Martin on Merton

In this video, Fr. Jim Martin sketches the life, and explains the appeal, of Trappist monk, peace activist and recruiting officer for the contemplative life Thomas Merton, also known as Fr. Louis, OCSO. Martin, who speaks with a biographer’s knowledge, gives due space to Merton’s intensity and combativeness, but finds him very approachable despite them both. I have to admit, those qualities have always scared me half to death.

I remember some scenes from Seven-Storey Mountain where Merton sounds about as angry with the world as Holden Caulfield. In one, he’s helping some Harlem ghetto kids put on a play about toffs. (P.G. Wodehouse didn’t write it, but Merton compares it to Wodehouse’s work.) The whole affair strikes him as grotesque.

In another segment, Merton’s watching a group of people looking at great paintings — I remembered this taking place in the Metropolitan Museum, but Fr. Jim assures us it happened at the 1939 World’s Fair — and making banal comments. Merton doesn’t actually use words like bourgeois and philistine to describe the art lovers; nor does he explicitly say he wants to bang their heads together. But, brother, it’s all there between the lines.

That kind of all-or-nothing approach — to life, to morality, to consciousness itself — is untenable for me. If there’s one thing I have absolute faith in, it’s my own mediocrity. If I’m not allowed to settle, there’s no point in getting out of bed.

Come to think of it, most people who go for broke end up broken. Given a less understanding abbot — or given fewer talents to recommend him — Merton could have been booted from the community before being allowed to profess his final vows. Or, given less grace (insight, maturity, whatever), he might have burned himself out — possibly switched religions and started all over. Maybe that’s the real miracle of Merton: not that he ever reached any place of perfection, but that he was able to push himself at full strength toward one for so long, with his very sanity hanging in the balance.

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