Saturday, May 29, 2010

Thomas Merton

One of the things that never fails to surprise me is how influential Thomas Merton is. Honestly, I had never even heard of the guy until I made it to college. His work was required reading in some classes. More than that, there were a bunch of students who were actually picking up items like Zen and the Birds of Appetite and other books that I suppose I would describe as compilations or biographies.


Interested, I read The Seven Storey Mountain. I thought it was great. I'd later find out that this was his most read and least popular work among my fellows. I read some more Merton, then stopped. Anyone who has read a decent amount of Merton knows that he got into a bunch of weirdness later in life. That was enough for me. I was getting enough weirdness already (isn't that what college is all about?) and really didn't think I could take any more.

I bring this up after stumbling across this article by Donna Freitas. It's called "Why I Can't Forgive Thomas Merton." Those are pretty strong words, so I was intrigued. Anyways, she starts with this:

Like every other grad student who studies religion, in particular Catholicism and its spiritual traditions, I had romantic notions about the various and prolific writings of Thomas Merton and what wisdom of his awaited me. Merton is so beloved. People just adore him. I couldn't wait to offer my share of the adoration.

This was precisely my experience, which is why Merton's later weirdness was so striking. People quoted him like he was the Catechism. When you're experimenting with all these erroneous religious beliefs like he was, having that much influence over people so many decades after death is scary.

Ms. Freitas never even got to the weirdness, though:

But before I could even pick up "The Seven Storey Mountain" I learned of Merton's love affair with the woman he calls M. from his journal "Learning to Love," published posthumously in 1998. I learned of the poetry he wrote for her. That they met when he was convalescing in the hospital and that M. was his nurse. That he felt so passionately about M. that he contemplated leaving his life of celibacy and solitude to be with her. That they were sexually intimate, though they never "consummated" their relationship.

This is a famous incident from Merton's life which is treated in different lights by his supporters. Some are embarrassed by it and try not to bring it up. Sadly, others actually praise him for this. After all, nothing beats a good old priest-parishioner affair to show the glorious liberation from Catholic oppression.

Here's where Ms. Freitas's unforgivingness sets in:

But the combination of Merton's disregard of his vow of celibacy and learning M's age has truly colored my opinion of him ever since. M. was in her early twenties and Merton in his fifties, with almost three decades between them. She was practically a girl and he almost an old man. I can't seem to get this business enough out of my head to read Merton like the brilliant intellectual and writer I once imagined him to be.

I can't forgive him.

I can't forgive Merton for having this affair because she was so young and he so old and supposedly a celibate man and a powerful, famous one.

Strong stuff. And why? Where does this come from? Well, the first thing she does is tie it to the current sex scandal in the Church. This is coupled with some direct quotes from Merton where he refers to the relationship as "a gorgeous game" that he is "playing." She sets up her final unforgiving declaration by saying that:

And I think, once you read some of the things that Merton said about M and in response to his confusion about the affair, it's difficult to feel sympathy for him. He said such disturbing things, after all.

Here's the deal as I see it. Merton's saying disturbing things is why he's so adored in the first place. He's presented as a theological rebel, upholding all the syncretist and indifferentist values that are trumpeted by the modern world. That's why most folks read him and why they don't like The Seven Storey Mountain, as those elements are notably absent. I find it very significant that Ms. Freitas does not seem one bit disturbed by Merton's quotes that have led people to consider abandoning the Faith.

The biggest thing here, though, is the declaration of unforgiveness. I'm not saying that Merton is a saint or anything, but geez, there have been plenty of saints who did a whole lot worse than him. We all know that St. Augustine was shacking up for a while before his conversion. Henry II made St. Thomas Becket an archbishop precisely because he felt his character would make him a good pawn. Blessed Bartolo Longo was a Satanic priest, for crying out loud.

I guess my point is that making statements about being unwilling to forgive is dangerous and a potential cause for scandal. I don't know where Thomas Merton is right now. Frankly, just speculating on such things is unhealthy for me. I'm way too judgmental as it is.

1 comment:

Mark of the Vineyard said...

I remember reading Merton's auto-biography a few years ago after my re-conversion. I had never heard of him and the book was suggested by a friend. It was interesting as far as biographies go, but nothing more than that. I then googled him and saw that he seemed to be somewhat well known in the US, being cited with some regularity on the web. Though moment I read though that he had been dabbling in other religious practices already as a monk was what cut of any curiosity I might have eventually had in him. I knew what happens when you start mucking around with various beliefs/philosophies at the same time: nothing good can come of it. I already walked down that road once, so I now try to avoid people like that.

I don't understand Freita's reaction to Merton's sin though. He was human after all. Humans are prone to sin; it's a consequence of being porn with Original Sin. Does she expect someone who becomes a Catholic to simply stop sinning? Or that receiving Holy Orders some how magically eliminates a person's proclivity for sin? Ours is a life long struggle with the help og God, so why the surprise in cases like this? There's a difference between being a hypocrite and a sinner.