Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
James Martin, S.J.December 10, 2008

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?

Read the rest here at Bustedhalo.com

James Martin, SJ

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
13 years 6 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.
13 years 6 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.
13 years 6 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. http://www.overgrownpath.com
13 years 6 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.

The latest from america

A truly pro-life celebration of overturning Roe v. Wade would involve efforts to pass legislation protecting life, women’s rights and motherhood, said an editorial in the Vatican newspaper.
Have we considered how to handle the ethical dilemmas that overturning Roe v. Wade will cause when states pass abortion laws so restrictive they will endanger the lives of mothers?
Jacqui OesterbladJune 27, 2022
A Mexican soldier patrols outside the Church in Cerocahui, Mexico, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)
The bishops’ statement followed the slayings of two Jesuits and a person they were protecting in their parish—a crime attributed to a local crime boss in a part of the country dominated by drug cartels.
President Truman's envoy to the Vatican, Myron C. Taylor, left, has an audience with Pope Pius XII at Castelgandolfo near Rome, on Aug. 26, 1947. (AP Photo/Luigi Felici, File)
The documentation, published amid renewed debate about the legacy of the World War II-era pope, contains 2,700 files of requests for Vatican help from Jewish groups and families.