Leaders like Merton embody the struggle into holiness

  • November 13, 2008
{mosimage}This Dec. 10 marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the celebrated monk-poet Thomas Merton (1915-1968).

By the time of his death, Merton, born in Prades, France, a citizen of the United States and a monk for 27 years in the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, had an international following of enviable proportions, a publication record of staggering range and an influence by no means limited to the Catholic world. Merton was, and remains, a phenomenon, an utterly engaging figure, controversial, iconic, the paradigmatic monk for our century.
Since his death he has been the subject of hundreds of theses and dissertations, countless essays and reviews and scores of studies and biographies. His life and thought have been the subject of radio and television documentaries; songs have been composed and dances choreographed, inspired by his poetry and performed internationally; and there have been numerous learned and popular conferences and workshops on his life, work and spirituality. In short, there is a veritable Merton Industry.

I must confess to being a part of this “industry” and almost from the outset. I began my work on Merton in 1972, four years after his startling and unpredictable death in Bangkok, Thailand. I served as a consultant to Roman Bittman’s CBC Man Alive program “Monk on the Run,” wrote and narrated the five-hour CBC Ideas 1978 series, Thomas Merton: Extraordinary Man, wrote and narrated “Out of Silence — A Voice” for CBC’s Celebration, co-edited Thomas Merton: Pilgrim in Process with Donald Grayston, wrote Heretic Blood: The Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton and wrote and narrated its companion Ideas 1998 series, Heretic Blood: a Spiritual Audiobiography. It has been a long relationship.

But there have been many other Canadians engaged in research on Merton and they include Ross Labrie and Grayston, professors emeritii of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University respectively, Lynn Szabo of Trinity Western University, J.S. Porter of Mohawk College in Hamilton and a cohort of scholars who did their early work on Merton, like Hunter Brown of King’s University College in London, Ont.

Interest in Merton seems to me inexhaustible. It is generally true that following the death of a major cultural and intellectual shaper there tends to be a dropping off of stature for some considerable time as scholars assess the person’s wider and enduring significance and the public simply loses interest and moves on to some other figure, often contemporary and frequently faddish. Think of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Herbert Marshall McLuhan. Fortunately, and rightly, both of these innovative thinkers are enjoying something of a resurgence of interest among many. Merton, by contrast, does not appear to have suffered any diminishment in terms of his wide contributions. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The continued publication of his work — including hitherto unpublished writings — and the incremental release of his Restricted Journals throughout the 1990s have ensured fascination with his life and work. Increasingly, the publication of his full rather than partial correspondence with engaging thinkers and leaders like the great Benedictine medievalist Jean Leclerq, the Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, the feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, the pre-eminent American publisher Jay Laughlin, the Zen master Daistez Suzuki, as well as many others bears ample testimony to the comprehensiveness of his intellectual and spiritual pursuits and the fully catholic range of his insatiable curiosity.

In our post-9/11 world, with religion seen as a sinister force sundering all efforts at harmony and peace, when a full assault on people of faith is seen as a prerequisite to being taken seriously for membership in the chattering classes and when religion is judged a threat to personal and social well being, the public value of an intellectual like Merton should not be underestimated. We need such spiritual questers if for no other reason than they lend credibility to the role of faith in the life of both individuals and of the global community. Such spiritual leaders as Merton, Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier and Donald Nicholl do more than add lustre to the term spirituality. They embody the integrity of those who struggle, and yes I mean struggle, into holiness.

Merton was no plaster saint. Because of his candour and prolixity we know perhaps more than we need to know about his dramatic wrestling with God, his own woundedness and his searing emotional loneliness. But precisely because of this honesty we are shown a way to integration, a way we neglect at our peril.

Merton died by accidental electrocution 40 years ago. The world was stunned; his friends reeled in disbelief; his brother monks were desolate. At the age of 59, in the prime of his life, healthier than he had been for decades, he died an unexpected and bizarre death.

The 20th-century descendant of the English poet, artist and heterodox religious visionary William Blake, and extraterritorial intellectual and spiritual adventurer, Merton died as he had lived: electric and suffused with energy.

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