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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Monk Thomas Merton's Great Love Affair

Recently I reread the journals of Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, author of the best selling book, The Seven Story Mountain, written shortly after Merton entered the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Louisville, Kentucky, at age 26. Merton, who was born in France and educated in England, originally wanted to be a novelist when he migrated to New York City to resume his studies at Columbia. Merton's life on Perry Street in Greenwich Village was typical of the life of many young bohemians of the era: bar hopping, cafes, women, bookstores, films and other intellectual pursuits. This life soon paled for the budding mystic. The Seven Story Mountain chronicles his conversion to Catholicism and then his decision to become a monk. Merton first applied to the Franciscan Order but the vocation director there rejected him because he admitted that he'd once gotten a girl pregnant. The Trappists, however, were willing to look the other way. Until the day he died--December 10, 1968--Merton (Father Louis) was never a sanctimonious holy roller but a man subject to all sorts of temptations. As a seasoned monk he drank beer, read Lenny Bruce, Nietzsche, and defended the poetry of Allen Ginsberg.
Merton became a monk in the years before Vatican II, when Catholicism had a more traditional cast. Vatican II changed many things in Catholic life, especially the rubrics of the Mass. Merton was ambivalent about some of these changes. In his journal he notes: "Catholic Aggiornamento: A priest is amazed that some of his people continue to say the Rosary at Mass. He announces a special service. Sunday evening all are to bring Rosaries and candles...walk in procession to a spot outside the Church where they will find a hole has been dug. They are to throw their rosaries in the hole. Spirit of liberty of Vatican II." Merton, in this instance, sounds like Archbishop Lefebvre of the SSPX.
In the mid-Sixties, Merton had a major crisis involving monastic celibacy.

This life changing experience occurred when he underwent an operation in a Louisville hospital and befriended a young nurse. ("I remember being fed by a nurse at my first meal...then trying to eat one myself and picking a small piece of veal off a plate with my fingers and sticking it in my mouth."). His relationship with the nurse, known in the journals as 'M' (Margie), evolved into a romantic obsession. The world famous monk-author suddenly found himself sneaking around the monastery late at night in order to make hushed phone calls to his beloved. In May, 1966, he wrote: "The trouble is that with M. and me it is not a game....Humanly speaking the situation is impossible. We are terribly in love, and it goes very deep, perhaps more even with her than with me..." Other journal entries make him sound like a love sick adolescent: "She is the sweetest person I have ever known." At other times he comes off like a hippie at Woodstock, "We [M.] ate herring and ham (not very much eating!) and drank our wine and read poems and talked of ourselves and mostly made love and love and love for five hours."

Merton was able to spend time with M. because the Abbott, Dom James, with whom he did not get along, gave him permission to live as a hermit in a small house on monastery grounds. Flocks of visitors found their way to his door. The Berrigan brothers, poet Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry and Joan Baez came knocking while random tourists would show up uninvited. Religious fanatics sought him out to tell him their dreams or that his life was in danger. On more than one occasion Merton found himself hiding behind a tree to avoid the religious paparazzi. He was in many ways the Catholic version of the Dalai Lama. Living in the hermitage gave him freedoms denied the other monks: he could ditch his habit for work clothes and escape to downtown Louisville with friends to grab lunch (and beer) at a favorite eatery, then come back and change back into his habit again.

In June 1966, he wrote: "I realize that what is most wrong in my relationship with M. now is that I no longer trust her fully." In fact, a close friend of Merton's at this point tells him to forget M. because she is "narcissistic, selfish, and not capable of loving another human being." Their relationship continues, however.
Merton continues to think about Catholic renewal: "There is too much spite, envy, pettiness, savagery, and again too much of a brutal and arrogant spirit in this so called Catholic renewal: too much conceit and hubris, and in the end the same old authoritan and intolerant ways in a new form..." He also writes about the "incredible number" of men leaving the monastery, especially the Trappist monastery in California. All over the world, it seems, there is an exodus of monks and nuns from convents and seminaries.
Merton's eclectic reading habits at this time include writers like Faulkner, Sartre and Camus. He also becomes more interested in Zen. Intense pangs of conscience continue to torment him when it comes to M. and his battles with Dom James plunge to a new low. Merton describes the Abbot as "the very incarnation of New England middle class, efficiency loving, thrifty, crafty, operating, sanctimonious religiosity." Naturally, when Dom James eventually discovers Merton's affair with M. -this happens when a (younger) monk who drove Merton to Louisville to meet M. spills the beans--there's hell to pay.

