January 31 marks the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth. In the same way that people remember where they were when John Kennedy was assassinated, I can recall with intense clarity the moment I discovered Merton.
I was at the convent of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD) in Toronto several years ago trying to decide whether God was calling me to become a nun or whether I had completely misunderstood his instructions. It was a steamy summer afternoon, and my faith was wilting. While moping in SSJD’s guesthouse library perusing the book spines, my eyes landed on Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. I had heard Thomas Merton’s name dropped into conversations about religion’s great and good, but I figured he was just another boring, time-warped priest banging on about another “revolutionary” interpretation of the gospels. With a resigned sigh, I pulled The Seven Storey Mountain from the shelf, slumped in a nearby chair, and cracked open the book. Two pages in and you could not pry the book from my hands. Five pages in, and I was frantically Googling Merton for his contact information. The crush of disappointment when I learned that I was 42 years too late is still palpable.
Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Merton’s prolific output will no doubt be taken aback by this milestone: Merton seems too modern, too “young” to be 100 years old. Indeed, read anything of his right now and you will be struck by its modernity. The language is confident and muscular, and as precise and piercing as an arrow fired at close range. Take this passage:
Harlem is, in a sense, what God thinks of Hollywood. And Hollywood is all Harlem has, in its despair, to grasp at, by way of a surrogate for heaven. The most terrible thing about it all is that there is not a Negro in the whole place who does not realize, somewhere in the depths of his nature, that the culture of the white men is not worth the dirt in Harlem’s gutters. They sense that the whole thing is rotten, that it is a fake, that it is spurious, empty, a shadow of nothingness. And yet they are condemned to reach out to it, and to seem to desire it, and to pretend they like, as if the whole thing were some kind of bitter cosmic conspiracy: as if they were thus being forced to work out, in their own lives, a clear representation of the misery which has corrupted the ontological roots of the white man’s own existence.
Or the first lines of his famous prayer, which taps into the zeitgeist with its mash-up of The Road Less Travelled and Psalm 23:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
It isn’t simply language that makes Merton relevant. He wasn’t afraid to throw a punch. Academic, cultural, political, religious-Merton sparred with it. He loved God, but he was also critical of institutional religion. That endeared him to people back in the 50s and 60s, and it resonates with people today.
During my discernment, I encountered varying attitudes to Merton from nuns and monks. One said that The Seven Storey Mountain had played a role in his decision to enter religious life; another groaned with barely disguised contempt when she saw Merton on my desk. But the overwhelming majority were fans. Merton had a stick-it-to-the-Man cockiness that endears him to the quiet rebel-angels in religious life.
At the time of his death in 1968, tentative steps were taken to elevate Merton to sainthood. He was a sort of pop star for the monastic set, further romanticized by the whiff of the messianic in Merton’s back story-bohemian artist parents (a New Zealander and an American), strangers in a foreign land (France) who were devoted to their son and who gave him a free-range childhood (in the shadow of the Pyrenees). The story moves from tragedy to tragedy as the carefree child quickly morphs into a pampered misfit, a bewildered orphan, an arrogant toff, and then stumbles like Saul toward his religious conversion.
The trajectory toward sainthood, however, sputtered as a deluge of biographies and appreciations published after Merton’s death stripped off his Vatican veneer: Fr. Louis (Merton’s religious name) proved to be a rawer personality than he let on in The Seven Storey Mountain. The drug use and the promiscuity were well known, but after his death the story emerged about his part in a teenage pregnancy and how his wealthy guardian paid off the girl’s family. That the teenage mom and infant son perished during the Blitz allows us to better understand the private torture with which Merton wrestled. There was a further juicy revelation that Merton, while still clothed in his Trappist habit, had had a gal on the side, and at the time of his death was considering leaving his beloved Gesthemane. Yet, how are these falls from grace any different from the recently canonized Angela of Foligno, the 13th-century good-time girl who whored her way through life until she recanted her behaviour, and founded a religious order?
Like almost every saint, Merton possessed a complex personality: his unmonk-like hubris versus his humility; his pining for freedom from his monastic vows versus his determination to stick to those vows; his desire for peace and quiet versus his penchant for sneaking out of the monastery to drink and mingle in the local bars with secular folk. Merton was the contemplative contradiction, and this makes him deliciously relevant and accessible.
Merton’s writing stimulates and edifies, and has much to offer the current conversation about re-visioning the church. The centenary of his birth provides a perfect opportunity to introduce this imperfect monk-priest to a new generation.
Jane Christmas is the author of And Then There Were Nuns (Greystone Books).