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40 Years Later, Merton’s Legacy Looms Large

posted by nsymmonds

TRAPPIST, Ky. — Around the country for the next few weeks, many Roman Catholics will remember and honor the life of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who died 40 years ago on Dec. 10, 1968, in a freak electrocution accident.
Merton, who influenced generations of believers with both his monastic lifestyle and his prodigious writings — some 60 books were published during his lifetime, and about as many in the 40 years since his death– is especially noted for bringing spirituality to the laity.
A documentary on Merton’s life and legacy, “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton,” will air on PBS stations nationwide on Dec.
14.
“The essence of Merton’s spirituality is, I think, the humanity of it, that he really speaks to ordinary people,” said Paul Pearson, director and archivist of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.
“He knows so well the great classics of Christian spirituality, but he can interpret them in a way that people in our world today can understand and relate to.”
At the time Merton rose to prominence, the church was still firmly hierarchical.
“Spirituality really belonged to the monks and nuns and bishops and what have you,” Pearson said, “whereas your ordinary lay person went to Mass on Sundays, the Mass was in Latin, they said the rosary, and that was the extent of it. And Merton, I think really opened up the whole realm of contemplation and spirituality for people.”
Merton’s own spiritual journey was complex and ongoing.
He was an aspiring writer and had, by his own account, lived a rootless and hedonistic life. He converted to Catholicism in 1941 and shortly thereafter arrived at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in the hills outside of Louisville. In 1948, when he was 33, he published his autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” an overnight best-seller now considered a Christian classic.
Brother Paul Quenon, a monk at Gethsemani, received his spiritual direction from Merton and remembers his approach.
“He doesn’t think of the whole world as, you know, monks,” Quenon told the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. “But on the other hand, he can talk to the monk in each person. He sees it as a deep enough thing, that somehow everybody has the capacity to come to the same intensity and depth of experience of God.”
Sister Suzanne Zuercher, a Benedictine nun who has studied Merton’s life, found her vocation in part through Merton’s writings.
“I knew I needed to be in monastic life,” Zuercher said. “I knew he was someone who spoke to me as no had ever spoken to me. He’s funny, he’s profound, he’s human, he’s down to earth, he’s practical, he’s concrete.”
Merton’s fame allowed him to correspond with presidents and popes and Nobel Prize winners but as his public reputation grew, he retreated further and further into solitude and silence. Later, his abbot gave Merton permission to live for lengths of time as a hermit in a small cottage about a half-mile from the monastery.
“For him,” Quenon said, “praying was just to abide in the presence, in the presence of the Lord.”
In the 1960s, Merton’s spiritual journey found him taking on the issues of the day — civil rights, materialism, the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War. His superiors blocked the publication of some of his most strident anti-war writings.
“As he changed from the world-denying monk to the world-embracing monk of the `60s, people began to think, `Why should he be writing on these issues? He’s away in a monastery. What does he know about them?”‘
Pearson said.
In 1966, when he was 51, and while recovering from back surgery in a Louisville hospital, Merton met and fell in love with a young student nurse.
“It was very brief. It was very intense. It was very passionate,”
Zuercher said. “He sometimes felt he had abandoned his vows, and at other times he felt he was living the vows of growth and fulfillment.”
The two would sometimes meet clandestinely in secluded parts of the monastery grounds but within a matter of weeks, the relationship was over. Still, Merton had been changed.
“From that time on he never thought of himself as being unloved or unlovable, and he himself learned to love in this relationship; it was the part of himself that he always felt had been underdeveloped,” Zuercher said.
Merton rededicated himself to his monastic life but as he did so his spiritual journey took another turn as he became interested in Buddhism and Asian monasticism. In 1968, he received permission to attend a conference on monasticism in Bangkok, Thailand.
Merton was electrocuted in his Bangkok hotel room after touching a fan with faulty wiring. Since then, Merton’s reputation and influence have continued to grow. Scholars have published some 60 more of his books, including seven volumes of his personal journals.
As a monk, Merton left behind just a few personal possessions — his work shirt, a cup, boots, and his eyeglasses.
“With the death of Thomas Merton,” Pearson said, “we lost one of the great Catholic voices, one of the great prophetic figures within the Catholic Church, and I think that’s why his books are still selling, why they’re still being translated, because that message is as relevant today as when he wrote it.”
By Judy Valente
c. 2008 Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.



  • Henrietta22

    Thomas Merton had a love affair for a few weeks with a young student nurse, at the age of 51. It left him feeling loved, and he found it made him lovable, and changed his life. What happened to the student nurse? Was she left feeling loved forever, too?

