Merton from earlier expositors of this ideal is that he believes it to be an urgent necessity for all; he is in fact a propagandist of mysticism for the masses.

Admittedly few have so far achieved this state; it is clearly impracticable, even undesirable, for all to become Trappists; but “there is more incentive than ever for men to become saints.” And a saint for Thomas Merton has only one meaning — a man who, even though he has to engage in social action in the world, is prepared to live in the spirit of Merton’s own austerity and renunciation, so to await his final “transformation” into God.

“One of the most striking features of this ascetic ideal is that it is open to everybody. It is a way of perfection from which no one is excluded. No special vocation, no abnormal spiritual equipment, is required. The purity of the Gospel is open to all Christians, and the Cistercian life is the purity of the Gospel.” For Merton it is as simple as that. Nor is his discourse to the unfortunates who are constrained to live in the world substantially different. “Keep your eyes clean and your ears quiet and your mind serene. Breathe God’s air. Work, if you can, under His sky. But if you have to live in a city and ride in the subways and eat in a place where the radio makes you deaf with spurious news and where the food destroys your life and the sentiments of those around you poison your heart with boredom, do not be upset, but accept it as the love of God and a seed of solitude planted in your soul, and be glad of this suffering: for it will keep you alive to the next opportunity to escape from them and be alone in the healing silence of recollection and in the untroubled presence of God.”

Certainly men are not to seek solitude as a means of escape, but they are to seek it none the less. Merton’s later prose writing, though not his much more revealing verse, is occasionally interspersed with modifications of this kind. It is as if he were struck by the thought that, when all is said, he is not telling the whole story: Human nature must somehow be essentially good; for that is Catholic philosophy. Since they exist, there are plainly other forms of dedicated life besides the Cistercian. Love is more important than contemplation, and humility is the condition of them both. Mystical experience, like every heavenly grace, is a gift of God. Contemplative prayer should bear fruit in action. Our obligations to men are not to be neglected. There can be selfishness in the pursuit of virtue, egoism in the highest form of religion.

These things are clearly stated and sincerely held, but they appear as parentheses, afterthoughts, standing on the periphery of the argument. Merton lacks the philosopher’s intellectual patience and capacity to handle ideas; he is without the equipment of a trained theologian. Consequently he fails to write with continuous reference to these qualifications and so to impress his readers with their importance. The forcefulness of what he has to say would undoubtedly be weakened by the subtleties of balance and proportion. As it is, its character stands unmistakably revealed. In this respect at least, Thomas Merton belongs to the company of Augustine and Bernard, and one might add, of Luther and Kierkegaard. His theology is a projection into his writing of a personal experience.


IN contrast to many “twice-born” men before him, Merton has not been conspicuously influenced by the New Testament. No special lights came to him, as to St. Augustine and Luther, on reading the Epistle to the Romans. The human sources of his inspiration tell their own story: the poetry of Donne and Blake and Manley Hopkins, the apocalypticism of Léon Bloy, the astringencies of Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh, the high intellectualism of Maritain.

Merton can speak effectively to his contemporaries because he is one of them. Despite his enthusiasm for what he conceives apostolic Christianity to have been and the glories of the Middle Ages, he is no medievalist in love with the past. He is a modern man — with a difference: a modern man in reverse. His later interests are all of a piece: not the historic origins of the Christian faith but the ideas of “deification” in the Greek Fathers and the timeless message of the mystics. “We will read Scripture and above all the contemplative saints — John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, John Ruysbroeck, Bonaventure, Bernard and so on.” A key to the understanding of Thomas Merton lies in those little phrases, “above all” and “so on.”

