Thomas Merton: Still Controversial

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?

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James Martin, SJ

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10 years 11 months ago
Boy, I don't know where I've been hiding or what I haven't been reading, but I'm not aware of that kind of controversy about Merton except among those who still think Vatican II was a tragic error! I realize that his interreligous quest for God, his anti-war activism, and his personal broken-opennness -- as revealed in his biographies -- take the sheen off his star for some while deeply moving the rest of us as a common fellow traveler. And his prayer that I continue to carry in my wallet and which resonates with so many... 'My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going...' is a gift to all. The interview with Morgan Atkinson on Diane Rehm show today about his new video and book on Mertion, 'Soul Searching,' sounds like another way to appreciate this truly human being who loved God and all of his creation.
10 years 11 months ago
Some people are uncomfortable with Thomas Merton because they believe his contemplative life was adversely affected by his exposure to non-Christian contemplative traditions. I have listened to most of the explanations for this negative opinion of Merton and frankly I don't understand them. In my own tradition (Camaldolese Benedictine) there is a strong element of encouraging dialogue between contemplatives of the Christian and other traditions (Buddhist, Confucianist, Hindu, Taoist, etc). Thomas Aquinas told us that God dazzles us by an excess of truth. Often 'truth' is 'not knowing'. This way we keep unraveling our comfort zone until we face the unknowable again. Thomas Merton encourages not to wait for signs or revelations, or to weave theories or contemplate values that would have us stand still and risk not growing. Some people are not comfortable with this.
10 years 11 months ago
Perhaps it is because some Catholics don't like the music of Olivier Messiaen. Today is the 100 anniversary of the birth of Messiaen. I have seen a beautiful photo of Messiaen sitting in the mountains reading Thomas Merton. For those familiar with Merton's poetry, you can hear 22 of his poems set to music. Baritone Chad Runyon and my pianist friend Jackie Chew recorded The Niles-Merton Songs, Opus 171 & 172 on CD, titled 'Sweet Irrational Worship' (MSR Classics). Jackie is a Benedictine (Camaldolese Benedictine) Oblate of New Camalodoli Hermitage in the Big Sur. She tell us that God used both Messiaen and Merton to form her.
10 years 10 months ago
Thomas Merton was a person who brought focus to what was going on in civic and Roman Catholic circles by challenging. I have the privelege to know two other men who were monks as well, moved to diocesan priest functions, and both of them were not afraid to challenge the bent ways of the Church to help straighten them. Power-position- minded persons don't like being challenged. Can you imagine his rage against the sexual-abuse incidnet, or no women's feet washed on Holy Thursday, if he were alive? The best part was his journey and honesty in his human failings as he moved closer to God in his journey. He gives all of us hope on our roads that we know nothing about.


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