Saturday, December 11, 2010

Because of Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968)

I'm taking the liberty of republishing this post in memory of the death of Thomas Merton, aka, Father Louis. He passed on to eternity 42 years ago yesterday, on December 10, 1968. This orginally was posted as part seven of my conversion story under the title, "To Be Frank, Part 7, The Cistercian Connection."

I left off Part 6 of this series saying that at the prodding of Blaise Pascal and Thomas à Kempis, I was led to the writings of a monk named Father Louis, aka Thomas Merton. I had heard of Thomas Merton before. I didn't know squat about him, but it seemed as if every Catholic with an ounce of spirituality loved talking about Merton.

Before I was a Catholic, I could have cared less about the supposed reputation of Merton. It just didn't resonate with me then. When people would start going on about him, all I heard was the muted trumpet sounds of an adult in the Peanuts holiday specials. Wha, WHA, wha WHAwha Whaaa. I was really adept at being able to tune out stuff I wasn't interested in.

But that was then, and now I was exploring these issues. I noted in the back of my mind that Blaise used to hang out at a monastery named Port Royal. It turns out that it's a Cistercian Monastery which didn't mean anything to me at the time. Then I read chapter 25 of The Imitation of Christ, in which Thomas recounts the following:

How do so many other religious who are confined in cloistered discipline get along? They seldom go out, they live in contemplation, their food is poor, their clothing coarse, they work hard, they speak but little, keep long vigils, rise early, pray much, read frequently, and subject themselves to all sorts of discipline. Think of the Carthusians and the Cistercians, the monks and nuns of different orders, how every night they rise to sing praise to the Lord. It would be a shame if you should grow lazy in such holy service when so many religious have already begun to rejoice in God.

There are those Cistercian guys again, I thought to myself. I need to do a little research on them. And those Carthusians too. Sure, I had heard of Dominicans and Franciscans, and thanks to the movie Shogun, the Jesuits. Who hasn't, since these are the orders that religious are always members of in the movies. Aren't they all the same anyway? Sheesh! So I Google Cistercian, and it isn't long before I start giving these guys a healthy amount of respect, especially the ones of the Strict Observance, the “Trappists.”

The Trappists give everything up and leave the world. It isn't a namby-pamby order. They earn their living through manual labor, agriculture—brewing ales and making cheese and other products, and selling them to the public. Quite entrepreneurial, they are. They have strict vows of silence and other austere rules. I think to myself, these guys are hard corps. Three-fourths of the way down the Wikipedia citation, I bump into Thomas Merton's name. Whaat?! Merton was a Cistercian Trappist monk? I thought he was some yuppie college professor! His stock price rose considerably now—

One of the most well-known Cistercian theologians of recent memory was Thomas Merton, a prominent author in the mystic tradition and a noted poet and social and literary critic. He entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941 where his writings and letters to world leaders became some of the most widely read spiritual and social works of the 20th century. Merton's most widely read work remains his autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain", followed by "New Seeds of Contemplation" and "No Man is an Island."

Time to make a trip to the library! I picked up a copy of The Seven-Storey Mountain, and, quite frankly, I couldn't put it down. Merton almost became a yuppie college professor type, but chucked that whole scene for the habit of a Catholic Christian monk. I admire that kind of fortitude. And he lays it all out in his book. He was a hell-raiser, a poor kid who wanted to hang out with the rich guys and party hearty. Lifestyles of the rich, smart, and stylish. He was a writer and knew he was good at it. But regardless of all secular success and what looked to be a brilliant future ahead of him, he felt empty inside, and instead of ignoring that nagging feeling, he came to terms with it and decided to surrender everything he had to the service of the Lord.

For the longest time, I never saw The Sound of Music from start to finish. I thought, who is interested in a family of singers in Austria, etc., etc. I never gave it half a chance. When I finally watched it (in 2003, if I recall correctly), I fell in love with it. How could I not like this movie? An aristocratic, wealthy, Austrian Navy captain (whoa, I just thought they were a family singing troupe!), widowed and having trouble finding someone to care for his children, falls in love with a nun—You know the rest. It's fantastic! My experience with The Seven-Storey Mountain was a lot like that. Why didn't I read this sooner? After learning that Merton had been killed accidentally, the thought that immediately occurred to me was, Wow, I wonder what he is working on for the Lord now?


I have written several other posts about the impact of Thomas Merton on my life as well. One, where I defended charges against the claims of others who attempt to blame the New Age movement on him (whaat?!) titled Because Maybe Thomas Merton Was Right. I also shared one of his poems on a Wednesday once, that you may find interesting. And he plays a central role in a post with my other pals who hale from China too.

Fr. Louis helped bring me into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. For that I thank God, and I am eternally grateful. If I can pray a prayer for Count Dracula, then it's a no-brainer that I pray for the repose of the soul of Thomas Merton.  Won't you join me?