Thomas Merton burst on the world stage with the October 4th publication of The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948. SSM continues to this day as the best-selling Catholic book of all time.
Thomas Merton led many of us forward on major inroads of our spiritual paths. I had not heard of Merton on the tenth day of December in 1968 when my mother was buried. That was the day Merton died of an electric shock in Bangkok.
My introduction to Merton began two years later when I purchased Gandhi on Non-Violence and read the incredible Introduction: Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant and wondered who is this guy?
Mark Shaw, author of Beneath the Mask of Holiness, said that all copies of SSM should include a disclaimer that the book is less than truthful. That is due to the heavy censoring hand of the Catholic Church which labored long to limit the world view of Merton as well as his reader’s impression of him.
Hence the Three Veiled Views-
We need not start with SSM, but its inclusion in any study of Merton is essential.
Merton’s view of Merton is of course what drew us all into his immaculate web of wit, insight and uncanny intellectual pursuit. To peruse Merton’s journals, letters and essays is to sit in the great parlors of Europe and New York: Boris Pasternak, Dorothy Day, Camus, Sartre, the Berrigan brothers, Rainier Maria Rilke, Philoxenus, Czeslaw Milosz, Koestler, Thich Nhat Hahn and the ever entertaining Saint John of the Cross. The man dropped enough brain bread crumbs to lead all of humanity home.
My all time favorite is of course The Man in the Sycamore Tree by Merton’s college chum and life long friend, Edward Rice. (See Luke 19:4) Simply put, this may be the most endearing biography ever written. Rice’s love of Merton, his amazing photos and chronicles of Merton’s life, writings and drawings leap off the page as Merton himself did to a world collage of letter writing associates and readers.
This book should immortalize “. . . an Englishman who became a Communist, then a Catholic, later a Trappist monk, and finally a Buddhist, at which point his life having been fulfilled, he died.” (From the book jacket)
The Dalai Lama credited Merton with awakening his eyes to Christian spirituality. Eldridge Cleaver said, after reading SSM in prison, “Despite my rejection of Merton’s theistic world view, I could not keep him out of the room. He shouldered his way through the door . . . Most impressive to me was Merton’s description of New York’s black ghetto–Harlem.”
“I felt an incredible privilege to be instructed by this great master of mysticism who for so many years had been my master through his books. But when I would meet him for spiritual guidance, he would ask me about Nicaragua, Somoza, the poets of Nicaragua, the Nicaraguan countryside, poets from other parts of Latin America, other dictators. He would tell me about his poet friends . . . about his life in the outside world . . . And at the end of the session he’d ask me if I had any spiritual problems, and generally I didn’t so I’d say so. And if I did have any, he would resolve them in two or three sentences. After I left, I’d have the impression that I’d wasted precious time that should have been devoted to spiritual guidance. Gradually, I began to understand that he was giving me spiritual guidance. Because at first I thought I had to renounce everything when I entered the Trappist order . . . And Merton made me see that I didn’t have to renounce anything. He saw no conflict between the contemplative life and the life of action.” ERNESTO CARDENAL from Thomas Merton: Poet, Prophet, Priest by Jennifer Fisher Bryant.
Now we have the third view. Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair That Set Him Free. Merton analysts have long puzzled over the question of Merton’s relationship with a nurse he met near the end of his life as he struggled with physical issues and wondered if was he ready to embrace Buddhism and leave Gethsemani when he traveled to Asia for a monastic conference.
I would have probably not been interested in this book if Mark Shaw had not co-authored The Perfect Yankee with Don Larsen, the story of one of baseball’s seminal events, the perfect game in game five of the 1956 World Series. (Reggie’s three pitch, three homers being another). To me this gave Shaw objectivity and a world view suited with Merton’s own. A wonderful footnote: On July 18, 1999 Yogi Berra’s 14 year self-imposed exile from Yankee Stadium ended with a ceremony honoring him at the Stadium. Don Larsen threw out the opening pitch to Yogi Berra. Stunningly David Cone threw a perfect game for the Yankees. The story is movingly told in Driving Mr. Yogi.
Does Merton’s relationship with Margie Smith matter? Very much so, would that he was able to pursue his spirit and his love. Monastic celibacy is a dead end that traps the Church today as it did Merton and the Tibetan lamas he met in India before his death. I have studied for over twenty years with some of the very same men and seen the same effects in their struggles. Life without human comfort leads to sadness.
Michael Mott, author of THE SEVEN MOUNTAINS OF THOMAS MERTON, said: A time came when Merton began to open more to the world. For me a key symbolic work of this opening is his prose poem ‘Hagia Sophia.’ Sophia is divine wisdom but in the form of a young Jewish woman. Curiously enough, in the original journal record of that vision at 4th and Walnut in Louisville, he’s really looking at the girls in Louisville. Then, when he goes to Lexington to see his friend, the painter Victor Hammer, Merton finds what to him is the portrait of the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams and maybe seeing in the streets of Louisville. Incidentally, she looks almost exactly the same as his nurse in 1966. It’s really haunting, quite remarkable. No wonder he sat up and took notice when the nurse came into the room. . . . . So is he just moving out into the world of women? In a sense, yes. It’s women who bring Merton out into the world. — From the film SOUL SEARCHING: The Journey of Thomas Merton.
Was he preparing to leave Christ for Buddha? I doubt it and it doesn’t matter. I don’t care.For Merton, Christ consciousness found expression in Sophia/Mary, and Margie Smith undoubtedly personified her Wisdom.
Merton’s legacy lives on through The Thomas Merton Prison Project which donates interfaith spiritual books to prison inmates and chaplains.