|Thomas Merton’s inner and outer journeys led from a youthful attempt to escape the world via the dark night of divine unknowing to a mature effort to fathom God’s presence at both the world’s heart and its periphery|
Sr. Marie de Lourdes Mates, I.H.M., teaches religion at Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School, Arlington, Virgina. She received the master’s degree in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, Philadelphia. Several of her articles on scriptural themes have appeared in The Bible Today.
IT was Dan Walsh, a Thomist, who during his weekly lectures at Columbia University first pointed out to Thomas Merton his Augustinian bent. Merton was more than complimented that Dan Walsh should see in him the spiritual, mystical way of St. Augustine:
I have learned to love you late,
Beauty at once so ancient and so new!
I have learned to love you late!
You were within me,
and I was in the world outside myself.(1)
Strangely enough, not too long before Walsh’s class in the fall of 1938, a close friend, Sy Freedgood, had introduced Merton to a Hindu monk, Bramachari. The one counsel given to Merton by the monk was something he could not easily forget: “There are many beautiful mystical books written by the Christians. You should read St. Augustine’s Confessions.”(2) Merton was a voracious reader and he eventually did read the Confessions but comments little on any far-reaching effect on his life. Yet when his own autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, reached the public in 1948, it was immediately acclaimed by reviewers as a modern counterpart of the Confessions.
There were forces in Merton’s life that had been highly active in shaping him and bringing him to a mystical stance in a secularized twentieth-century setting. Thomas Merton was born cosmopolitan. His heritage claimed a New Zealand father and an American Quaker mother; his birthplace was Prades, France during the war-torn year of 1915. Just one short year later, young Merton was uprooted for his first journey across the Atlantic. His earliest memories recalled for him a nomadic existence, so much so that he was later to write, “. . .my geography book -the favorite book of my childhood …. I was only too eager for the kind of footloose and unstable life I was soon to get into.”(3) It never occurred to him that the rest of humankind did not live likewise; every uprooting seemed reasonable to his young mind.
Ruth, his mother left on him the imprint of Quaker awareness to the promptings of the inner spirit. She died, however, when he was only six. His father, a wanderer by nature and an artist by temperament, became the sole source for Merton’s religious development. On hikes into the hills with him, the boy’s mystical sense of oneness with nature awakened and grew. At times the two traveled together — from Bermuda to St. Antonin to Oakam. Then suddenly at sixteen, Thomas Merton was forced to face the world alone. Owen Merton’s death weighed heavily on the boy. It was only after months of brooding that he was able to enter into a life of his own. But what a life!
The next ten years were years of even greater instability from Rome to Cambridge to Columbia to St. Bonaventure’s to Cuba; from carefree youth to dissolute manhood. It seemed as if the young man were adopting his father’s way of life plus a host of other bad habits. Providence ruled otherwise. During his years of university recklessness he was to meet such mentors as Mark VanDoren, Dan Walsh, and Jacques Maritain. He was to come under the influence of such mystic poets as Blake, Hopkins, and St. John of the Cross. They made the difference for Merton, whose wide-ranging interests, astounding abilities, and a kind of cosmic energy were matter-of-fact.
It was during this period in Merton’s life, as he was to recount later in his autobiography, that on two separate and distinct occasions he was to experience states of insight that were soulshaking. These experiences were to be partially responsible for his change of direction and eventual acceptance into the Catholic Church and the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. It may be of little import but it is interesting to note that both experiences occurred while he was “on the road” — one in Rome, the other in Cuba.
THE ‘FORTIES: MATURING
The works produced by Merton in the 1940s show the faint lines of a journey theme which would be developed later. In his Seven Storey Mountain he ventures,
We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life, and that is why we are traveling and in darkness. But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore in that sense we have arrived and are dwelling in the light.
