The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Isn’t the Seven Storey Mountain next to Space Mountain?

posted by deacon greg kandra

I stumbled on this sad and sobering testimony today in the America blog, In All Things, from a California undergraduate professor:

While reaching for examples to explain 20th century interpretations of salvation as the movement from inauthentic to authentic existence, I confidently asked how many in the room had read Thomas Merton, thinking I could invite a student to share what they’d learned from Merton that could illustrate the point at hand. Out of 33 students, zero hands went up. Then I asked, okay, how many had ever *heard* of Merton. Again, out of 33 students, with probably half (at least) coming from more or less Catholic backgrounds, *zero* hands went up.

Earlier in the class, when I mentioned a theological question my 2-year old daughter had asked, a young woman in the class asked if I had taken my daughter to Disney. (The answer is no.) In response, I asked the class how many of *them* had gone to Disney. A full 32 of 33 students raised animated hands.

(Vincent Miller, in reflections occasioned by his own young daughter, well characterizes the transition to Disney language in his excellent book Consuming Religion, where on page 6 he memorably (and critically) writes: “Gloria in Excelsis Deo! Hakuna Matata!”)

I left the lesson that day with a keen awareness for how much work must be done in entering the world of thought, emotion, and intuition of this post-post-Vatican II generation. And in bringing the worlds of thought, emotion, and intuition from other theological times and places into my students’ sensibilities. It seems to me a task both daunting and absolutely essential.

You’ll find no one who loves all things Disney more than Your Humble Blogger — my wife and I even own a timeshare on Disney property in Florida — but I’m also crazy for Merton. He was a guiding influence in my vocation (as he was for so many others a generation or two back). It pains me to see his influence beginning to disappear.

More young Catholics need to discover him, and learn from him. Before he disappears into the dusty vaults of pre-Vatican II history.

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Phil Onochie

posted March 3, 2008 at 7:17 pm

I respect Thomas Merton and the effect his conversion story has on people who read it. He definitely had the hand of God upon him. In his later years though, it seems he ignored a lot of rules and opted for the life on an extern even though he was meant to be a monk. Various shots of him reveal him out of his habit. More stories surface now about the confused state he was in when he visited with the Dalai Lama just before he died. He was wrapped up in mysticism and sought to unite eastern traditions with that of the church. Indeed, there is a silence in the Church that doesn’t want to reveal this scandal and you can’t help but wonder why the Vatican hasn’t made a move to open up the cause of his canonization.Like I said, his conversion story is beautiful. Perhaps he got to adventurous towards the end of his life. His death was tragic indeed. Taking a bath, he was sadly electrocuted in Thailand the night before he was scheduled to return from his meeting with the Dalai Lama. May God rest his soulPhil Onochie

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posted March 3, 2008 at 9:48 pm

Scandal? You’re being absurd.

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posted March 3, 2008 at 10:59 pm

If it makes you feel better, I am an 18 year old who first heard of Merton at 16 and later read and learned about him in my morality class in high school. I think he’s wonderful and my favorite quote is “The deepest level of communication is not communication but communion.”

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Ruth Mabee

posted March 3, 2008 at 11:43 pm

Thomas Merton had a profound impact on my life. He is by far my favorite author. There is so much more to him than his conversion story. His writings are beautiful and clearly he loved and served God until the day he died – whether he was in his “uniform” or not. Yes, he was a radical – a revolutionary thinker – a mystic whose writings spoke to my heart and awakened my spirit.

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Phil Onochie

posted March 4, 2008 at 12:53 am

Michael, I don’t appreciate you calling me absurd. I understand if you are shocked, but do your research, will you?

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posted March 4, 2008 at 7:40 am

Phil,”Scandal” is a rather strong and provocative word. Fr. Louis (his name as a Trappist) was certainly marching to the beat of different drummer, particularly in his later years. Some of his brothers at Gethsemani questioned his independence and freedom, particularly in the mid and late 1960’s when Vatican II was just settling in and his actions and thought appeared be in dichotomy with Trappist rule and customs.It is interesting that I have never heard any of his brother monks refer to him as “saintly”, not that he wasn’t. They realized he was an intellectual and a visionary. They saw him as a teacher and a prophet.

