Trust Quotes Biography
A Trappist dreams of being a Buddhist monk? My grandparents recall an American impersonator named Lon Chaney (1883–1930) who was such a master at changing his screen identity that he came to be called "the man with a thousand faces." Fr. Thomas Merton was a man of a thousand lives. He was at one time a womanizer, a member of the Young Communist League, an English student at Columbia, a peace activist, an English teacher at St. Bonaventure University, and a social work volunteer. He was an orphan, the father of a child, a Catholic convert, a Trappist monk, a priest, a poet, a writer, and some describe him as a Zen Buddhist. It is difficult to distill the essence of Thomas Merton: He and his works are complex.
I’m going to be a bit critical of Merton’s interest in and writings on Asian philosophy and religion, not because I don’t admire his brilliance, but because his commitment to orthodox Catholicism appears suspiciously attenuated by the end of his life. In the 1969 book Recollections of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West, Benedictine monk Br. David Steindl-Rast wrote that Thomas said that he wanted "to become as good a Buddhist as I can." When he flew out of San Francisco for Asia on October 15, 1968, he left with the expectation of religious discovery, as if his monastic life at the Abbey of Gethsemani was a spiritual precursor to the insights he would gain in the East. He wrote in his journal:
Joy. We left the ground—I with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around. . . . May I not come back without having settled the great affair. And found also the great compassion, mahakaruna . . . I am going home, to the home where I have never been in this body. (Asian Journal, 4)
He writes as if his Christianity and his Buddhism had already become enmeshed into a new hybrid religion, with "Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny," and he expresses his desire never to return until he has found mahakaruna, the Buddhist notion of "great compassion." As a Christian, I admire Buddhist mahakaruna, but as a Christian I also know that one need not look beyond Christianity to find it. I wonder—and we shall never know in this life the answer—what "home" Merton was headed for that day in October.
Most of what we know of Thomas Merton’s life is taken from his wonderfully written, almost Augustinian, autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948. The work’s title alludes to Mount Purgatory in Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1321) Divine Comedy, thus comparing his autobiography to an account of a personal catharsis. Like Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953), Merton was a French-born writer who converted to Catholicism after a long and complicated intellectual journey. He was born in Prades, France, to parents who were both painters; his father, Owen, was from New Zealand and his mother, Ruth, was an American. In 1917, the family moved to Flushing, New York, where his brother, John Paul, was born. His father died when he was six, his mother died ten years later, and his brother died in 1943 while flying over the English Channel to the war.
In 1926, Merton returned to France where he enrolled in a boarding school, and in 1928 he moved to England. He traveled to Rome in 1933 and visited several of the city’s beautiful churches: the Lateran Baptistery, Basilica di San Clemente, Santa Costanza, Santa Pudenziana, and Tre Fontane, a Trappist monastery. The beauty of the churches and the richness of Christian history there made a large impression on young Thomas. He writes of visiting Sts. Cosmos and Damian, across the Forum, where he meditated on "a great mosaic in the apse, of Christ coming in judgment in dark blue sky, with the suggestion of fire in the small clouds beneath his feet" (Seven Storey Mountain, 108). He was moved, or rather displaced from his previous motto: "I believe in nothing." While in the "dark, austere old church" at Tre Fontane, Merton was too scared to walk over to the monastery, imagining the monks "were too busy sitting in their graves beating themselves with disciplines," but after pacing around the outside he left, thinking to himself, "I should like to become a Trappist monk" (Seven Storey Mountain, 114).
Bondage to Sin
After his time in Rome, Merton entered Clare College at Cambridge. He describes his life there as one of indulgence, drinking excessively, frequenting local pubs, and womanizing. Indeed, he fathered a child with a girl while he was at Cambridge, a detail of his life that Trappist censors removed from the original draft of his Seven Storey Mountain. Merton writes: "I labored to enslave myself in the bonds of my own intolerable disgust" (Seven Storey Mountain, 121). By 1935 he was back in America and enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied English. While there he began reading the works of such Catholic, Thomistic writers as Étienne Gilson (1884–1978) and Jacques Maritain (1882–1973). He met the Hindu monk Mahanambrata Brahmachari, who told him to read the Confessions of St. Augustine (354–430) and Thomas à Kempis’ (ca. 1380–1471) Imitation of Christ. He immersed himself in Catholic thought. On May 25, 1939, Thomas Merton was finally confirmed into the Catholic Church, and he considered a vocation as a Franciscan friar.