Writings of Thomas Merton leave a lasting impression
By claudia mathis / SUN staff writer
It was the beginning of Mark Shiner’s spiritual journey. As an evangelical Protestant attending Houghton College in Houghton, N.Y., Shiner began to read Thomas Merton’s works in an attempt to find answers to the questions he had about his faith. His faith journey eventually brought him to Colgate University where he has served for the last four years as University Chaplain and Catholic Campus Minister.
Reading Merton’s No Man Is An Island, The Seven Storey Mountain and Contemplative Prayer, among others, Shiner was deeply influenced by what Merton wrote. “I was looking for intellectually satisfying answers about my faith,” said Shiner. “I knew if I was going to be a Christian, I needed to reconcile God’s absence.” While reading his works, Shiner learned that sensing God’s absence could be a calling to a deeper spiritual life.
As Catholic campus minister, Shiner said he refers his students to many of Merton’s works and ideas. For example, Shiner wants them to know that in his book, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton wrote that God’s intention for humanity is to become whole by the stripping away of the false selves (the struggle with sin and death) through prayer.
Shiner also refers his students to Merton’s book, No Man Is An Island, a spiritually moving and thought-provoking set of meditations that center on one’s relationship with God, with one another and with oneself.
Merton, who was born in France in 1915 and died in Thailand in 1968, was one of the most influential Catholic authors of the 20th century. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Merton was an acclaimed Catholic spiritual writer, poet, author and social activist. He wrote over 60 books and scores of essays and reviews. Merton was also a proponent of interreligious dialogue, engaging in spiritual dialogues with such icons as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and D.T. Suzuki. His career was suddenly cut short at a relatively young age due to an accident when he was electrocuted by touching a poorly grounded electric fan while stepping out of his bath.
Merton’s spirituality is firmly grounded in Christian revelation and tradition and it centers on the fact that spiritual life finds its fulfillment in bringing one’s entire life into a transforming, loving communion with God. Merton found his faith through traditional liturgy and reading.
From the beginning of Merton’s life, he searched for something to define it. He began his life with little knowledge of the Christian faith only to spend most of the rest of his life taking the strictest vows available in the Catholic Church.
Shortly after Merton’s birth in 1915, the Merton family left Prades, France due to World War I and settled in New York. The family considered returning to France, when Merton’s mother, Ruth, was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which she died from in 1921. Merton and his father, Owen, returned to Saint-Antonin, France in 1925. Then, in 1926, Merton’s father placed him in a boarding school in Montauban, France.
Thereafter, Merton attended boarding schools in Surrey, England and in Rutland, England. After his father died in 1931 from a brain tumor, Tom Bennett, his father’s physician and former schoolmate, became Merton’s legal guardian.
In 1933, at the age of 18, Merton traveled to Rome, Italy. The trip changed the course of his life. Merton began visiting churches, not knowing why he felt so drawn to them. He didn’t attend any Masses — he was just observing and appreciating them. His interest in churches began at The Forum, at the foot of Palantine Hill, where Merton visited one nearby. In the apse of the church, a mosaic of Jesus Christ mesmerized him. Merton had a hard time leaving the church, though he was unsure why.
From this point forward, he visited various churches and basilicas in Rome, such as Lateran Baptistery, Santa Costanza and Basilica di San Clemente. He purchased a Vulgate (Latin Bible), and read the entire New Testament. One night, Merton had the sense that his father was in the room with him for a few moments. This mystical experience led him to see the emptiness he felt in his life, and he said for the first time in his life he really prayed, asking God to deliver him from his darkness.
Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain also describes a visit to Tre Fontane, a Trappist monastery in Rome. While visiting the church there he was at ease, yet when entering the monastery he was overtaken with anxiety. That afternoon, while alone, he remarked to himself: “I should like to become a Trappist monk.”
In 1933, Merton entered Clare College in Cambridge, England as a freshman. During the next couple of years his interest in organized religion waned.
In January of 1935, Merton enrolled as a sophomore at Columbia University in Manhattan and it is there that he discovered Catholicism. He hadn’t discovered it in the church/monastery visits.
In February 1937, Merton read a book that opened his mind to Catholicism. It was titled The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Etienne Gilson. In reading the book, he encountered an explanation of God that he found both logical and pragmatic. This work was pivotal, paving the way for more encounters with Catholicism.
In 1938 Merton decided to attend Mass at Corpus Christi Church located near the Columbia campus.
One evening, Merton was reading a book about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ (British Victorian poet and Jesuit priest) conversion to Catholicism and how he became a priest. Suddenly, he sensed that he should follow the same path. After sharing his desire with Father George Barry Ford, pastor at Corpus Christi Church, Father Ford agreed with Merton, but added that he felt Merton was suited for the secular priesthood and advised against joining an order. Soon after, Merton discussed the issue with his teacher, Dan Walsh. Walsh disagreed with the assessment and said he felt Merton was more suited for a priestly vocation in a specific order. Merton then considered becoming a Franciscan friar, but he had doubts about whether he was worthy of being a Franciscan.
In 1940 Merton began to teach at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y. While there, his spiritual life blossomed as he went deeper and deeper into prayer. In April of that year, Merton attended a retreat at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky. Merton immediately felt an attraction to the abbey and his spirits were buoyed during his stay. Although he was still unsure of his qualifications for a religious vocation, Merton felt he was being drawn more and more to a specific calling.
In March 1942, Merton was accepted as a novice monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani and in 1944 made his temporary profession of vows.
Merton kept journals throughout his stay at Gethsemani. Initially he felt writing to be at odds with his vocation and worried it would foster a tendency to individuality, but his superior saw that he had a talent for writing. In 1943, Merton was given the responsibility of translating religious texts and writing biographies on the saints for the monastery. In 1944 Merton’s book of poetry titled Thirty Poems was published. Another poetry collection titled A Man in the Divided Sea was published in 1946.
In 1948 The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s autobiography, was published to critical acclaim.
On March 19, 1949 Merton became a deacon in the Cistercian Order and on May 26 Merton was ordained as priest. By November of that year Merton started teaching novices at Gethsemani in mystical theology, a duty he greatly enjoyed.
Through subsequent years Merton would write many other books and amass a wide readership. One’s place in society, views on social activism and various approaches toward contemplative prayer and living became constant themes in his writings.
Since his death, Merton’s influence has continued to grow and he is considered by many to be an important 20th century Catholic mystic and thinker.