  • pagansister

    Had a love affair….as a monk….and yet the RCC still thinks that priests have to be celibate!

  • Bill gagne

    Merton’s brief affair only proved his humanity and further adds to the richness of his spiritual legacy. As far as the student nurse is concerned, thats her story and her business.

  • Your Name

    I’m with pagansister; in proving his humanity, that proved that God gave him his human feelings, and intended him to use them, if he didn’t he would have made Roman Catholic Monks and Priests asexual. The Pope made them asexual, and he isn’t God. As far as the student nurse is concerned she sinned and got nothing for it, except not to trust a man or a priest again. Celibacy is unnatural, and doesn’t make God love them more.

  • Henrietta22

    Forgot again.

  • Debra

    Actually, celibacy is for the “sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” of which little children belong….. Some are made eunichs for that purpose…. So trusting a Priest with one’s most intimate confessions is lifted to a higher spiritual level when there is no energy going toward sexual/physical pleasures. Not very many people can stand up to that type of rigorous life with all the temptations. Priests (according to Catholic rules) are supposed to be the image of Christ Jesus — who was definately celibate!
    Peace, d

  • libertasdon

    The significance of Thomas Merton lies in how he appreciated the opportunity the Deity provides each person within his or her own life to know God on earth. Merton understood the value of western monascticism and believed the comfort and fulfillment inherent in mystical prayer, what he called contemplation,or at its most sublime level, infused contemplation, was there not just for monks, but for each person to embrace and thereby know his or her Maker. Merton wrote many wonderful books and articles about the relationship between God and man. For those who would like to explore his thoughts on this subject, his autobiography, “Seven Storey Mountain,” is an engaging way to begin. A very short book, booklet really, that outlines his core belief that man can know God through mystical prayer is “What is Contemplation.” A third work that explores some of the historical tradition of man knowing God through prayer and devotion, as practiced by western monks, is “The Ascent to Truth.” Each of these works is still in print and can be found on line if not in local bookstores.

  • Henrietta22

    I’m acquainted with Thomas Merton, and I’ve always liked what I’ve read and viewed on Church videos. I didn’t know about his discovery of what a love from a woman gave him until this article. I’m not putting him down. I think if anyone decides to go his life denying himself for God it is his business whether it is a Priest or non-priest or priestess. I still stick to my first comment and my sencond comment though.

  • pagansister

    Just a question, Debra…how do you KNOW that Jesus was celibate? Is there proof somewhere that he never has sex a woman (or a man for that matter?) If the proof is the Bible? That has too many different versions of the “truth.” In fact, I’d be surprised that JC was totally celibate.

  • pagansister

    OOPS: Left out a couple of words in my 2nd sentence:
    “Is there proof somewhere that he never had sex with a woman (or a man for that matter?)

  • Your Name

    Debra,
    I’m not sure you offered your reasons for believing these things but I would be suspect if someone told you that. There are plenty of Roman Catholic priests who are married and doing the same job as the celibate ones. And you are fooling yourself if you think that sexual/physical energy dissapears when a priest isn’t having sex; if anything taking that natural part of humanity away from the priest intensifies his interest in it. There is no evidence that Jesus was celibate.

  • jestrfyl

    Anything said about Jesus’ sexual proclivities or activities is definitely NOT scriptural. None of the Gospel writers must have thought this was important enough, or of anyone’s business. Throughout the centuries people have written all sorts of books about this aspect of his life. If you want to read a good, fun book that includes this topic, try, “Lamb” by Christopher Moore. I love it, even though I think he missed a couple of good opportunities at the ending, the beginning and middle are excellent.
    Merton was cool, wise, and very human. We could sure use someone of his insight and humane spirit these days.

  • Anonymous

    The significance of Thomas Merton lies in how he appreciated the opportunity the Deity provides each person within his or her own life to know God on earth. Merton understood the value of western monascticism and believed the comfort and fulfillment inherent in mystical prayer, what he called contemplation,or at its most sublime level, infused contemplation, was there not just for monks, but for each person to embrace and thereby know his or her Maker. Merton wrote many wonderful books and articles about the relationship between God and man. For those who would like to explore his thoughts on this subject, his autobiography, “Seven Storey Mountain,” is an engaging way to begin. A very short book, booklet really, that outlines his core belief that man can know God through mystical prayer is “What is Contemplation.” A third work that explores some of the historical tradition of man knowing God through prayer and devotion, as practiced by western monks, is “The Ascent to Truth.” Each of these works is still in print and can be found on line if not in local bookstores.

