Local Merton group attests to monk's influence
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Perhaps the best way to write a story about a local group devoted to the worldview of Catholic monk, writer and mystic Thomas Merton is to make sure the voice of the man himself is prominently heard.
Merton died 44 years ago at the age of 53, yet he remains a popular and influential spiritual thinker well into the 21st century. Look no further than West Virginia's capital city for evidence, where the Charleston Chapter of the Thomas Merton Institute was formed in January.
Merton continues to speak to busy contemporary times, says Father Bill Petro, who helps run the group, which meets 7 to 8:30 p.m. this Tuesday and every second Tuesday of the month, at Blessed John XXIII Pastoral Center, 100 Hodges Rd.
"People are needing, craving, some kind of silence and solitude in their daily living," said Petro. "Merton was able to bring that contemplative dimension of living out of the monastery and offer it to people in the ordinariness of their lives."
Merton was born in France on Jan. 31, 1915, a date Petro chose as "an auspicious beginning" to launch the group this year with the simple declaration: "We discuss all things Merton. No preparation is required."
"All things Merton" covers a lot of ground when considering the writings and thoughts of the searching young man ordained as a priest in 1949 and rechristened "Father Louis."
Merton wrote upwards of 70 books on spirituality and social justice, as well as voluminous poetry, reviews and essays. His best-selling 1948 autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," recounts his path from beatnik-era partier to Trappist monk, a life arc that influenced others. As Merton's Wikipedia entry notes, the autobiography "sent scores of World War II veterans, students, and even teenagers flocking to monasteries across the US."
Merton remains pertinent, said Petro, as his probing into the human heart and his call to aid others in need offers "a foundation of basic spiritual values -- for example, silence, solitude, honesty, sincerity, community, compassion: things that are written in the DNA of the human heart."
Too often, these ingrained human traits are overwhelmed by the crush of daily life and our own suffering, yet Merton's challenge was to nurture them so they flourished, said Petro. "Because of all this stuff that life puts on you, those things get drowned. But deeper down we yearn for those."
Like many significant spiritual figures, Merton was complex. He yearned for the solitude of a hermit's life at his home monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky (where he is buried). Yet his open personality and questing nature, love of jazz -- and beer -- and his cosmopolitan upbringing on two continents, made him a man of the world beneath his brown monk's cowl.
His writing made him a national figure in the anti-war and social justice movements of the '60s. He was sought out at his hermitage in the Kentucky woods by a stream of visitors. Among them was folksinger Joan Baez, who came calling in 1966 with Ira Sandperl, with whom she'd launched the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. The encounter is described in "The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals," by Merton scholars Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo. Smitten by the singer, Merton wrote:
"Two days ago, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Joan Baez was here-memorable day! . . . Out on the tobacco farm-gray skies, cold wind, Joan running down the wide field alone in black sailor pants with her long hair flying. Ira and I talking about everything and drinking beer."
Baez urged the monk to leave his hermitage and come with them, telling him: "Someone has to talk to the students and you are the one." But Merton, hewing to his calling, wrote about why he would not, could not, go:
"I can't fully explain why I don't. I mean I can't explain to them. This solitude is God's will for me--it is not just that I 'obey' the authorities and the laws of the Church. There is more to it than that. Here is where my roots are."
More complexities were afoot at the time. Merton -- after a stay in a Louisville hospital -- had fallen in love with a nurse in her 20s, a woman he wrote about only as 'M.' Merton was in his 50s and the affair roiled things all about him, said Petro. "It created a lot of tension, of course, in the monastery as well as in his own life."
He eventually broke off the relationship -- apparently never consummated -- voting in favor of his monk's life even as romantic love brought him something, Petro said. "As he worked through that, he began to realize that that was a piece that was missing in both his human as well as his spiritual development. When he came out of it he found that his spiritual life was so much richer than before."
Merton's search for a common thread running through Christianity and other spiritual traditions led him to study Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sufism. He undertook dialogues with important Buddhist figures, including the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
The last year of his life found him in Bangkok in 1968, attending an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks. He was profoundly moved while there by an encounter with a reclining Buddha sculpture.
To Merton, in studying Eastern traditions "he was really searching for Christ in all places. He was finding Christ in Buddhism, he was finding Christ in Hinduism," Petro said. "And he has this experience of the reclining Buddha. He says that he has this great awakening -- his Buddha experience -- that seems to transcend or integrate his search."
Soon after, he was electrocuted and died stepping out of his bath in Bangkok on Dec. 10, 1968, apparently touching the exposed wire of an electric fan. We'll never know where the monk's path would have taken him next after his encounter with the statue, Petro said.
"We don't have enough of his personal reflection on that. But we do know he has an epiphany that was an integrating, transcendent experience for him."
These many years later there are enough Mertons to go around, Petro said with a laugh. "Merton the monk, the poet, the critical literary analyst, the prophet, the priest, the essayist, the seeker. What Merton are you looking for? What Merton attracts you?"
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at email@example.com or 304-348-3017.