He is preoccupied with arriving at “a deep and intimate and personal and loving knowledge of God through Christ”; but so great is the disparity between his devotion and his expository thought that he can write an entire essay on “Faith” without once finding it necessary to mention the name of christ. The poems are another matter; they abound in references to Christianity’s central Figure. All of which confirms the impression that Merton finds it easier to embody the orthodoxy of Catholicism in the products of his own imagination than to study his religion at its sources. An obviously felt, if conventional, tribute is repeatedly paid to the paramount importance of our earliest Christian records, but they are not integral to his writing. The expected texts, serving as grist to his mill, are quoted without reference to their context and background. Merton could have written all his books with less knowledge of the New Testament than the educated Christian layman’s, eked out by a Scripture concordance. His Biblical hero is not John the Divine but, significantly, John the Baptist.

Here we are concerned with nothing so trivial as a reproach for lack of scholarship. If Merton were addressing himself only to contemplative mystics, an exposition of prayer according to St. John of the Cross rather than the Gospels would be understandable. What he has to say, however, touches the total relationship to God of man in the modern world. His appeal is to the “Christians of our time”; he would assist the human race now “facing the greatest crisis in its history”; he calls for a “spiritual revolution” to “save the world from complete moral collapse.” This is no small theme. Even if it be granted that the only thing that remains for Christians is “to affirm their Christianity by that full and unequivocal rejection of the world which their Baptismal vocation demands of them,” one fact is plain: the task of elucidating this proposition is beyond Thomas Merton’s present intellectual capacities. He may well already be the “saint ” of his aspirations; theologically, I am afraid, he is still a young man in a hurry.

What, for instance, are we to understand by “the world”? Merton, in one of his poems, is so far forgetful of the Book of Genesis as to speak of “God and His bad earth.” He acknowledges that “the flight from the world is nothing else but the flight from selfishness” but is incapable of developing these and many kindred ideas (we recall his early aversion from Plato!) at their proper level. He cannot keep separate the notions of “world” and worldliness. The latter, not the former, is his real concern. Worldliness is an attitude, a state of mind; it is no more located in towns and cities than in the countryside. Secularism exists nowhere but in the secular heart of man. Through failing to notice this, Merton is constantly led into the fallacy known to philosophers as hypostatizing the idea, embodying in the concrete what belongs to the sphere of abstract, though often realized, possibilities.

“What is the ‘world’ that Christ would not pray for, and of which He said that His disciples were in it but not of it? The world is the unquiet city of those who live for themselves and are therefore divided against one another in a struggle that cannot end, for it will go on eternally in hell. It is the city of those who are fighting for the possession of limited things and for the monopoly of goods and pleasures that cannot be shared by all.”

We are not yet quite in any existing city, but there can be no mistaking the implications of the following piece of advice: “Do everything you can to avoid the amusements and the noise and the business of men. Keep as far away as you can from the places where they gather to cheat and insult one another, to exploit one another, to laugh at one another, or to mock one another with their false gestures of friendship. Do not read their newspapers, if you can help it. Be glad if you can keep beyond the reach of their radios. Do not bother with their unearthly songs or their intolerable concern for the ways their bodies look and feel. Do not smoke their cigarettes or drink the things they drink or share their preoccupation with different kinds of food. Do not complicate your life by looking at the pictures in their magazines.”In short, become a Trappist-Cistercian monk while living in the world.


THESE are the counsels which Merton offers to his contemporaries as a means for overcoming Marxist materialism. “Christians must show more definite signs of that agere contra, that positive ‘resistance,’ which is the heart of the Christian ascetic ‘revolution.’” He has been led into this unrealist position because, for all his personal devotion to Christ, he has scarcely paused to consider what is implied in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.

On the very few occasions where he refers to the subject at all, it is not the Johannine message of the Word’s having become flesh that interests him. Merton is only too anxious to get away from “our jails of flesh.” “Christ . . . is God, who became incarnate in order to effect a mystical transformation of mankind.” With characteristic inconsistency Merton takes refuge in abstractions at the very point where he should be concrete. He goes on to tell us that “only Christ, only the Incarnation, by which God emerged from His eternity to enter into time and consecrate it to Himself, could save time from being an endless series of frustrations.” We are indeed a far cry from the “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . .”— the evangelium in evangelio — of St. John. For Merton it is God’s “inexorable Son" over against “this wolf-world, this craven zoo.”

