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Monk Still Has Power to Inspire

Religion: Thomas Merton's 1948 story of spiritual awakening is being reissued in a 50th-anniversary edition. Controversial later works are also being revived.

October 24, 1998|JULIA LIEBLICH | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Lee Edwards says he was leading the bohemian life on Paris' Left Bank in the 1950s when he discovered "The Seven Storey Mountain," Thomas Merton's account of the spiritual awakening that led him to become a Trappist monk.

"It knocked me over," says Edwards, an editor in Washington. "I was so taken by him I went off to a retreat in a Trappist monastery. I thought about becoming a Trappist." He settled for becoming a Catholic.

Since 1948, the book has sold millions of copies in 20 languages. Harcourt Brace has published a 50th anniversary edition. Harper San Francisco has produced the last volume in a seven-book set of Merton's journals spanning World War II to his death in 1968 at age 53.

His later work leaves Edwards and many more traditional Merton readers cold. In books such as "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" and "Seeds of Destruction," and in his journals from the 1960s, Merton called for an end to war and nuclear testing, and he accused the United States of totalitarian tendencies.

"I prefer the early Merton," says Edwards. "I'm a conservative."

But those who knew Merton best bristle at what they call an embrace of a safer, more comfortable monk. His politics are "too hot to handle" for people who don't want to see where his prayer life led him, says the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit peace activist.

"The Seven Storey Mountain" begins with Merton's boyhood in France at the start of World War I and traces his "morally decadent" years at Cambridge and Columbia universities through his decision at age 26 to enter the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani, Ky.

To readers like Edwards, he was the new Augustine who spoke to modern Catholics seeking an intimate relationship with God. "I belonged to God, not to myself," Merton wrote, "and to belong to Him is to be free, free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this Earth, and the love of the things that are in it."

Robert Royal, director of Catholic studies projects at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, found such "passion and commitment . . . steadying to me when everything seemed to be in chaos."

But Royal was among the readers who lost that grounding when Merton's prayers led him to more engagement with the outside world. In the early 1950s, Merton was stunned to read for the first time the details of the World War II bombing of Japan and the magnitude of the destruction. Even contemplatives, he came to believe, should work to abolish war and nuclear weapons through fasting and prayer in the confines of the cloister.

The monk, he wrote, leaves the world only to listen to its problems more intently.

Many conservative readers also saw him as misguided and too sheltered to understand politics. "Merton was not a man who had any practical sense," said Royal. "There was a naive simple-mindedness."

But Merton read widely during his 27 years in the monastery, and he was visited by activists, artists, and theologians who helped to keep him informed. Merton biographer Edward Rice found his later writings on nonviolence, civil rights and Buddhism his most insightful and creative.

While the younger Merton tended toward Catholic triumphalism, the older monk was fascinated by non-Christian traditions such as Buddhism, which some traditionalists considered inappropriate for a monk who believed in a transcendent God.

Two decades after his death, however, revelations about his personal life upset some readers more. In the new introduction to "The Seven Storey Mountain," editor Robert Giroux wrote that while a student at Cambridge, Merton fathered a child out of wedlock. And a biographer revealed in 1984 that Merton had fallen in love with a young nurse during a 1966 hospital stay.

Brother Patrick Hart, Merton's last secretary, said this was something his fellow monks understood better than his critics. "He fell in love and that's all. . . . He was so very human."

Hart calls Merton's decision to remain a monk "a triumph of grace."

The release of the last journals comes three decades after his death while attending a meeting of Eastern and Western monks in Bangkok. He was accidentally electrocuted when he touched a fan that had faulty wiring.

The latest publications will show readers the many layers of Merton, said Berrigan, who called him "one of the great spirits of our century speaking in many tongues to . . . many needs."

As his fame increased, even the monk grew weary of the Merton myth. "The man who was the central figure in 'The Seven Storey Mountain' was dead over and over," he wrote. The young monk had told his story. The older monk had volumes to write.

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