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posted March 4, 2008 at 9:08 am

I often wonder if God in his great mercy didn’t allow Merton his “untimely” death before he DID create any real scandal. I just had this similar conversation with an Abbot last week, both concluding that Merton died before he ever acted (not knowing if he would have or not), on anything too Eastern/too “un Catholic.” Maybe the best lesson Merton left us, despite the obvious gems, is that great reminder of how we can all fall out of step at anytime, or at least be greatly tempted or close to it, as it “appears” that Merton may have been. In any case, it also appears that God called him home before any damage was done.The world certainly needs more Merton, Chesterton, and Bishop Fulton Sheen, especially the Western world.

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Deacon Greg Kandra

posted March 4, 2008 at 10:03 am

I think part of Thomas Merton’s appeal was (and is) the very imperfection and human-ness that some people here are talking about. (In that regard, he is not that different from a contemporary of his, Henri Nouwen.) Merton struggled — with faith, with his commitment to his vows, with temptations of every kind. He gave voice to that struggle, and spoke for countless Christians walking the same difficult journey. And his impact is profound. After World War II, many men came home and read his autobiography — and hundreds, if not thousands, of vocations were the result. At one time, his abbey was so crowded with young aspirants, they had to sleep in tents. To this day, there are still a lot of people who wake up every morning seeking some solace or strength to face the day — and find it in a crumpled card that contains his prayer “Thoughts in Solitude.” I gave a copy of that prayer to a recovering alcoholic at work, and he told me it helped him to return to the Church. “It’s the only prayer I could do,” he told me. Merton shouldn’t be ignored, or neglected, or forgotten. Blessings,Dcn. G.

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posted March 4, 2008 at 12:51 pm

