Because of Thomas Merton, OCSO (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968)

This is part VII of my conversion story, tagged as 2BFrank in the Tag Cloud. I run it every year on this day to commemorate the death of Thomas Merton, who was also known as Father Louis.

Yes, I am well aware that he is not a canonized saint, but the salient point about Fr. Louis’ life is not whether he was a good Catholic, or a bad Catholic. The main thing isn’t even that his writings helped bring me into the Church.

Why Thomas Merton matters is that he helped thousands come into the light of Christ, his and my savior, and the savior of the world. And he did so by remaining true to his vocation throughout his whole life. I’m not saying he was perfect, dear reader, but he was certainly an excellent soldier for Christ, despite what some of his contemporaries thought of him. Remembering this fact about ourselves,

But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.

goes a long way to understanding the mystery of our call to redemption through the agency of others.

You know, it is the task of all Christians to help save our brethren sojourning with us through this test called life. This salvific mission is the vocation of every single Catholic, and every person who counts themselves as Christians. Our King gave us this command before he ascended into heaven, and yes He was talking to you and me. Fr. Louis pursued this mission from the moment of his conversion until his death on this day in the year of Our Lord, 1968.

Below is a little about how this particular Cistercian monk helped Joe Six-Pack, USMC to come out of his comfortably numb slumber and wake up to reality.

*****

I left off Part 6 of this series saying that at the prodding of Blaise Pascal and Thomas à Kempis, I was led to the writings of a monk named Father Louis, aka Thomas Merton. I had heard of Thomas Merton before. I didn’t know squat about him, but it seemed as if every Catholic with an ounce of spirituality loved talking about Merton.

Before I was a Catholic, I could have cared less about the supposed reputation of Merton. It just didn’t resonate with me then. When people would start going on about him, all I heard was the muted trumpet sounds of an adult in the Peanuts holiday specials. Wha, WHA, wha WHAwha Whaaa. I was really adept at being able to tune out stuff I wasn’t interested in.

But that was then, and now I was exploring these issues. I noted in the back of my mind that Blaise used to hang out at a monastery named Port Royal. It turns out that it’s a Cistercian Monastery which didn’t mean anything to me at the time. Then I read chapter 25 of The Imitation of Christ, in which Thomas recounts the following:

How do so many other religious who are confined in cloistered discipline get along? They seldom go out, they live in contemplation, their food is poor, their clothing coarse, they work hard, they speak but little, keep long vigils, rise early, pray much, read frequently, and subject themselves to all sorts of discipline. Think of the Carthusians and the Cistercians, the monks and nuns of different orders, how every night they rise to sing praise to the Lord. It would be a shame if you should grow lazy in such holy service when so many religious have already begun to rejoice in God.

There are those Cistercian guys again, I thought to myself. I need to do a little research on them. And those Carthusians too. Sure, I had heard of Dominicans and Franciscans, and thanks to the movie Shogun, the Jesuits. Who hasn’t, since these are the orders that religious are always members of in the movies. Aren’t they all the same anyway? Sheesh! So I Google Cistercian, and it isn’t long before I start giving these guys a healthy amount of respect, especially the ones of the Strict Observance, the “Trappists.”

The Trappists give everything up and leave the world. It isn’t a namby-pamby order. They earn their living through manual labor, agriculture—brewing ales and making cheese and other products, and selling them to the public. Quite entrepreneurial, they are. They have strict vows of silence and other austere rules. I think to myself, these guys are hard corps. Three-fourths of the way down the Wikipedia citation, I bump into Thomas Merton’s name. Whaat?! Merton was a Cistercian Trappist monk? I thought he was some yuppie college professor! His stock price rose considerably now—

One of the most well-known Cistercian theologians of recent memory was Thomas Merton, a prominent author in the mystic tradition and a noted poet and social and literary critic. He entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941 where his writings and letters to world leaders became some of the most widely read spiritual and social works of the 20th century. Merton’s most widely read work remains his autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain”, followed by “New Seeds of Contemplation” and “No Man is an Island.”

Time to make a trip to the library! I picked up a copy of The Seven-Storey Mountain, and, quite frankly, I couldn’t put it down. Merton almost became a yuppie college professor type, but chucked that whole scene for the habit of a Catholic Christian monk. I admire that kind of fortitude. And he lays it all out in his book. He was a hell-raiser, a poor kid who wanted to hang out with the rich guys and party hearty. Lifestyles of the rich, smart, and stylish. He was a writer and knew he was good at it. But regardless of all secular success and what looked to be a brilliant future ahead of him, he felt empty inside, and instead of ignoring that nagging feeling, he came to terms with it and decided to surrender everything he had to the service of the Lord.

