Handsome, strapping, saintly, serious, sexy, and a little bit dangerous, “like a rugged Spencer Tracy with a tonsure and a cassock.” That’s how filmmaker Ben Eisner once described the famous monk who grew up an orphan with no religion, fathered a child out of wedlock, and lived a debauched, drunken, womanizing life before turning beatnik peace activist, anti-war and civil rights crusader, and hermit on the grounds of a Kentucky monastery. At 51, he fell in love with a nursing student half his age whose letters he burned before flying off to meet with Buddhists in Thailand, where, two years later, a faulty fan electrocuted him as he emerged from the bathtub.
Somehow this same monk, so clearly suspended between the holy and the oh-so-human, turned into one of the most influential Catholic writers of the 20th century.
He is, of course, Thomas Merton. His 100th birthday would have been Jan. 31. The anniversary has sparked dozens of seminars and conferences here and around the world and renewed interest in his more than 70 books, poems, and essays on faith, silence, solitude, contemplation, and social justice. Those works include “The Seven Storey Mountain,” his surprisingly popular 1948 autobiography that turned Merton into a household name and inspired countless young men just back from war to join monasteries themselves.
“A lot of people are resistant to the idea that we can change. He changed throughout his whole life. He gives me hope,” says Daniel Horan, a Franciscan friar who just wrote a book on the Franciscan influence in Merton’s thinking, “The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton.” “He’s not someone kept artificially clean. And he’s not some saint put on a pedestal.”
Merton is not an official saint at all, actually, perhaps because he delved too much into politics and eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, causing unease among some conservative Catholics. But he is among those spiritual giants made more relatable because of his foibles, struggles, temptations, and doubts.
And Horan, just 31 himself, is one of many scholars who talk of Merton’s continued relevance as the United States itself continues to struggle with race, inequality, consumerism, and maintaining faith.
Here’s Merton from “Thoughts in Solitude:”
“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 … But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you … Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.”
In “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” Merton writes of the perils of overwork in a rushed society:
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work …”
Happiness, he says, “is not a matter of intensity, but of balance, order, rhythm, and harmony.”
Thomas Merton was a quote machine, in fact, spewing out pithy wisdom as if the author of one of those thought-for-the-day calendars.
“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.”
“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”
“We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.”
But in “New Seeds of Contemplation,” “Life and Holiness,” and his many essays, Merton, a Catholic convert, offers insights into his own deep faith, prayer life, and his belief in total subjugation to the will of God.
“We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time … Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present to you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, serves you, and offers you an understanding and light like nothing you’ve ever found.”
“Giving ourselves to God is deeply serious. It is not enough to meditate on a way of perfection that includes sacrifice, prayer, and renunciation of the world. We have to actually fast, pray, deny ourselves, and become interior men if we are ever to hear the voice of God within us.”
“Love seeks not only to serve Him but to know Him, to commune with Him in prayer, to abandon itself to Him in contemplation.”
“Prayer is the most important way to seek God … persevere.”
“Faith is the total surrender to Christ, which places all our hope in Him and expects all strength and sanctity from his merciful love.”
“Faith is the gift of our whole being to truth, to the word. It is the center and meaning of all existence. Faith is rejecting all that is not Christ so that all life, truth, hope is found in him. Faith relies completely on him in perfect trust … letting him take care of us without knowing how he will do so.”
“What is final perfection? Full manifestation of Christ in our lives. God’s mercy in us. Our mystical life is intended for others, too. Those who receive the most have the most to give. Without love and compassion for others, our own love of Christ is a fiction. Let us love in deed.”
“Those who have fed the hungry and given shelter to the stranger and visited the sick and the prisoner — they are taken into the kingdom for they did all those things to Christ himself.”
That is but a tiny taste of Thomas Merton, 1915-1968.
I hope it leaves you wanting more.