My fascination with spirituality has led me to consume a lot of writing by and about devout persons. My current favorites are Father Thomas Merton, Father Henri Nouwen, and Sister Joan Chittister. (This group just happens, at this moment, to be composed of Christians, but I do enjoy work by teachers, writers, and holy persons from every major theology.) One of the aspects I like about journals, essays, letter compilations and autobiographies of these people who dedicate their lives to spiritual practice, is that many of their struggles with faith, the state of their worlds, and their personal lives are on display and are, for me, a reminder that even the most holy and pious among us face hardship, doubt, and everyday stressors.
Thomas Merton, one of the most popular Catholic writers of the 20th century, was a person who came to his faith and his Christian devotion in a round about way, with fits and starts, like an old engine struggling to catch and stay running. This is contrary to the vision I think many of us have in our minds of Catholic priests, monks, and nuns as coming from devout Catholic families and receiving “the call” early in their lives. In his early years, all the way through university, Merton led quite a rambunctious and occasionally profligate lifestyle, devoid of deep spiritual devotion. Because of this first part of his life, one of his toughest struggles with his calling was his initial anxiety over whether he was “good enough” in total to be a priest. In fact, his initial attempt to join an order of monks, the Franciscans, was cut short. Late in the Franciscan order application process, he revealed certain indiscretions and neglectful behavior from his youth to the order, and they subsequently rejected his application. After about a year thinking that his career as a Catholic priest would never happen, Merton was informed by another person connected with the Catholic Church that such a rejection did not preclude his becoming a priest, and he again entertained hopes of a monastery life.
Once Merton was accepted into the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani in Kentucky, he described himself as being suffused with love for and faith in God and the Holy Spirit. He went through a “honeymoon” period when he was first at the monastery as a novitiate and then as a new priest. During first the few years he perceived everything through a rosy perspective with non-critical acceptance of most aspects of his new calling (as most of us initially experience with any life change that we desperately want and welcome with enthusiasm). Merton eventually grew jaded by the aspects of the Church, Catholic doctrine, and monastery life that he came to realize were antithetical to his maturing personal and world views.
Let me pause here and say that I have certainly been guilty of thinking that life in a monastery must be an easy carefree with the “simple lifestyle”, without the harried activities and decisions that currently assail the rest of us: driving kids, paying bills, mortgages, taxes, and a thousand other things that consume our days and fill the worry centers of our brains to overflowing. The reality, as Merton writes in his letters and journals and other descriptions of his life at Gethsemani, is that there are plenty of stressors in monastery life.
Merton struggled with his desire for isolation and solitude in the face of his assigned job of head of novitiates at the monastery. He also came to loggerheads with the abbot of the monastery over the censorship of some of his writings and was especially distressed in cases where he was told he could not publish certain manuscripts with a political or non-Catholic ideological bent. Merton came to resent the monastery rule that said the monks should not engage with the outside world and especially avoid taking up political and social issues. He fought hard to publish on a wide variety of topics that one would not usually associate with a Catholic monk, including works on the mysticism of other Christian sects and entire other religions such as Buddhism.
In addition to all the rather heavy external conflicts described above, Merton also fought an internal battle between his expressive nature and his desire for the absolute solitude of a hermit lifestyle, something that he felt brought him closer to God. Writing was his main mode of combing the ideas and thoughts from his fertile mind and expressing them for others to benefit. The hitch was that the major success of his writing, something that he maintained he was truly baffled by, brought with it questions, requests, and correspondence to which he felt compelled to respond with, at least form letters, but many times well thought out, and personalized missives. This copious correspondence took time away from his writing and his connection to God through the solitude and prayer that he continuously sought. These two challenges surface again and again in his letters and autobiographical writing. This dual and conflicted nature that compelled him towards both solitude (to enhance his closeness to God) and communication with others (to maintain his connection to other minds and souls) was something he struggled with for much of his monastic life.
During the 27 years that Thomas Merton was a monk at Gethsemani, he was an impressively prolific writer. He published over 30 books and accumulated such a massive amount of correspondence that it fills three huge volumes. The collection of his journal writings, letters, and other works at The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Kentucky numbers over fifty-thousand items. Additionally, there are several lesser collections of Merton works in various libraries and universities around the world.
I have learned many things about life and spirituality from reading the works of Thomas Merton, but in this case, today, I have to give voice to my renewed awareness that, no matter what the circumstance, people who care for perfection in the things they aspire to, struggle along the way no matter what it is they are trying to do. This is something I think that we all forget when we look at what others have achieved and the lifestyle they lead. It is worth reminding ourselves that it is easy but erroneous to assume that other people’s lives, especially the lives of people who’s accompaniments stand out, are a bed of roses.
I feel a kinship with Merton because I like to communicate with friends, coworkers, family, and people I meet along the way and that can take time away from my work, in the present case, my work to improve my writing and to publish more. I think it is a delicate balancing act since communicating with others enriches my life, while it is also time consuming and takes away from my reading and writing. And in addition, I have all the ancillary activities and distractions that every parent of teenagers has: the chaperon and chauffeur duties, the homework help, and dozens of other care and feeding tasks, that take up an untold amount of time. So, finding time to be creative and productive is a challenge.
I admire how Thomas Merton frankly discusses his weaknesses and struggles with everyday life when he writes his autobiographies and letters. Since I enjoy the topics, as well as the flow, meter, and tone of his writing, it is also exciting to know that, given how much he wrote, there is a lifetime supply of Thomas Merton materials to get through. I’ve only scratched the surface of Merton’s writings and no doubt will learn much more from the works of this prolific spiritual writer.
Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. Harcourt Brace, 1998.
Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Book, 1961.
Merton, Thomas. Seeds of Destruction. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987.
Merton, Thomas, et al. Thomas Merton, a Life in Letters: the Essential Collection. Ave Maria Press, 2010.
Bibliography of works about Thomas Merton
Bibliography of works by Thomas Merton