Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thomas Merton the Fallen

With all of my implied hagiography, I am aware of the fallen Merton.  As a young man in pre-World War II London, Merton fathered a child. He did not assume responsibility for the mother or child, and that leaves me stone cold. After the war, and after he had become a priest, from the monastery, Merton sought to inquire about them. He discovered that mother and child had been killed in the blitz.

I know of conservative Catholics who make the accusation that Merton was going to convert to Buddhism.  One friend of mine even asserted that that is what prompted his trip to Bangkok (where he died from an accidental electrocution.) That is nonsense.  He simply had a very intense intellectual and experiential interest in the Eastern religions. Merton was no fool. He knew who he was. 

I just discovered an interesting book titled, Thomas Merton’s Art of Denial: The Evolution of a Radical Humanist, by David D. Cooper, which I must read next. The book is supposedly about the conflict that Merton experienced between being an anonymous monk with vows of silence and stability, and that of being a world famous, best selling writer and intellectual. Some accuse him of not being sufficiently obedient to his role and vows as a monk. That is nonsense.  We all struggle in life and monks are no different. As per reviews, in his middle years Merton struggles with the fact that his experience of monastic life is not the way he imagined it when he was young. He ultimately resolves this conflict by turning his formidable intellect and writing talent towards writing against war—all wars, but especially the Vietnam War, and against the Atomic arms race.

When Merton was an older man and world famous, while being hospitalized for an illness, he became friends with one of the nurses. Afterwards, they maintained a relationship. I do not hold that against him, but most people consider it to have been a violation of his monastic vows. No one knows if it was a sexual relationship or not and some people have said that it would not have been.  It doesn’t matter now, as God forgives, but the relationship is what is preventing his cause for sainthood from moving forward.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thankful for Grace this Thanksgiving

I am thankful to God for all of the good in my life, and it has been overwhelmingly good. I had read Thomas Merton's, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), when I was in my early twenties. It did not move me or make much of an impact on me at the time. I was taken in more by how well it was written than by the content.  In my twenties, I had not had enough experience of life--no experience at all really, for me to be able to appreciate it.  The single thing that I remember from the book was Thomas' fear of being drafted to fight in the impending world war, his desperate relief upon entering the monastery to become a Trappist monk, while reading the sign above the monastery entrance which read, "Peace to All Who Enter Here." Nothing else in the story registered with me at the time, but now, re-reading the book 30+ years later, I can appreciate every word.

On Facebook last year, some Catholic friends had an exchange about The Seven Story Mountain, and I realized that I had missed something good--the book had gone right through my brain, while leaving only the faintest of impressions. So, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a copy of the Fiftieth Anniversary edition.

I couldn't read it straight through. The beginning chapters were dull. And so, I just stashed the book in a drawer. I have a habit of needing to read something before I go to sleep.  And so lately, after laying down in bed, I've been opening the book at random and reading sections, and in that mode, have found it illuminating and evocative. Again, I can't help but admire the expressive clarity of his writing. It is as formal as it is clear, without being stilted or phony. And his use of imagery is as good as the best poets. But the difference this time around is that I can see how Grace was constantly prompting him and propelling him forward.

I should stop here and state that I have read probably about a dozen books by Merton--some straight theology (dry); material on the monastic and contemplative life (a bit abstract); all of his essays on social justice (utterly fantastic); his published journals (for the true Merton junkies); of few of his poems, but especially, the fantastic, "Original Child Bomb," (for the pacifist and anti-nuclear activist in you); as well as many critical and biographical things about him; including the outstanding biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. I read all of this in my twenties.

If anyone had a calling to become a monk, it was Merton, and becoming a monk freed Merton to be able to look at things with an incredible spiritual objectivity. One of the things that keeps readers going back to read more and more of Merton are his incredibly penetrating insights into the nature of things. He can look at an ordinary situation in the world, describe it for the reader, but then turn it inside-out, to show us the actual spiritual truth, which most of us have been unable to see.

Merton filled me with romantic notions of the monastery and of the spiritual life, but it also sharpened my understanding of social justice and gave me a desire to be a writer just like Thomas Merton (which I obviously failed at). Merton helped me to not look down on people as much or as often as I did, and he helped me to be less morally judgmental of others than I would have been. In the town in which I had grown up, there was a monastery of Augustinian Recollects. Strictly speaking, they were friars not try monks, but I was fascinated by them none-the-less as well. Needless to say, the reality was that I did not have a calling to monasticism or the priesthood.

