Friday, January 31, 2014

Thomas Merton

The 20th century's most famous Catholic monk, Thomas Merton (Fr. Mary Louis, OCSO), was born 99 years ago today. It would be hard to exaggerate Merton's impact and influence in the second half of the 20th century, both within the distinctive subculture of Roman Catholic religious life, and in wider worlds of spirituality, ecumenism, and religiously motivated social activism. When one considers how incredibly prolific a writer he was, one can only wonder what his impact might have been had he not died suddenly in 1968 and instead lived something closer to his predictable life span!

I first encountered Merton as a confused and unsettled teenager, hanging out in the public library, alternately killing time and looking for answers to life's questions. At that stage, The Sign of Jonas was undoubtedly my favorite - if only because it appealed to my then only partially acknowledged and in any case immature interest in religious life. (Published in 1953, The Sign of Jonas was Merton's journal of his formational years in the monastery. His much more complete journals, of which The Sign of Jonas was really just one part, have since been published in some seven volumes, all well worth reading.) As for the classic that initially made Merton famous, I might have run across The Seven Storey Mountain on my own, but I was in any case guided to it by a helpful social worker, who thought I would find in it material to identify with. And I did!

It is possible that Merton may have become too popular in his time and that only now, 45 years after his untimely death, that he can be better appreciated. Last year, I undertook to re-read the seven published volumes of Merton's journals.  Not everything held equal appeal. There is much in Merton's later writings that I find somewhat troubling, especially some of his ill-considered forays into political analysis. On the other hand, his alternately affirming and critical comments on the changes in the Church in the 60s (especially the liturgical changes) offer a good window on how catastrophically disruptive that period was on so many levels. Still, it is the earlier Merton that I tend to go back to the most. His spiritual journey from atheist intellectual to cloistered but completely engaged monk continues to resonate with the troubled history of the 20th century and (more parochially) with my own much less notable spiritual search as it took place against that larger background.

A monk I sought vocational advice from in the late 70s said that Merton wasn't perhaps all that good as a  model monk but that his writings had done much to illuminate monasticism, vocation, and the spiritual life. I'll leave it to others to judge how good a monk Merton was. But there is no gainsaying his impact and influence - and, I believe, his continued relevance for anyone aspiring to any sort of religious vocational commitment.

No comments:

Post a Comment