  • Your Name

    Well, I am sorry that this comment thread petered out with so few comments. I am also sorry that most of the comments centered on Thomas Merton’s short relationship with a young nurse from a Louisville Kentucky hospital where Merton was confined for back surgery. On one level, I do fully appreciate the importance of Merton’s relationship and agree that it deserves discussion. But Merton’s real importance to all of us is not because he fell in love. Thomas Merton has a message for everyone about each person’s relationship with God. Merton was a convert to Catholicism. His previous experiences with religion involved Protestantism, the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Anglican Church. But Merton drifted away from his religious roots while in college and even experimented with Communism briefly. His early formation was far enough from the Catholic faith that when he discovered a book about medieval philosophy that he had purchased was actually approved by the Catholic Church; he became so disgusted that he briefly considered throwing it out an open window of the subway car in which he was riding.
    Merton’s purchase of Medieval Philosophy by Etienne Gilson was his first step in understanding the true relationship between his Maker and himself. He spent most of the rest of his life learning about, developing, and writing about his relationship with God. What is most important about this is expressed by Merton in his work, What is Contemplation: “There are so many Christians who do not appreciate the magnificent dignity of their vocation to sanctity, to the knowledge, love and service of God. There are so many Christians who do not realize what possibilities God has placed in the life of Christian perfection — what possibilities for joy in the knowledge and love of Him. There are so many Christians who have practically no idea of the immense love of God for them, and of the power of that love to do them good, to bring them happiness.”
    It is the essence of this message that is not only the great purpose of Merton’s life, but the great purpose of every person’s life — that is, to know and love God in a perfection that brings with it “magnificence.” This vocation is everyone’s, not just for monks, or for the chosen few. That is the great significance of Thomas Merton. He wrote persuasively and persistently declaring that there was a magnificent sanctity in seeking a perfect love of God on earth, and it was there for every Christian to embrace.
    So I say to the wonderful contributors who focused on Merton’s ill-fated love affair, yes, I can see Merton, then a middle-aged man, living a life of silence, solitary, lying in a hospital bed with a hole in his back big enough to put a fist into, looking up at a young and, no doubt, beautiful young nurse, relatively young, yet so skilled at surgical nursing that she is charged with his care. She, looking down at a man who had lost his mother as a young child and then, later, had voluntarily renounced all women’s companionship when he was still in his twenties, who is now looking up at her with a face that must have fairly asked, “Who is this angel?” And, yes, who can be surprised that they fell in love?
    But because of Merton’s prophet-like writings, we know now that there was a greater Lover in that hospital room, and eventually, Merton returned to the Great I AM, Who was present there not just for Merton, but for the nurse as well, and Who is here now, a constant, for anyone who would seek Him.
    So to Pagansister, Henrietta22, Yourname and others who are intrigued by Merton’s love affair, I say yes, Merton’s love life has a significance today in a context broader than his individual life: in my opinion it is, in part, that casual sex can capture even famous monks, as well as more ordinary human beings, even as it hurts them and inflicts great pain with its inevitable separation, that wounds so deeply those who earnestly seek a meaningful lasting love through union with another, a union that is inherently and almost deliberately denied with casual love.
    But Merton has much more to offer than just an interesting history of a casual love affair. His true love, his everlasting point about love, to everyone, his young nurse included, is found in his writing on what he describes as the immense love God has for each individual. Merton tells us: God is calling us, He is ever there with a love that brings sanctity on a magnificent scale, with happiness that is eternal. We can experience it now, here on earth. If Merton were still with us, and if he read this thread, he would write something like, “What are you waiting for? Study, learn from, and follow the tradition of western monasticism. Turn to Him, embrace your Lover.”

  • libertasdon

    The post that starts out, “Well, I am sorry,” was posted, with some difficulty, by libertasdon.

  • Henrietta22

    No Name, you shouldn’t be sorry I thought of the love between the nurse and Merton. I brought that point out because it was the first time I had read about it. Merton is one of the most important Monks or religious persons I have admired. I don’t think anything he would do would be “casual”. So if he was really in love with this nurse he gave up “love” for his promises he made to God. Romantic, yes, noble, yes, but very very sad. I think there are just as many men in our world that have loved God as much as Merton; the unsung married men who haven’t had the time to meditate and write books about it. The most important thing in life is Love, Jesus words. He found tangible love and rejected it for the mystical love.

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