Merton was a contemporary of Jack Kerouac, and I see him as the monastic version of Kerouac. They were both pillars, even founding fathers, of some of the social movements of the 1960's.  But the comparison goes much further.  Merton and the beats were both writers. Both had French roots. Both liked jazz. Both were interested in and wrote about Buddhism. Merton and Kerouac (as well as Ginsburg) were students at Columbia University. Kerouac and Ginsburg had attended Colombia shortly after Merton.  Much of Merton's conversion took place while he was an undergraduate at Colombia. With Kerouac and Ginsburg, Colombia  was the embryonic environment within which the Beats were formed. Merton had studied Shakespeare under the legendary professor Mark van Doren. Merton says that he was the most influential and memorable professor that he had at Colombia. The straight-laced, uber-Catholic thinker, MarkVan Doren was also a major influence on Kerouac and Ginsburg.

I have a friend who opines that Merton was overly self-absorbed.  Perhaps that is a risk of becoming a monk. That may be true of some of his writing, but I did not find that to be the case all the time, especially not of his essays on social justice. I am disappointed in Merton in that I did not find the level of introspection that I would have liked, for example, of the sort that one finds in Saint Augustine. We have to accept the fact that Merton was a man from a certain age and background.

For sure, some would say that this journal entry is extremely self-absorbed!  And I confess that the issue of being self-absorbed is a sensitive one for me, because I sense that often I have been overly self-absorbed.  If you perceive me so, I prefer to think that it has been the result of trying to find myself and to save myself. I think that there are complex ironies and paradoxes in the process, which are too much of a tangent to go into here.

But back to the book.  Merton's father, Owen, an artist, died when Merton was 18.  Afterwards, while in Rome, Merton had a powerful religious experience while viewing a Byzantine mosaic of Christ at the church of St. Cosmas and Damian. These events were the beginning of an intense, life-long inner churning and search for meaning, truth and beauty. The most intense and most fruitful time period of his journey was the time starting from when he was a student at Colombia, up until he entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.  What is different in my reading of the book this time around is that I am able to perceive these events in Merton's life as actions of Grace.  And it is amazing that Merton was open to them. One of my favorite expressions lately is, "Grace works through nature" (from Thomas Aquinas). It explains a lot, if not just about everything. And in Merton's life at this time, one can see Grace, constantly acting through nature, impacting on Merton through numerous people and events. I will cite a tiny sample.

During his undergraduate years at Colombia, Merton encountered and befriended quite a number of fellow students who were deeply engaged with life and pursuing a spiritual journey. Many were attracted to Catholicism. While an undergraduate, Merton decided to become a Catholic and received instruction from a few priests in Manhattan. How different college life was back then!  But this was also a time when Catholicism was on a steep ascendancy in America (unlike today).

The previously mentioned Mark van Doren was well read in contemporary scholastic philosophy. Merton says that van Doren's scholastic perspectives prepared him for the study of scholastic thought at the monastery.  (Van Doren has been cited by numerous intellectuals and writers who attended Colombia, as a formative influence. I should mention that Merton's good friend, the poet Robert Lax was in the same Shakespeare class with Merton. Merton speaks very highly of the Jewish Lax, as intellectually brilliant, of vast, complex emotional depths and very, very spiritual.  (Incidentally, Kerouac called Lax one of the great original voices of our times.) But Lax was only one of a group of friends that Merton made at Colombia that he remained friends with for the rest of his life. Another friend was Robert Giroux who also studied under van Doren and who went on to become one of the most influential editors and publishers of the twentieth century, having edited some of the most influential writers of the time, including 7 Nobel Prize lauretes. Another important friend was Ed Rice who also went on to a hugely successful career as a writer, editor and publisher.  Ed Rice was the sponsor for Merton and Lax when they became Catholics. Another member of the group of friends was the abstract painter Ad Rheinhardt. After Merton joined the monastery, his old friends used to drive down from New York in a group to Kentucky to visit him.

Of his friends from his time at Colombia, Merton says:
So now is the time to tell a thing that I could not realize then, but which has become very clear to me: that God brought me and half a dozen others at Colombia, and made us friends, in such a way that our friendship would work powerfully, to rescue us from the confusion and the misery in which we had come to find ourselves, partly through our own fault, and partly through a complex set of circumstances which might be grouped together under the heading of the "modern world", "modern society." But the qualification, "modern" is unnecessary and perhaps unfair. The traditional Gospel term, "the world," will do well enough. 
Merton talks in detail about numerous authors and works of philosophy and literature that he became engaged with and contributed to his conversion. He was heavily influenced by the contemporary scholastic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Merton talks about Aldous Huxley, especially a book called, End and Means.  Although Huxley was not a Catholic, but Merton describes the book as a tour-de-force of a Catholic worldview and having been an impressive influence on himself.  He also became very engaged with the poetry of the Jesuit priest, Gerald Manly Hopkins. After purchasing a newly published small book of poems from William Blake, Merton decided to write his master's thesis at Colombia on a scholastic perspective of Blake's poetry.

