Monday, June 4, 2007

"The Intimate Merton": Book Review

Intimate Merton: Reviewing his journals

Posted on Amazon US today in condensed form, this reviews "The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals," eds. Patrick Hart & Jonathan Montaldo. (Harper San Francisco, 1999). Can't think of any diaries I have bothered to read before this one. Can't think of a more rewarding look into this fascinating, poignant, and engaging character.

In Notebook 17, Thomas Merton writes “I am thrown into contradiction:/ to realize it is a mercy,/ to accept it is love,/ to help others do the same is compassion.” (269) From a year or two before he died, this recognition shows what his journals, excerpted here from the seven complete volumes, chart. He struggled towards God and, in a quote on the same page from a poem, “The Strange Islands,” muses: “It was a lucky wind/ That blew away his halo with his cares/ A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.” This collection takes you past the familiar Merton of the bestsellers into a more pensive, conflicted, doubting, and self-sacrificing fellow pilgrim we can understand.

These pages begin in 1939-41, as he wrestles with being rejected by the Franciscans, works with the poor, and contemplates his fate. He reads, drinks, dates, and thinks at Columbia and upstate New York, and as war looms he decides to enter the Trappists. His fervor as a recent convert energizes his visit to Cuba. Strange to think of it as the thriving Catholic nation he tours. He is full of ideas and energy, but seeks and needs focus. Early on, he realizes the trouble with a journal. If it’s written for publication, “then you can tear pages out of it, emend it, correct it, write with art. If it is a personal document, every emendation amounts to a crisis of conscience and a confession, not an artistic correction.”(12/4/1940; p. 21) He decides to keep his diary for posterity, for others to read.

The second chapter, although dated 1941-1952, begins five years after his entrance to the Order, at the end of 1946. He has written his soon-to-be if surprisingly bestselling memoir. He prepares for the fame that he desires but recoils from. His ordination in 1949 enlivens his spirits, and the monastery has not yet wearied him. Even then, the wish for solitude begins to take hold, to be apart from what will be, in the wake of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” a rush of aspirants for Gethsemani Abbey. Ironically or justifiably, he will be appointed Master of Novices and later of Scholastics, these students attracted by his very writings. Surprisingly, he reveals little of the daily conferences and dealings with his fellow monks in this journal, perhaps out of respect for their confidings, but also, one suspects, out of a disenchantment with the noise, the cheese factory, the tractors and the press of new faces into what had been for him the place where he sought to be alone with God.

This contradiction drives him towards a hermitage on the property, a compromise he battles out. He is famous, but he seeks anonymity. He wearies of the demands of a public to speak to, yet welcomes old and new friends to his retreat. He learns that his freedom allows him to go out on the town with his visitors, and temptations arise. Still, he does not shirk truth. In 1949, he faces his true vocation: “to become as plain as a Host in the hands of everybody, Perhaps it is this, after all, that is to be my way of solitude.” (9/1; p. 73) His calling as a priest is to be a writer, to try for simplicity and integrity. “To be frank without being boring, It is a kind of crucifixion. Not a very dramatic or painful one. But it requires so much honesty that it is beyond my nature. It must somehow come from the Holy Ghost.” This tension will, in time, become more dramatic and painful.

1951 sparks a burst of mystical longing. His journals begin to reflect his maturity, as his time alone increases and his duties to the Abbey lessen somewhat. By the mid-50s, he is living full-time at the hermitage. He thrives on study and meditation. “Perhaps the Book of Life, in the end, is the book of what one has lived, and, if one has lived nothing, he is not in the Book of Life.”(7/17/1956) He seeks wisdom from the Eastern Christian and Asian traditions. He reflects on D.T. Suzuki’s quote from a 17th c. Zen master. Merton ponders: “So he who faces death can be happy in this life and in the next, and he who does not face it has no happiness in either. This is a central and fundamental reality of life, whether one is or is not a ‘believer’– for this facing of death implies already a faith and an uprightness of heart and the presence of Christ, whether one thinks of it or not.” This passage took me some time to understand, a sample of his profound understanding of paradox of how we can achieve freedom by accepting our loss of power over death, and “to set one’s foot gladly on the way that leads out of this world.”(11/25/1958, pp. 132-3) He calls himself one most at home in the 14th c. of Tauler, Eckhart, Ruysbroeck, Chaucer, Langland, and the English recluses– “more an independent and a hermit than a community man, by no means an ascetic, interested in psychology, a lover of the dark cloud in which God is found by love.”(3/11/1961; p. 170)