In response to Phil, who takes exception to Michael’s comment, “You’re being absurd,” and suggests that Michael should “do your research,” I would suggest that you, Phil, are the one who needs to do your research.Your assertion that “More stories surface now about the confused state he was in when he visited with the Dalai Lama just before he died” is, indeed, absurd. What stories are you referring to? This generalization lacks merit and is nothing but scurrilous blather. To say that Thomas Merton was in a “confused state” implies he was somehow lost or uncertain in his faith journey, an assertion that some people seem to find it necessary to perpetrate because, I suspect, they are fearful of co-religionists who explore other cultures, religions and faith journeys. They seem to make a leap between opening a dialog with others, and being corrupted or co-opted by others. They seem to view any efforts to understand or learn from other religious traditions as evidence of syncretism. If you research the writings of Thomas Merton, you will find a great love of Jesus Christ, a profound commitment to Catholicism, a deep dedication to monasticism, and a respectful curiosity for all of God’s creation, including people from different faith traditions.If you research the documents of Vatican II, and you will find ample instruction from Church leadership to honor and value what is good in other religions. There is no evidence whatsoever that Thomas Merton was “confused” or considered becoming anything but the best Trappist monk he could be. If in the course of his striving he sometimes missed the mark, if in the view he fell short of being a “perfect monk,” he was the first to say so, and to ask for God’s help. His honesty and humanness is something to emulate, not criticize!The only scandal, to my mind, is that holier-than-thou Catholics go out of their way to knock him, with only the sketchiest idea of who he was, what he wrote, and what he stood for.Phil, but I admit that I am offended by the spreading of falsehoods about an individual I greatly respect and admire. I have learned much from Merton, as have countless others, and he has, as you allude to, brought many people closer to God, to the Catholic Church, and into religious life, through his remarkable conversion story.I would suggest to you, though, that unlike our Protestant brothers and sisters who embrace Calvinist doctrines of predestination or insist that one “born again” experience is enough to be saved, we Catholics believe in lifelong conversion. Our faith journey is just that, a journey, not a static, frozen collection of certainties. Can one who is committed to Christ ever be too adventurous? What does that mean?When you say, “He was wrapped up in mysticism,” you denigrate a long and much revered tradition within the Church, for mystics have always played a very important and prophetic role. If it is something you do not understand well or appreciate, that’s one thing. But is it necessary to besmirch the “mystical” body of Christ with such words? Fear is the basis of this kind of calumny, and I’m sorry to say I find it popping up in certain quarters routinely, not because it has merit, but because it is mindlessly and thoughtlessly parroted. And it really needs to be challenged.Your assertion that Merton “sought to unite eastern traditions with that of the church,” reveals the fundamental misunderstanding and basis of your fear. Those who think they have the best understanding of what constitutes the Catholic Church – which more often than not is historically inaccurate, highly selective, and tends to mirror either the American Catholic experience of one’s upbringing or some Hollywood version with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald representing Catholic days of glory – are especially frightened by the prospect of the Church being affected by other cultures or religions.And yet the Church has gone through countless transformations and will continue to do so, from a little persecuted Jewish sect to the religion of the Roman empire to the fast growing Church in Africa, Asia and South America. It is not going to look like our treasured recollection of St. Mary’s at the corner of Fifth and Maple in Peoria, 1952 – not that there’s anything wrong with that treasured recollection.I may be extrapolating too much form your comments, but when you say, “Various shots of him reveal him out of his habit,” warning bells go off. There seems to be a constant need to emphasize externals in some quarters of the Church. I can appreciate the desire to understand what constitutes an authentic Catholic identity; I suggest one begins with an exploration of the word catholic, which as little to do with wearing uniforms. It’s a rather childish observation, reminding me of my closely held belief, as a child, that the Sisters slept in their habits and never removed their veils. I will not criticize Catholic nuns in full habit or Muslim women who wear burqas, but I would suggest that neither choice in apparel guarantees spiritual perfection. In my day, I was encouraged and loved by some Sisters in full habit, and slapped and humiliated by others. And I am sure there have been priests in full cassock who have been defrocked for sexual abuse. You really should think through the implications of your comments.You say that Thomas Merton died “the night before he was scheduled to return from his meeting with the Dalai Lama,” who you bring up twice in your posting. Besides being inaccurate, you infer that there is something bad about meeting the Dalai Lama. The current and previous two popes met with the Dalai Lama as well. Were they in error for doing so?Lastly, the remark, “Indeed, there is a silence in the Church that doesn’t want to reveal this scandal and you can’t help but wonder why the Vatican hasn’t made a move to open up the cause of his canonization” reflects a pettiness and an ignorance. I suggest you Google “Thomas Merton,” and tell me more about the “silence.” I get more than 750,000 results, and the Church’s continuing interest in him is manifest if you explore those results. Or by church, did you mean magisterium? Even so, there has never been a move on the part of the magisterium to repudiate or ban Merton’s works, nor has there ever been a reason for doing so. On the other hand, there may be some right wing, militaristic Americans with an ax to grind.It may interest you to know that Merton’s abbot referred to him as “the most obedient monk” in the community. And that Pope John XXIII read his books and honored him by sending Merton his pallium as a gift.To me, Phil, the only scandal is that the Church has not opened a cause for canonization. But as Dorothy Day once said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” And if you read the lives of the saints, you will find many instances of decades, even centuries, passing from the time a cause is introduced to the time they are actually canonized. Sometimes the reasons have everything to do with church politics. I believe that is the case with Merton, and someday, Church leadership will catch up with his prophetic and radical call to holiness and add his name to the calendar of saints. But that, Phil, is not what makes him a saint.

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Mr. Basso

posted March 4, 2008 at 2:37 pm

if anyone has read James Fowler’s book Stages of Faith you might identify Merton as a Stage 6 kind of guy, with a faith that he felt was perhaps “too big” for his abbey or even his hermitage. Even before venturing into eastern religious practice, Merton had requested dispensation of his vow of stability and to be sent to a pacific island as a missionary / hermit. His story is one of scandal only insofar as he had a great audience and that he began preach a spirituality that may have confused faithful “stage 3″ catholics, or even caused them to abandon the Church.Finally, in response to “aqualung” I am reminded of a quote from St. Jerome: “To defend his position he piles up text upon text, waves his sword like a blind-folded gladiator, rattles his noisy tongue, and ends with wounding no one but himself.”Let us keep the Catholic Blogosphere a place characterized by fraternal charity even int he midst of our disagreements.

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posted March 4, 2008 at 5:24 pm

I think Merton is more appreciated by the older faithful than the younger. Just my observation…we read him and identify in ways that younger Catholics simply may not.

