An outstanding essay by Robert Royal on the many Mertons and their uneasy unity in one fleshly vehicle. There is of course Merton the Contemplative, the convert to Catholicism who, with the typical zeal of the convert, took it all the way to the austerities of Trappist monasticism, and that at a time (1941) when it was a more demanding and rigorous affair than today. In serious tension with the Contemplative, the Scribbler:
It did not help that Merton the Contemplative confronted Merton the Writer. Even for a man not vowed to silence, Merton's several dozen books would have been an extraordinary output. But adding the journals -- four volumes have now appeared and the whole will run to seven volumes totaling about 3,500 large pages -- we begin to glimpse a serious conflict. Can a man committed to the wordless apophatic way and a forgetting of self be preoccupied with recording-and publishing-every thought and act?
I live that tension myself very morning. For me it takes the form of a conflict between Athens and Benares, as I like to call it. Denk, denk, denk, scribble scribble, scribble from 2 AM on. But then at 4 AM, no later! I must tear myself away from the discursive desk and mount the black mat of meditation, going into reverse, as it were, moving from disciplined thinking to disciplined non-thinking.
There were also other Mertons, among the more troublesome: the Bohemian. This Merton felt a constant need to be an outsider. When Merton lived in the world, it took the usual forms. He had aspirations to being an experimental writer and poet (his Collected Poems, which show real innovation but great unevenness, run to almost 1,000 pages). He listened to jazz, dabbled in leftist politics, hit the bottle pretty hard, smoked heavily, had his share of girlfriends, and did a bit of drawing. All relatively harmless, but some incongruous holdover bedeviled Merton the monk. Should a Trappist be interested in Henry Miller? Or follow Joan Baez? Or Bob Dylan? As late as 1959 (after eighteen years in the abbey), Merton was reading books like James Thurber's The Years with Ross, an account of life under Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker. The New Yorker of the fifties was more staid than its current incarnation, and Merton often claimed the chic ads reminded him of everything in the world he had fled. But there was something odd in a monk even being interested in a magazine like the New Yorker.
Also battling with the Contemplative and Quietist (in a broad sense of this term), a fourth Merton, the Social Activist who aligned easily with the Writer and the Bohemian:
In the 1960s that world [the world outside the monastic enclosure, the 'real' world in the parlance of the worldly] came to the fore in his work. The Contemplative who fled the world, however, was not always a good advisor for the Activist. The Contemplative had not fared well in European or American society, and had taken this as proof that those societies were not doing well either. This led him to a number of mistaken or exaggerated judgments. During the fifties he accepted a theory of the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Vietnam War abroad and the civil rights struggle at home, he came to believe, revealed a totalitarian impulse in America and he wrote of the possible emergence of a Nazi-like racial regime in the United States. (Emphasis added)
Royal has it exactly right.
The frequent tendency of Merton the Activist to overstatement is telling. Merton was by background mostly a European. And lacking any experience of the moral realism and decency of most Americans, he tended to judge all of American society through the lens of heated political controversies and the usual intellectual complaints about the bourgeoisie. His essays on civil rights, for example, are heartfelt and penetrating, but are not even a very good description of the predicament of the American liberal. The kind of moderation Merton showed in spiritual and moral questions rarely appears in his social commentary. He was angry about political issues in the early 1960s. (Emphasis added)
Spot on, once again. Merton was in many ways a typical leftist intellectual alienated from and unappreciative of the country that allowed him to live his kind of life in his kind of way, as opposed to, say, being forced into a concentration camp and then put to death. The Commies were not all that kind to religion and religionists. You may recall that Edith Stein, another Catholic convert, became a Carmelite nun, but was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. She was, by the way, a much better thinker than Merton.
Merton the Man is the uneasy unity of these four personae. His edifice is four-storied rather than seven, and I suppose 'story' could also be read as 'narrative' or 'script,' the Contemplative, the Writer, the Bohemian, and the Activist being as much multiply exemplifiable life-scripts as the competing personae of one particular man.
Intimately interwoven with these four Mertons is someone we are forced to call Merton the Man. This Fifth Business never entirely settled down. The Contemplative, as may be seen in painful detail in the journals, is constantly vacillating, though in his public work Merton displays spiritual mastery. The Writer is gifted, but so much so that he has a tendency toward glibness. The Bohemian Merton got the others into any number of scrapes, and the Activist Merton often got carried away by currents in the sixties that-in retrospect-were not entirely fair to American society. Yet when all is said and done, Merton remains one of the great contemplative spirits of the century.
Merton died young in Bangkok in 1968, at the age of 53. He was there for a conference. Those of us who have attended and contributed to academic conferences know how dubious they are, and how destabilizing to a centered life. I tend to think that it was the Writer, The Bohemian, and the Activist who, in the synergy of an unholy trinity, swamped the Contemplative and caused him to be lured away from his circumscribed but true monastic orbit.
If he had lived on into the '70s would Merton have remained a monk? Who knows? So many men and women of the cloth abandoned their vocations and vows at that time.* In his Asian journal he writes that he intended to return to Gethsemani. It is nevertheless reasonable to speculate that he would not have lasted as a monk much longer. The Zeitgeist would have got to him, and the synergy of the unholy trinity just mentioned. Not to mention the transports of earthly love:
The mid-1960s brought him to the brink of disaster. Merton had a back problem requiring an operation at a Catholic hospital in Louisville. When he recovered from the anesthesia, he was anxious that he had missed daily communion. He began making notes on Meister Eckhart. His long- desired hermitage awaited him back at Gethsemani. To the eye, it was business as usual.
But a pretty young student nurse came in. A Catholic, she knew of Merton from a book her father had given her. Something erupted between them- even though she had a fiance in Chicago. On leaving the hospital, he wrote her about needing friendship. She wrote back, instructed by him to mark the envelope "conscience matter" (lest the superiors read the correspondence). Under "conscience matter," Merton sent a declaration of love. Thus began a series of deceptions, and Merton only narrowly avoided the shipwreck of his monastic vows because of the impossibility of the whole situation.
*I think of the Jesuits and others who had jobs in philosophy because they were assigned to teach it at Catholic colleges back in the day when such colleges were more than nominally Catholic, and how they left their religious orders -- but kept their jobs! Nice work if you can get it.