About St. Ambrose’s insistence that “all must rise from the dead,” Merton shares how life is our destiny, like it or not. We can not be merely ephemeral. “If he wills to be evanescent, to remain in what he is not, he is a living contradiction.”(5/7/1961; p. 173) Contradiction, as in a powerful earlier passage on the sign of Jonas, remains Merton’s touchstone for transformation.

Musings on Boris Pasternak, Marxism and Latin American struggles begin to enter his journal, followed by Civil Rights and antiwar activist reports. He wishes to be drawn into the world he once thought he would and could leave behind. The predicament deepens as he becomes a spokesman for the progressive Catholic peace movement. His advice is sought out by many, and the refuge he once imagined becomes instead a visitor’s center. This is partially by choice, and partially by fame.

The reforms of Vatican II appear to have come slowly to the Order and not altogether smoothly. He laments the end of Latin prayers and Gregorian chant; he records Dan Berrigan saying a non-canonical Mass circa ‘66 that presages the daring poses of relevance that unsettle Merton, who eschews violence and grandstanding by his more radical, media-hungry, confreres. But, he knows that he can no longer remain within the walls of the monastery in this post-conciliar upheaval. He wrestles with loyalties.

On the fourteenth anniversary of his ordination, he feels defeated. Untraditional, unable to conform, he agonizes. “Perhaps that is good. I am not a J.F. Powers character. But the frustration is the same.” Although neither Greene’s whiskey priest nor a despairing curate as in Bernanos, his sincerity seems a charade. He acts a lie. Depressions grow as he nears fifty. “People think I am happy.” He does seek solace in the Mass. “I suppose that in the end what I have done is that I have resisted the superimposition of a complete priestly form, a complete monastic pattern. I have stubbornly saved myself from becoming absorbed in the priesthood, and I do not know if this was cowardice or integrity. There seems to be no real way for me to tell.” (5/26/1963; pp. 206-7) The next few years of revolt and reaction outside the monastery and travel within and beyond its no longer totally enclosed walls will test his indecision severely and unexpectedly.

In an ambiguous entry, he expresses his own pain. “For Origen, a man’s ‘adversary’ is his bad angel deputed to keep him firmly in subjection to the angelic prince of his nation or tribe, so that he will not free himself and belong only to God, in Christ (Who is above all nations and has vanquished all the powers).”(12/23/1964 pp. 232-3) But, hope follows his recovery. “I am called here to grow. ‘Death’ is a critical point of growth, a transition to a new mode of being, to a maturity and a fruitfulness that I do not know (they are in Christ and His Kingdom). The child in the womb does not know what will come after birth. He must be born in order to live. I am here to face death as my birth.” (10/6/1965; p. 260) He contends against the “invisible powers” that in legend assaulted his eremitical role models.

Such a battle now turns visible, and all too touchingly vivid. He falls in love and– although not explicitly stated in these excerpts– finally and fully consummates a relationship with a nurse who seems about half his age, who cares for him in a Louisville hospital in the spring of 1966. These are the most human and gripping entries of the volume. We witness in the first-person– if at an oblique angle that increases the harsh perspective of fragile realism-- an intelligent, tender, and righteous man break his vows. But what makes for me such an admirable Merton is what follows. (Off the record, I favor the Eastern Christian model of the option for married parish clergy while keeping the tradition of celibate bishops and religious communities.) Despite the post-Vatican II tendency for so many priests to break their vows and run off, Merton renews his commitment at great personal and psychic and physical sacrifice. He learns to treat “M” with dignity. He does the right thing by her and himself, and reconciles his failing with the immediate joy he has foolishly if understandably embraced briefly.