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posted March 4, 2008 at 7:46 pm

I thank Mr. Basso for the fraternal correction and call to charity, and the quote from St. Jerome, who “made enemies wherever he went: his aggressive sarcasm and readiness to equate himself with authentic tradition were often counter-productive,” according to one on-line biography. I also appreciate Mr. Basso’s reference to Fowler’s “Stages of Faith,” which seems to be a good resource to explore.It’s a strong notion that Merton might have caused confusion in minds of “stage three” Catholics, leading them to abandon the church, especially when you preface “stage three” with “faithful.” How grounded was that faithfulness?Still, among other things, Merton once said, “If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn.”My aim was to ask questions about the veracity of Phil’s material. He’s entitled to his opinion, but I am questioning his facts: in particular, the “confused state,” and the “scandal” remarks. I don’t think it’s charitable to overlook falsehoods, intentional or otherwise. But I admire the pithy comment and the pointed quote Mr. Basso offers.Bernard of Clairvaux said, “Hell is full of good wishes or desires.” To say that one respects Thomas Merton and then to trounce on his reputation is hard for me to understand, and hard for me to let pass. He is one of my heroes.

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posted March 5, 2008 at 12:55 am

RE the younger generation and knowledge of Thomas Merton, there is a “Thomas Merton Fan Club” page on Facebook. It has 328 members.FYI:

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Mr. Basso

posted March 5, 2008 at 12:48 pm

Aqualung, if you are familiar with Fowler’s stages, as you seem to be, then you will note well that the third stage of faith is one defined by a sense of being part of a whole and identifying one’s beliefs by pointing to those held collectively by the group. There is an inherent danger in retaining the guise of one faith while delving into the practice of another, if not for your own soul then surely for the souls of those who would follow you. Christ says that it would be better for a millstone to be tied around our necks and sent for a swim than it would be for us to lead another into sin. Furthermore, St. Paul makes an important distinction which is apropos between what is lawful for the mature Christian and what is beneficial for the neophyte. In other words, I think it quite beneficial for my Catholic High School students to read Seven Story Mountain, the Sign of Jonas, Waters of Siloe, and many of his early journals. However, Zen and the Birds of Appetite or Mystics and Zen Masters, the Way of Chuang Tzu, or his Asian Journals, not so much.Do I appreciate Merton’s spiritual and intellectual genius? absolutelyDo I “trounce on his reputation”? most certainly not.

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posted March 5, 2008 at 6:37 pm

Mr. Basso, actually, I was not familiar with Fowler’s Stages of Faith, but I was able to review portions of it through Google Books after you mentioned it. Thank you. I did see a reference to Kohlberg’s thesis of moral development, with which I was somewhat familiar. I get the general idea. I would not presume to suggest you teach Catholic high school students any materials you didn’t feel they were ready to explore.Clearly you appreciate Thomas Merton, and I understand that being selective in what you present high school students in no way trounces on Merton’s reputation.I realize, as well, that as we progress in the spiritual life, our capacity for theological reflection and our understanding of the development of certain schools of thought, like biblical criticism, might not be so easy for Stage 3 Catholics to understand. For example, I was discussing the story of Adam and Eve with my mom, and its mythological dimension. She was horrified. For her, it happened exactly as it is laid out in the Bible, literally. I did not try to persuade her otherwise. I agreed whole-heartedly to the truth of the passage and chose not to cause her undue confusion – though perhaps too late. Once confronted with an alternative viewpoint, she may have had to wrestle with some ideas she hadn’t previously considered.I certainly didn’t want to alienate her or cause her to question her faith. I was simply captivated by the many wonderful ways the Bible expresses spiritual truths and wanted to share some insights with her.When you say, “There is an inherent danger in retaining the guise of one faith while delving into the practice of another, if not for your own soul then surely for the souls of those who would follow you,” you suggest that Merton in some way traded his Catholic faith for the Buddhist faith. This is not true, and there is no evidence for this. I have never read anything that indicated he was wearing his Catholicism as a guise while secretly practicing Buddhism. Anyone who is under that impression is, indeed, misled.I think the millstone allusion is a bit heavy-handed (said the blind-folded gladiator). Where is the sin? To study Buddhism? To forge links between eastern and western monasticism? To visit the Dalai Lama? The only reason Merton was in Thailand was because he had been invited to give a talk at a monastic ecumenical meeting from Dom Jean LeClercq, and his abbot approved. He had been invited to many other events over the years for which he was not given permission to attend, and in most cases he was probably happy for that. He loved being a Trappist and they are not known for globetrotting. Maybe it’s the fact that he did get the green light for this long trip that bugs some people. I recommend Michael Mott’s outstanding biography, “The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton” to those who want an accurate story.Lastly, Mr. Basso, I struggle with the logic of how becoming who you are in the eyes of God, as fully realized as God desires you to be, as a writer, as a monk, as a Catholic, is somehow dangerous for the average Stage 3 Catholic and apparently causes confusion. There was a time when it was considered a sin by many ordinary Catholics to enter a Protestant church. The concern was that they might be misled. When the average Catholic is seen to be Stage 3, conformity is key, correct? But the reality is, many are moving to Stage 4, taking personal responsibility for their faith, and that wasn’t always being affirmed by Church leaders – much less Stages 5 and 6. I believe that the awful pedophilia crisis we have endured would not have happened if more Stage 3 Catholics, who were encouraged to forgive and remain silent – to pay, pray and obey – had refused to be treated like children, and had summoned the police. There is no reason this catastrophe had to fester for decades. So, if your message that we should play it safe and stay at Stage 3 for the sake of the common good, I disagree. I think that’s the scary thing about the saints, the prophets, about Jesus – we’re always being called beyond our comfort zone. Indeed, your questions cause me to grow and investigate other perspectives. And the message I am getting is that I need to be more compassionate. I want to get at the truth without resorting to sledgehammers and a noisy tongue – but that is my weakness.

