Why do so many Catholics still distrust Thomas Merton?
Forty years ago today, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and perhaps the most popular American Catholic writer in history, stepped out of a bathroom shower during a visit to Bangkok. Slipping on the wet floor, he grabbed a poorly wired fan for support and was electrocuted. For many years, Merton had unsuccessfully sought permission from his superiors to travel outside his monastery in Bardstown, Kentucky. A few months after a new abbot was elected in early 1968, he assented to Merton’s request to attend an interfaith conference that December in Thailand. En route he met the Dalai Lama, who called him a “Catholic geshe,” or spiritual master.
Merton enjoyed paradoxes, and spoke of himself, like Jonah in the whale, as living in the “belly of a paradox.” The author of "The Seven Storey Mountain," an autobiography that became an instant bestseller upon its publication in 1948, was a humble man who enjoyed fame, a Catholic priest fascinated by Zen Buddhism, a solitary mystic who craved company, and a cloistered monk who died far from home.
Paradoxes characterize Merton’s legacy as well. Why is this devout Catholic writer, whose autobiography proclaims a triumphal view of Catholicism and faintly mocks other religions, so beloved by seekers, doubters and agnostics? Conversely, why is this Catholic priest rejected in so many contemporary Catholic quarters?
James Martin, SJ