For the longest time, I never saw The Sound of Music from start to finish. I thought, who is interested in a family of singers in Austria, etc., etc. I never gave it half a chance. When I finally watched it (in 2003, if I recall correctly), I fell in love with it. How could I not like this movie? An aristocratic, wealthy, Austrian Navy captain (whoa, I just thought they were a family singing troupe!), widowed and having trouble finding someone to care for his children, falls in love with a nun—You know the rest. It’s fantastic! My experience with The Seven-Storey Mountain was a lot like that. Why didn’t I read this sooner? After learning that Merton had been killed accidentally, the thought that immediately occurred to me was, Wow, I wonder what he is working on for the Lord now?

*****

I have written several other posts about the impact of Thomas Merton on my life as well. One, where I defended charges against the claims of others who attempt to blame the New Age movement on him (whaat?!) titled Because Maybe Thomas Merton Was Right. I also shared one of his poems on a Wednesday once, that you may find interesting. And he plays a central role in a post with my other pals who hail from China too. And, of course, there is his wise Letter to a Young Activist…

Fr. James Martin, SJ made a neat video about Fr. Louis. Have a look at it here,

Fr. Louis helped bring me into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. For that I thank God, and I am eternally grateful. If I can pray a prayer for Count Dracula, then it’s a no-brainer that I can pray for the repose of the soul of Thomas Merton.  Won’t you join me?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15292156826231664316 pennyyak

    I was about to ask you if you were going to bundle your "how I became a Catholic" posts together, but I suppose they'll be under the 2BFrank label. Unless it's an 80 part series (lol), I want to read them consecutively when you're finished.

  • http://www.nancy.cc/ Nancy

    I love reading about the Carthusians and the Cistercians. Their way of life amazes me.

  • http://scholacaritatis.blogspot.com Declan Brett

    The Cistercian life really suits me. I am a postulant at Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, England. I hope to be clothed (given the novices habit) on 25 March 2010, please God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06368195895421044006 Matthew

    Frank, thanks for sharing your experience of Merton. Back in my seminary days I was trying to decide if I wanted to be a diocesan priest or join a religious order. I was inspired by Merton's writings and his experiences at Gethsemani. I had more or less decided to sign up with the Trappists when I had a major life event happen which ended in me leaving the seminary. Fifteen years later, married with kids, I am still fascinated by both the monastic lifestyle and Merton's writings. I received a copy of The Ascent to Truth and The Asian Journals for my birthday this past month. I am excited to dive into them this year. The thing that struck me the most about Merton and why his story inspired me was because he had so many other options. He could easily have become a celebrated college professor or a well known writer outside of the monestary. He came from a family with money and means. His story shows how he weighed all these things and realized that following God was so much better. Thanks again.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Thanks for your comments guys. I'm always a little surprised when anyone comments on my personal story of becoming a Catholic. And pennyyak, I think you can rest easy, LOL. No 80 episode event, for sure!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Matthew: Let me know how you like them. I enjoyed "New Seeds of Contemplation" and "No Man is an Island" as well as "The New Man", which I was reading during RCIA. And I enjoyed Mertons translations of the Desert Fathers entitled "Wisdom of the Desert".

  • cathyf

    An interesting historical tidbit: Gethsemini Abbey was the Trappist's second try at establishing an outpost in the new world. The first was in 1804 when a group fled the French revolution. Benedict Webb's 1886 A Centenary of Cathlicity in Kentucky describes events thusly:…Writing of their arrival in Kentucky, under date of November, 1805, Rev. Charles Nerinckx thus speaks of their journey from Pennsylvania: “The Trappists have had a sad and expensive journey; most of them have been sick, and two, to whom I gave the last sacraments,have died in their present residence. . . . Had I remained with them I would have arrived here a month and a half later, and, most likely, sick of the same fever. . . . In my opinion, Father Urban, their superior, is not a man in the right place.”It is not to be doubted that the manner of living adopted by the severe Order of La Trappe was wholly unsuited to the exigencies that were natural to the position in which these religious found themselves at the time. The clearing of their lands, and the erection of proper buildings in which to live, involved waste of energy that was not to be renewed by the use of lentils for food, and only lentils. Besides, the people of the settlement had not yet learned the process of storing vegetables and fruits for winter use, and it is not improbable that, owing to their inability to procure what was allowable under their rules, their aliment was meagre in both quantity and quality during the fall and winter months immediately following their appearance in the State.Under such circumstances, it is little wonderful that there was suffering in the home of the Trappists of Pottinger’s creek, and that there should have appeared amongst them many cases of severe and even fatal illness….The extreme rigor of the rule of the Order of La Trappe, in no wise relaxed by its followers in Kentucky, is thus described by Dr. Spalding: "They observed a perpetual silence; they slept on boards, with nothing but a blanket for covering and a canvass bag stuffed with straw for a pillow; their hours for repose were from 8p.m. till midnight; they took but one meal a day, and they neither ate meat nor fish, nor eggs nor butter. Their life was thus a continued penance and prayer.” He goes on to say that the climate of Kentucky was not compatible with such austerities, and that five [of eight] of the fathers and three [of seventeen] of the laybrothers “fell victims to disease and were buried in Holy Cross church-yard.”It's a sobering account. When I first read it the thought that came to mind was "dilettante poverty collides with actual poverty." After another decade which saw Fr. Urban move the community first to Missouri and then the Kokata Mounds in Illinois in futile attempts to convert Indians, the remnant was called home. They would not be back until 1848, when they bought Gethsemani from the Loretto sisters who had outgrown it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02270396127498411004 Shannon