Besides Van Doren, Merton was greatly influenced by another professor, Dan Walsh, who taught scholastic philosophy. Walsh became a mentor and good friend of Merton's.

After Colombia, Merton taught for a summer and half of the next semester at St. Bonaventure, run by the Franciscan's,  in upstate N.Y.  While there, Merton became acquainted with the Franciscan charism first-hand. As much as Merton had not been raised as a Catholic, he had not been exposed to Catholic life like that, and he seems at times to act like a detached observer. Among other things, he also engaged in a private study of philosophy with one of the priests who was a philosophy professor. While Merton respected the Franciscans, he saw that becoming a Franciscan would not satisfy himself. It would seem that Merton's encounters and experience of the Franciscans (who strictly speaking are friars and not monks), had the effect of helping to point him towards pure monasticism.

During his time in New York, Merton had become aware of the work of the Catholic Worker movement. The founders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were both alive and very active in New York during this period.

While at St. Bonaventure's, Merton recounts a riveting lecture from Baroness de Hueck, a Catholic activist and refugee from Bolshevism, about the need for the church to do much, much more for the poor.  It cannot help but remind a reader today of the issues of Liberation Theology. Merton and the Baroness became friends, and Thomas made plans to join her ministry in Harlem.

Merton's recounting of his Grace filled encounters and experiences during his Colombia years are expansive and detailed as they are interesting. The mature Merton is known, and sometimes criticized for his interest in Eastern religions, and we can see his intense interest in Eastern religions even during his Colombia years. Note his exposure to, and the acute attention that he paid to social justice, while being driven to monasticism. The depth of his engagement with literature is most impressive.

The affect of re-reading The Seven Story Mountain has been to cause me to look back and realize all of the similar kinds of actions of Grace that I have received in my own past life. All of it was, "Grace working through nature," and it was there in abundance. There were my parents; the Dominican sisters who taught in our grammar school; Fr. Joyce, one of our parish priests; the Salesians who taught at my high school; of the NY Archdiocese School of Spirituality; of the pilgrimage that I made to Israel in the 80's; and of all of the varied and wild and crazy books and magazines that I have read in my life; of Thomas Merton himself; of St. Augustine; of Fr. Oldfield of Tagaste Monastery and the Augustinian Recollects; and now of the Communion and Liberation Movement.  I should not have to mention the Bible. And I would be very remiss if I did not mention all of my Protestant, especially Evangelical friends, who I love dearly, including those I know mostly or only through the Internet. Even my atheist friends, who I also love, have helped me greatly on my journey to God.  They have challenged me and have caused me to further think through who and what I am and what my relationship to the ultimate reality is.  All of this has helped shape who I am.  It is all Grace, and I am thankful to God for all of it. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Confessions of a Geography Geek

I came from an over-protected childhood that anyone from a strict Irish-Catholic family of my age or older would recognize. As a wee child, whenever our parents took us to visit our grandparents, I often perused my grandfather's copies of National Geographic magazine. The people in the pictures looked radically different than my friends,  family, or myself.  They dressed more colorfully, sometimes with piercings and feathers, sometimes with wild face or body paint. In a few pictures, the people were practically naked. They lived in far away places, had houses that looked very different from ours and had different rituals for worshiping God. The magazine sometimes came with a folded-up map inside. I was very young at the time, and whenever my grandfather saw me taking a map out, he would take it away from me saying that he was afraid I would ruin it. The magazine was a great curiosity to me, and I recall my grandfather acknowledging and esteeming my interest. It was his affirmation that was the origin of my fascination with other cultures.

In grammar school, geography became my favorite subject--besides being fascinated by other lands, ethnic groups, cultures, religions, as well as the statistics that went along with them. I was also fascinated by maps--of states, countries, and continents. I especially liked those maps in our textbooks that used icons to indicate the locations of things like natural resources or different ethnic groups.

My grandfather, and occasionally my parents, also subscribed to Maryknoll Magazine, published by the Maryknoll missionaries, a Catholic religious order.  If you donated money to Maryknoll, you got a subscription. Each issue had stories about the people that the missionaries were trying to help--the poorest of the poor in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. That little magazine was my first education in global poverty and international development.

Today, in my spare time, I am a volunteer with Nomi Network, an organization that is doing development work overseas, also with the poorest of the poor--human trafficking victims--and it has given me license to continue to indulge my fascination with geography.

My grandfather would approve.