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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  • brandy101

    hey, I just started reading Seven Storey Mountain over the holiday weekend and what I found helpful is the forward that puts Merton into perspective for today.

    What I also learned is that Merton’s father was a painter, who had some success, but even he as a child felt that the museums who bought his father’s works never bought the “best” and “most meaningful” pieces. Thus, even as a youth, he had a conscious snobbery about art appreciation.

  • Jan

    Hey Max –

    Glad to see the blog.

    None of my comments are posting here.

    At least so far:)

  • Max Lindenman

    Thanks, Brandy! Yes, I’ve read about Merton’s early orphanhood. It makes me think of that scene in Officer and a Gentleman where Richard Gere screams re: the Navy, “I’ve got nowhere else to go!” I’m sure Merton felt that way about religious life. That would explain why he took to it with such ferocity.

    Jan: Forgive me, I’m just learning how these places work. The Anchoress’ filters were much more generous than mine are; I’ve got to approve every other comment manually. I have to keep reminding myself.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    The all-or-nothing approach is where we find out who we are, though, I think, and what we’re really capable of doing by our gifts (we discover some we didn’t know we had) and by grace.

    And all-or-nothing has its place in our mediocrities, too, Max. Peter was a hothead AND a thickhead and at times a coward — the very definition of mediocrity, but he took the all-or-nothing approach and died on the vaticano and spawned Christ’s church. James and John were mother-hung and ambitious, but they went all-out. Thomas was the skeptic and cynic but in India they still talk about him.

    Our mediocrities are just starting points. The life in Christ has never been about worthiness; it’s about WILLINGNESS. All we have to do is be willing, and keep saying yes. Miracles come from that.

  • DWiss

    I was in high school when I discovered Thomas Merton. My father had all of his books and I tried to read them but they were way over my head (I think they are still). Now that I know more about Merton, I often wonder what my Dad saw in him. My father was, shall we say, not liberal.

    It must have been Merton’s unique insight into the intersection of life and spirituality. Fr. Martin highlights the famous observation of people shining like the sun. That’s what I’m talking about, and Merton gives a lot like that.

    Honestly, one of the best things about being Catholic is all of the holy writers we have who help show us the way. Lazy people like me who prefer to walk on paved paths can go much further than we could on our own.

  • momor

    Merton was certainly a complicated man, at times fully committed and at other times ambivalent about his vocation and I think Catholicism as well. What I think he was sure of was his love for God, just not how to best express it or live it out.

    I was pondering Fr. Martin calling him holy. I’m not sure I see Merton that way but then again I’m not sure how I would define holy either.