But oh! How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived.(4)
Having traveled widely throughout Europe and the United States, Merton was ready, as he boarded the train to Louisville to settle in, to discover an out-of-the-way place to put down his roots. His thoughts during this final (so he thought) journey are recorded in his autobiography: “This journey, this transition from the world to new life was like flying through some strange new element — as if I were in the stratosphere. And yet I was on the familiar earth.”(5) The last lap on the dilapidated Bardstown bus was to be the last lap of his journey into the desert. The gates of Gethsemani were barely closed on him when he realized that he had only scratched the surface. The journey inward would prove far more painful and far more difficult than any journey he had previously known. He was to learn that “The only true joy is to escape from the prison of our own selfhood… and enter by love into union with the life who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our minds.”(6)
THE ‘FIFTIES: FATHER LOUIS
The theme of journeying is as old as Abraham whose journey from the Ur of the Chaldees took him into the desert in search of the vision of God. Thomas Merton had, as far as he was concerned, left a crumbling world and turned full face to God. He had left all, like Abraham, to embrace the unknown:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end …. you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.(7)
From the start, Merton’s writings expressed deep feeling for the universal Exodus experience. It was a favorite theme and he would return to it again and again to explain withdrawal from the world in search of desert solitude with God. The “seeds” of later writings and insights were present in the earlier ones but for now there was a predominant hostility towards and rejection of the world. Merton felt that the monastic life he was leading as ‘Father Louis’ had projected him out of a problematic world into a spiritual space above mundane existence. This period was one of great inward movement — a thrust toward the stability that had been so lacking in his life, a sort of contemplative “waiting” for God to act. Even at this early stage Merton found that writing, which was as easy for him as breathing, was essential. He employed the journal style of writing, one most fitting for a man on a journey:
Perhaps in my search for solitude I have become as it were an explorer for you, a searcher into realms you are not able to visit …. I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no loner suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts.(8)
A trip to Louisville was to be the moment in time that marked a changing point in this monk’s life. Though the experience is difficult to classify according to the criteria of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, Father Louis was brought to the realization that his gaze must be turned toward both God and humanity. He was able to look on the world he had rejected with new eyes and see there the presence of the God he was seeking.
THE ‘SIXTIES: TURNING
What was happening during this period of Merton’s life to effect this strange and new impetus toward the world? In his role as master of scholastics and then as master of novices, Merton had become aware of the loneliness and perplexity so prevalent in his charges. His own solitude was somewhat modified. In his desolation and alienated condition, he began to embrace the people in Gethsemani and the people inside and outside the Church as his own:
The Christian pilgrimage is a journey home. It is a return to the infinite abyss of pure reality in which our own reality is grounded, and in which we exist. It is a return to the source of all meaning and truth. It is a return to the inmost springs of life.(9)
The way seemed at times to lead away from God. Like Jonah, he desired to go in the exact opposite direction from this pull, but consistently he found himself in the “belly of a paradox traveling toward his destiny.”(10)
As Merton’s mind journeyed to touch on the problems peculiar to all human beings, he began to realize that the Way to contemplation was the Way to reality. He discovered that human masks were disguises for the pilgrim God at work in his creation. Never really feeling at home on this earth, Merton found himself yielding to expressions and acts that indicated a deep empathy for the oppressed, whatever form that oppression might take.
Questions and uncertainties which Merton had thought somewhat settled during his earlier monastic life began to rear their heads. His “dark night” paradoxically clarified his vision and brought him to see that concentration and introspection were hopeless methods on the road to contemplation. His was to be the way of listening, consenting, following. His truth-seeking had taken the form of a long journey where prejudiced judgment and self-will had to take back seats if there was to be forward movement. The dialogue with the world was in full swing.
What does contemplation mean in a life of action? In the crucible of patience and contradiction Merton was able to spell out for his contemporaries dynamic breakthroughs which he himself had experienced in his search. Significantly, the image of journey pervades his writings of the 1960s:
At the end of this journey of faith and love which brings us into the depths of our own being and releases us that we may voyage beyond ourselves to God, the mystical life culminates in an experience of God that is beyond all description …. And by paradox beyond all human expression, God and the soul seem to have but one single ‘I.’ (11)
SEEKER OF TRUTH
In the unpublished work entitled The Inner Experience, the seed planted in the beginning of his career sprouted into a sturdy, healthy plant. The highest mysticism is quite simple: one must first journey to the soul’s center and then move beyond self to God. Not only are we exiled from God, we are also exiled from our inmost selves! The Way to contemplation is still the Way to reality but that reality consists in human wholeness restored to the image of God. Merton succeeded in The Inner Experience in synthesizing the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the Rhenish, English, and Spanish mystics with modern psychology and existential philosophy. He had always had the happy faculty of being able to select and choose from other writings those elements that best suited his purpose. It is in The Inner Experience that he is at his best. Even his deep interest in Zen Buddhism and in Eastern thought in general is well integrated with Christian theology. Merton found the focus of the “experience” not in the individual self but in Christ “within” this self.