In his fifth decade, Merton grows up. “Vocation is more than just a matter of being in a certain place and wearing a certain type of costume. There are too many people in the world who rely on the fact that I am serious about deepening an inner dimension of experience that they desire and is closed to them. It is not closed to me: this is a gift that has been given me not for myself but for everyone, even including M.” Tempted again to sneak into the city to see her, he realizes: “In the end I would ruin her along with myself.”(6/22/1966; p. 295) Here, Merton’s saintliness shows itself most movingly to me. I recognize my own faults in his, and now realize his own utter integrity.

He quotes one of my favorite citations, from Meister Eckhart (wish I knew where). “Blessed are the pure in heart who leave everything to God now as they did before they ever existed.” I have long been intrigued by the (Platonic? Wordsworthian?) idea of return to a pre-created state of nothingness. The day he wrote this, it was five days past my fifth birthday. I remember from that age or so wondering about going back to a condition from which I was born, regressing into happy emptiness of soul and body.

Merton, in the aftermath of his affair, returns to this medieval friar “who was my life raft in the hospital, so now also he seems the best link to restore continuity; my obedience to God begetting His love in me (which has never stopped!).” He learns that he has placed too much importance on his own freedom, forgetting the need for restrictions and limitations. Necessary reminders as the age of Aquarius dawns; he knows how tempting it is to jump the walls, tear off his habit, and make his own public entry into the crowds who would throng his lecture tour and snap up his latest memoir, post-Gethsemani. Instead, he opts for “Gehorsamsopfer–To offer oneself to God as a sacrifice of obedience in faith.” This bowing to what seems an opposition to achieve a deeper liberation confronts him. (6/30/1966; p. 300)

Near the end of his short life, on his pilgrimage in India with the Tibetans in exile, he writes of what liberty the contemplative life must create. It should open “a space that can enjoy its own potentialities and hopes– its own presence to itself. One’s own time, but not dominated by one’s own ego and its demands. Hence open to others– compassionate time, rooted in the sense of common illusion and in criticism of it.” (12/7/1968; p. 351) Here again, the contradiction that speaks from silence, the freedom resulting from discipline, the love emanating from one apart from allegiance to one woman so he can embrace us all.

The same date, a month and a day before his death, he records three types of “bodhicitta.” Kingly ones save one’s self and then others. Boatmen ferry themselves with others into salvation. Shepherds guide others first and enter salvation last. I think of Merton, so near unawares his own sudden “liberation,” as one who by his writings and example led many into spiritual heights. These pages record how he labored, lonely among hundreds of other monks. How many, I wonder, who resented his popularity, worshipped his celebrity, or benefitted from his writing and the nights of loneliness that flowed into his pages? He lived as a flawed monk among others no less so, and this obvious but gradual admission comes to bring him and his community and so many other millions of readers the past fifty years the grace to accept the need for guides wiser than us to help lead us into nirvana.

On the other hand, as pictures show and perhaps Merton himself is too abashed to admit, he is frequently pictured as puckishly laughing along with the novices and scholastics and visitors around him. There is included a photo by John Lyons of Merton mugging for the camera shot that he captioned “This is the old Hillbilly who knows where the still is.” Jesus was famously described as “the still point in the turning world.” If I had a holy card to St. Thomas M., it’d feature a similar snap, unfortunately neither found on the Net nor in this volume. He’s leaning back with a smile that a bodhisattva would envy, on a rustic bench with a Kentucky hick’s straw hat perched atop his tonsure on the day of his ordination.

1 comment:

harry said...

When my father was attending Asbury Seminary in 1951, the whole family made multiple trips to the trappist Gethsemani, just a short drive away. Mom later reading Merton in her closeted beatnik way, swore that we saw him (I a babe in arms) while we bought cheese and honey in the rolling Kentucky hills. She had a creative memory.