The picture is becoming clearer. Merton can insert an occasional brush-stroke of tenderness but there is an inhuman hardness in its broader lines.

We who have lived too long among your wicked children,
The flint-eyed brats who own your splendid streets,
We give you back Stepmother city, to your grey and ailing earth!
The millionaires
(Whose limousines sneak to your side as mute as gluttons)
The millionaires can have you, Egypt, with your onion-breath!

Those are not engaging sentiments. They do their author less than justice; but nothing that he says can — or is intended to — efface their memory.

Yet they have their appeal. At a time when men are perplexed with fear and disillusionment the call of the ascetic to world-renunciation can go to the head like wine. It has done so before now in a parallel situation: when the Roman Empire was sinking to its fall. A flight to the desert is also dramatically arresting. The pillar-saints of the Egyptian Thebaid were not without the consolations of an audience. To judge by the historian Josephus, the austerities of John the Baptist made a deeper impression on his contemporaries than the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. One element of popular success in Merton’s writing may be its power to bring vicarious satisfaction to those who remain in normal society yet share his indignation at its evils, a pleasing sense of being on the side of the angels. Denunciation of the unregenerate “they" is only a step removed from “I am holier than thou.”It is a step that lies directly in the path of one engaged in contrasting his own vocation with the worthless occupations of others.

We may leave Thomas Merton — or Father Louis, as I would call him now — to the “higher pleasures” of mystical contemplation. Those who know a little of the theory of these things will envy him. They may doubt, however, whether his well-intentioned simplifications can serve any lasting purpose. Had he studied the Pauline Epistles he would have learned that to be a “saint,” as he understands the word, is not at any man’s disposal. The divine election is always presupposed — and to this no spectacular self-discipline or agere contra can lay claim. The same lesson is reinforced in the Augustinian critique of the confident asceticism of Pelagius and his friends.

In other words, mysticism is not for the masses but for an élite. To lose sight of this is to divert Christians from what may well be, for the majority of them, their most urgent business. Their call is not to take flight from society but to revivify it with Christian values from within, to give effect by personal witness to the basic article of their religious creed, to incarnate an element of divine truth and goodness in each human situation. For this undertaking prayer will, be the inspiration; but prayer, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out at length, is no substitute for energies employed in direct relation to the needs of the hour. In our present predicament no religious propaganda could be more in harmony with the Marxist book than an appeal to Christians to let the world go to the devil in its own way. The most pressing theme for their reflections is the reminder that they are the followers of a Master “who went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed.”

A surprising conclusion from a Benedictine who has himself, like Thomas Merton, chosen to live in a monastery? Let me try to remove the inconsistency without a propagandist’s special pleading. The Rule of St. Benedict, like every masterpiece of legislation, can suffer without infringement adaptation to varieties of time and place. Benedict wished to organize, not a house of contemplative mystics, but what he called a “school of the Lord’s service”; to some of whose more faithful members — since they were required to pray constantly — the gift of contemplation would not be denied.

Historians seem agreed that our Western culture has on the whole profited by a small minority of Christians embracing this form of life. Relatively few of those called to it have been remarkable. While their rivals burned with ascetic zeal the Benedictines have sometimes been unable to do much more than preserve the decencies. On a notable occasion they gave shelter to the disgraced and dying Abelard, for whom the outstanding monastic reformer of the day could find no compassion. A Benedictine monastery has come to be regarded by its inhabitants not as an asylum in which to escape from the contagion of the worldlyminded, but as a place of withdrawal from which to obtain a truer view of the world God so loved as to send his Son to save it —a world to whose well-being they owe a direct contribution. That some have this vocation rather than to commerce or industry, or a profession in one of the arts or sciences, or what you please, points to nothing in particular. Except perhaps to yet another instance of “the many ways of mystery and many things God brings to be.”