Merton’s Popularity

Posts and discussions afoot on America (Austen Ivereigh) and dotCommonweal (Robert Imbelli) on Weakland on Thomas Merton. I’ve been rereading Merton, though at a glacial pace, over the past few weeks. After many years of not reading him, my return has been largely a fruitful one. But the comments of others are often of interest.

First up, I haven’t read Archbishop Weakland’s memoir, so I have very little to say on that score. I’m aware of a certain competition/rivalry among and within religious orders, so the prelate’s skepticism doesn’t surprise me. I’m a skeptic in turn about skeptics, especially this one.

Second, I can’t say Merton’s appeal to me was ever theological. I read his autobiography during a time of upheaval in my own life–trying to discern religious life, priesthood, and relationships with women. In my college years (late 70’s) Merton was out there a lot in my hometown. A diocesan priest was a leading Merton scholar. But I enjoyed reading Merton not from a sense of theology, but of a strong twofold curiosity: another person’s faith journey, and the Trappists.

As for Merton’s personal witness, I find his autobiographical material appealing. In striving to live a fully committed, intentional Christianity, I find myself drawn in. There’s an echo in me to respond to Jesus’ call to the rich young man. I certainly sense that Merton felt that call even more profoundly. he acted upon it, after all. I’m sure that’s what made The Seven Storey Mountain so stirring to post-WWII Catholics. Merton was less a theologian and more of an evangelist. Like others before him, especially Jeremiah and Saint Paul, he’s seems to be able to project a vulnerability and passion for God almost in the very same words he writes. People are drawn to his charisma–I’m sure he was a deeply attractive man both in person and through the print medium.

Merton was also an artist, and in his prose he occasionally rises to beautiful and profound expressions of spirituality. I wouldn’t say an artist can’t be a theologian–many saints have proved otherwise. My sense of Merton is that he didn’t have a certain edge to his life, at least enough of an edge to urge him to go deeper. In The Sign of Jonas, I read the journal entries of a restless and unsatisfied man. In his own thoughts, he yearns for life as a hermit. I suspect that would not have been enough for him. I’m struck by Merton’s undisciplined passion for God. He relates that his abbot wants him to write, and to write a lot. Merton certainly produced a substantial corpus of thought. Does his lack of top-shelf excellence as an artist and a writer suggest a primary passion elsewhere, of God? Does it suggest he lacked an editor or mentor in his writing, a person who could direct his thoughts, help the monk mold them more skillfully?

I can’t help but detect a bit of a thrust of contraheroism from Weakland, perhaps, and also Ivereigh. By this I mean the modern tendency to criticize and berate the heroes of others without offering up one’s own instead. I hesitate to mention this in Weakland’s case. I haven’t read his book. I don’t know who the man’s heroes were, or if he devotes any print to them. At any rate, it’s not a major issue for me to see Merton criticized. In this instance, I think it just misses the mark somewhat–like going after Tom Brady because he doesn’t play NBA basketball.

Thomas Merton is certainly a hero of mine, largely because I detect a kindred spirit of sorts. I think Merton was first of all a man of God. He seems to have lived with a wholehearted devotion in that sphere. Second, he was a writer. And third, he was a theologian. His appeal to people seems to be from his first and best passion. He was certainly a good writer, but that was far down his list of priorities, regardless of what his superiors directed.

I recognize Merton’s strengths and weaknesses and I don’t have a problem with an imperfect hero. Not all of us can “do all things well,” and even the best of us mortals crumble under that standard. Thomas Merton did one thing very well, and that’s his appeal for me.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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