The old world of sense perception seemed remote indeed when Thomas Merton went eastward in 1968 as a seeker of the truth to drink from the ancient sources present there. He had prepared himself for the journey to the East by thirty years (how significant!) of prayer and study. He was to write of it in his Asian journal as a journey affirming the mystical theology of his earlier writings, namely, that contemplation has little to do with geography and culture. His search for unity and universality was interrupted in this last journey of his life. He was, in death, to know the experience of God described in his New Seeds of Contemplation:
A door opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall through it into immense depths which, although they are infinite are all accessible to us; all eternity seems to have become ours in this one placid and breathless contact.(12)
THE FINAL JOURNEY
Merton’s life and writings can act as a window through which we catch a glimpse of the God he was so earnestly seeking. The journey motif is one which recurs with a definite pattern throughout all of his works. It reaches a peak in the 1960s to give evidence that in the latter part of his life the vision of God was coming into focus.(13)
To journey is to be, in a sense, totally free. There is a certain amount of disencumbering that takes place — sometimes treasured things are left behind. It is an extension of this disencumbering process into the realm of the inner self that brings a person deeply into the center of the self, where he or she discovers “the perfect image of God stamped with the likeness of Christ within.”(13) When this true self is recognized and accepted there comes with it an awareness of being face-to-face with a knowing and loving God. This is a God who is totally free and whose freedom is imaged more perfectly in the individual who has been transformed by perfect communion with the Godhead.
Journeys are “occasionally terrifying, sometimes fulfilling, always exciting.”(14) What is commonplace at home takes on new luster in a foreign land. It is in the process of journeying that we sometimes truly “see” things for the first time. The culminating moment for Merton on his journey to the East was in Polonnarwa, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he encountered the stone figures of the Buddhas: “…an inner clearness, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious …. I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for.”(15) Merton’s God shows himself in the most unexpected places (unexpected at least to the average Christian observer) and excites the soul beyond imagining.
Where we are standing determines what we see. Journeying provides a person with many different perspectives. What is seen at one point as an ugly insurmountable mountain becomes at another point a dizzying height for viewing a panorama of beauty. Merton’s God changed faces many times throughout his life. God never became one face to the neglect of others; but rather was the synthesis of all where each face needed the others to begin to make sense to finite creaturehood.
When someone embarks on a journey he or she must often leave loved ones behind. Yet it is truly their “presence” along the way when the going gets rough that provides needed support and encouragement. In Merton’s life, God was an everabsent presence. Like the Christ who journeyed through the hillsides of Galilee always calling people to the Kingdom, Merton’s life of journeying in search of God is a clarion to the rest of humankind that God is alive.
In Chapter 14 of John’s Gospel, Jesus identifies himself with the journey: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Brian Hawker, one of the authors who contributed to the issue of Cistercian Studies dedicated to Thomas Merton, sees him also as identified with the journey. Hawker writes,
Basically his message was his own life’s journey. Merton cannot teach me or anyone how to pray; he can only pray. His value lies in the fact that what he has written is a map of his journey and his thoughts and meditations on that journey. Any explorer knows that the map is not the journey and Merton never expected it to be so. The value of the map lies in enabling me to understand something of the terrain through which I must pass.(16)
In the process of living his journey so well, Merton could identify himself with Christ, the “imago Dei.” After all, was not his heart “burning within” him all along the way?
The end of all our journeying is to end up where we began and to know the place for the first time. (17)
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 232.
- Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1948), p. 198.
- Ibid., p. 10.
- Ibid., p. 409.
- Ibid., p. 369.
- Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1949), p.6.
- Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Image Books, 1958), p. 81.
- Thomas Merton, The Monastic Journey (Kansas City: Sheed, Andrews and McMeel, Inc., 1977), p. 171.
- Thomas Merton, “The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation” (unpublished), p. 35.
- Thomas Merton, Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953), p. 11.
- Thomas Merton, “The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation” (unpublished), p. 16.
- Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), p. 227.
- Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1951), p. 53.
- Robert McAfee Brown, Creative Dislocation — The Movement of Grace (Nashville: Abingdom, 1980), p. 144.
- Thomas Merton, Asian Journal (New York: New Directions, 1973), p. 233 and p. 235.
- Brian H. Hawker, “Twice Twenty Seven Plus Ten,” Cistercian Studies XIV, 3 (1979): 192.
- T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1952), p. 145.