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posted March 6, 2008 at 11:16 am

At the risk of overstaying my visit on the Deacon’s Bench, I found this spirited exposition on what may be the root of recent Merton controversy, and the debunking of falsehoods relating to his interest in other religions and his fidelity to the Church:

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posted March 6, 2008 at 9:04 pm

I think this discussion has been terrific! Thanks!

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Phil Onochie

posted March 7, 2008 at 11:15 am

Wow! I didn’t realize I had caused such a stir following my post. I didn’t get on this board to abuse anybody verbally and I am taken aback by several posts here. My initial post states that I respect Merton and the effects of his conversion, i.e. bringing souls into the Church.I went on further to say that it “seems” that he ignored certain aspects of his vows in his later years. I never said I believed that he did. There is a certain hysteria surrounding the facts of his later life that makes one stop and ponder. I am in no way passing judgment on him except to honestly say that the silence from within the Church (Her hierarchy)leads me to questions which have been unresolved. Tell me, where are the atrocities in my statements?

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posted March 7, 2008 at 8:28 pm

Phil, I would like to thank you for your initial post, in spite of the fact that I disagreed with your characterizations. I thank you, because it provided an opportunity to challenge some erroneous ideas about Thomas Merton, and I hope that the information I shared will be helpful to you and to others.You wrote, “He definitely had the hand of God upon him.” I agree with you, and I’m sure it is not your intention to spread falsehoods. But there are such people – as the link I provided shows, and this essay and the 21 comments are enlightening. “Truth is generally the best vindication against slander,” says Lincoln, but “Truth is not only violated by falsehood; it may be equally outraged by silence” (Henri Frederic Amiel).You also wrote, “I went on further to say that it ‘seems’ that he ignored certain aspects of his vows in his later years. I never said I believed that he did.”But why say things you don’t believe?I assure you, any hysteria surrounding the facts of his later life has been manufactured by individuals whose motivations should definitely make one stop and ponder. As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities. Voltaire said that, not me.May your blogging be blessed, Phil. I know your heart is in the right place, and that’s the most important thing. – Mike Brennan (Aqualung)

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posted March 8, 2008 at 12:14 pm

Mr. Basso, I thought I would recommend “Thomas Merton and the Education of the Whole Person” by Tom Del Prete published in 1990 by Religious Education Press (ISBN 0-89135-074-8) as a good teacher’s resource. From the back cover: “explores Merton’s voluminous writings and his own personal life in order to discover how this great modern contemplative views the basic goals and processes of education. Among the foundational elements in Merton’s vision of education are holistic personal involvement, expansive personal self-discovery, honest personal response to reality, and committed personal service to others. Merton’s concept of education is deeply rooted in an oscillating amalgam of a person’s experience of other human beings and of God.” Robert Coles says “I write with great enthusiasm about this book.” Del Prete served as a president of the International Thomas Merton Society. Here is a link to his bio:

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