A Thoroughly Mid-Century Monk

Thomas Merton in front of his hermitage at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky.

I’ve been reading lots of excerpts from “spiritual autobiographies” from an anthology called Pilgrim Souls over the past couple of days in preparation for a course I’m taking in August: from Lev Tolstoy, the fox that longed to be a hedgehog, in Isaiah Berlin’s words, to Thomas Merton, whose writing is full of ecstatic manly bombast, so loud for a man who so valued silence.

Merton, the Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar who some claim was assassinated by the CIA in 1968, and others claim committed suicide after breaking off an affair with a 19 year-old, was every inch a mid-century man. Like: if Hemingway or Henry Miller decided all the sudden to join a monastery, they would basically have ended up being Thomas Merton. Whatever theory of his untimely death you land on, Merton was as manly a monk in that mid-century American mold as could be imagined.

His prose, too, is big and bold. Decisive and declamatory even when going into great depth about his considerable doubts. In his recollection of joining the order, he leaves you with the sense of something truly, objectively momentous taking place. He talks about His “terrific burden” and the immensity of his place in God’s scheme. He uses words like “tremendous,” “unending,” “inexhaustible,” “deep,” “vast,” “universal.” His heart “cries out!” The lessons are “immense!” It’s fun to read. but I get the sense Merton could be as exhausting as Tolstoy was, at times, tedious. Merton seems like a dog person: full of love and exuberance but needy as well. Tolstoy wrote theology for cats, staring down slit-eyed from a high shelf, occasionally knocking off a beloved knickknack.

Reading them in the section of the book dedicated to “Wanderers and Seekers” I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe we’ve passed into a new, downsized, indoor-voice era of spiritual seeking and dwelling. Of course, every journey is different, and there is much we pilgrims can learn from one another when our paths cross along the way, the more varied our adventures the better. Not every journey is over rough seas, through dark forests, and up a steep, craggy mountain in a raging storm. Sometimes it’s getting out the door and around the block, or picking up the phone and making a call.

I think one of the most beautiful stories of the prophets in the Tanakh belongs to Elijah. He had fled into the wilderness (as prophets are wont to do from time to time) and was hiding out in a cave, fearing for his life. In the midst of his panic and torment, the author of 1 Kings (Jeremiah, according to Jewish tradition) tells us:

… the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Sometimes that’s where the real journey begins: with a still, small voice asking “what are you doing here?”

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