When Joan Baez visits, she and Merton picnic on the hermitage lawn. "We talked of my love for M. and I read some of the poems and Joan was ready to drive ninety miles an hour through the rain to Cincinnati so I could see M. when she got off at the hospital. " After another struggle with his conscience, Merton breaks ties with M. then changes his mind again. "Yesterday I had to go to Louisville for a bursitis shot in the elbow. M. and I had arranged with Jim Wygal that we would borrow his office and get together there, which we did with a bottle of champagne." M. and Merton talk about marriage but their plans never materialize. Merton realizes he is a monk "through and through" and that he must end the affair. When Dom James finds out about M., the boom is lowered.
Merton complains: "Meanwhile, I have to accept the punishment the Abbott is giving me. Nothing great in itself, really, only his scorn and his narrow-mindedness bearing down on me more directly, cutting off liberties and what were really privileges - so I cannot truly complain..."
M. was not Merton's first sexual temptation. John Cooney writes that in 1963, three years before Merton met M., his dormant sexuality was shaken by a beatnik tourist claiming to be a distant relative but who was really a nymphomaniac. Merton said that the woman "gave me a wild time - a real battle, at times physical, and finally when I got away alive and with most of my virtue intact (I hope) I felt shaken, sick and scared"
When the relationship was finally over, Merton burned all of M's letters although he was haunted by her memory for some time. He continued to dream about her and he was even tempted to call her while in Louisville on doctor's visits. Occasionally he found solace in Schlitz beer: "So I go and get another beer. The supply is already running out. I only had five cans. It is a hot night. Where will I be when the dark falls and the dragons come and there is no more beer?"
Cooney says that at this time of his life Merton resembled a well-fed Friar Tuck, rather than the pale, ascetic he was on ordination day. Cooney adds: "Now bald-headed, he looked like Pablo Picasso."

Merton begins to question everything. He writes about transferring to a Trappist monastery in Chile or New Mexico. His interest in Zen and Buddhism intensifies so that he begins to quote Chinese masters and non Christian scripture as often as he quotes Christian saints. He also comes down hard on his brother monks: "...The fact is that this community is full of half-sick people, immensely vulnerable, wasting their lives in petty, neurotic machinations--and one simply does not needle such people. It does no good, and it encourages their sickness."
Although he's invited to religious conferences all over the world, Dom James, says no to virtually every request.
Merton prays for strength under pressure. "I kneel down by the bed and look up at the icon of the nativity. The soft shaded light plays over the shelves of the Buddhist books in the silent bedroom." In another entry, he goes completely bawdy: "The other day I was in town. It embarrasses me. Of course, I had to see the proctologist and that is always embarrassing--with your head down and your asshole up in the air, trying to talk about Mexican Indians."
When Dom James announces his retirement and when a new Abbot is elected, Merton experiences a sense of elation. He's given a green light to travel to conferences in San Francisco and then to a series of conferences in the Far East where he will meet with the Dalai Lama, tour Buddhist monasteries and meet other Catholic clergy. It is in the Far East where his life will end suddenly.

His unexpected death was reported on page one of The New York Times.
According to Cooney, "The end, in fact, came at a conference cottage in Samutprakarn, some 20 miles from the Thai capital, on December 10th after he addressed fellow monks at 10.45am on Marxism and Monastic Perspectives. Looking stressed, he retired for a shower. That afternoon he was found lying on his back with a five-foot fan which had landed diagonally across his body."
Merton wrote more than 70 books, most of them on spirituality and social issues.