    pssst… them Jesuits aren't monks! A religious order, yes, monks, no.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14664864341946607447 Terry Fenwick

    I know I am reading these backward but I – simply love this one – I need to do something like make a crossword puzzle for my praise of your series – I will be back later when I should be at #7

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07453840454698567517 jwats510

    My uncle (godfather) spent 10 years as a Trappist monk. We were allowed to visit him once a year for 3 days. It was the only vacation we took because my family did not have a lot of money. Many fond memories!

  • Edith Williams

    I read Merton as a new Catholic and fell in love. I read everything he wrote that I could find. A great influence on the teachings of Christ and Mary.

  • Jen

    Thomas Merton is one of the three reasons my confirmation name is Thomas. He was a constant presence in my childhood – his books were always around and mom mom spoke of him almost daily. When I wandered from the church – through agnosticism and Buddhism – it was Merton who always kept the door cracked open for me to return – he was influential in my return to the sacraments and he has taught me a lot about contemplative prayer. YAY for Merton.

  • Stephen M. Bauer

    I highly recommend Merton’s essays on social justice. I believe that most of them have been collected into two books. Also, a compendium of his journal entries was published under the title, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.” It contains much commentary on the social issues of the day (racism, poverty, war, the atomic arms race, the cold war and communism.)

  • Rachel

    I loved Seven Story Mountain. Merton was so different from me, but when it came to entering the Catholic Church and discerning if he had a religious vocation, a lot of his feelings and reactions were just the same as mine and his honest portrayal of them made me laugh.

    Speaking of Sound of Music, the real Maria von Trapp wrote a few books about her life, and the real story is as interesting as the Hollywood version, though in a different way. She was quite a hellraiser too, and indeed still was when she converted to Catholicism and shortly after entered a convent.

  • Sandra Lesieur

    To me, a child raised in Catholic convent schools for too many years, Merton has been my link to spirituality outside of any religious dogma. He seemed to have transcended it all…his quest was to the heart of spirituality beyond any one religion. To that I give him my gratitude!

  • Subsistent

    I appreciate Thomas Merton for several reasons. One, I found his *Seven Storey Mountain* an interesting and informative read. Two, in the historical survey of Catholic mystical writers in his book *The Ascent to Truth* (which my father had bought but which I’ve never otherwise read), he opines — even while praising John of St. Thomas’s tract on gifts of the Holy Spirit — that John’s contemporary Francis Suarez was probably a “greater theological genius” than John himself. (Suarez, while in the same philosophic ball park as Thomas Aquinas, laudably dared to disagree with Aquinas more than John did.)
    Three, Merton in his survey, while recognizing Blaise Pascal’s genius, points out — rightly, IMO — Pascal’s highly troubled psyche as a defender of Jansenism and slanderer of Jesuits.
    (BTW, I remember seeing a photo of Trappists at a monastery in the Western U.S. on horseback earning their living by herding cattle as COWBOYS — cowboy hats and all!)

    • Frank Weathers

      Good stuff. And yes, I’ve told Blaise (over beers) that his anti-Jesuit thing was over the top. “You helped bring me to the Lord, Blaise, but there are a lot of good Jesuits too.” Like Wu Li, SJ, John Courtney Murray, SJ, “The Dead Jesuits,” etc.

      “Maybe you’ve bumped into a few of them in heaven?” I think he mumbled merde, or something like that. :)


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