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How Do We Account for Thomas Merton?

Thomas Merton started as a writer, became a Trappist monk with genuine insight into the spiritual life, and then wrapped himself in worldly activism. What happened?

On December 10, 1941, a young Ivy League graduate arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in the heart of Kentucky’s bourbon country where monks take a vow of silence.

In 1948, the monk, Thomas Merton, published The Seven Storey Mountain. It was hugely successful. At times during 1948, an unprecedented 10,000 orders came in a day. Millions of copies were sold.

Merton was a pop culture celebrity, but he remained a monk in Kentucky.

But not an obedient one.

He became critical, finding faults with everything at the monastery, from its numbers to its methods of sustaining itself financially to its abbot. He increasingly agitated for a hermitage, a space where he could live and write separated from the rest of the monastic community. He thought about moving out of Gethsemani altogether, possibly moving out West.

He got caught up in the counterculture, seeing himself tied to the hippie movement by a bond of sympathy and understanding (a young correspondent aptly referred to Merton as the “Hippy Hermit”). He was such a big fan of Bob Dylan’s that, when the elderly philosopher Jacques Maritain visited him at his hermitage, Merton, to Maritain’s exasperation, wasted precious time playing a Bob Dylan record in hopes that Maritain would agree that Dylan was a great artist. He acquired a girlfriend. He overindulged in alcohol.

He became a political activist, a vocal advocate of various 1960s activist movements, such as the Vietnam War protests, the nuclear disarmament movement, the civil rights movement (he even toyed with the idea of taking pills to make himself look black, like John Howard Griffin), the early environmental movement triggered by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the War on Poverty, the Catholic Church reform movements leading up to Vatican II, and even efforts to unionize the Catholic Church’s priests. He at one time wrote that America “is a totalitarian society in which freedom is pure illusion,” teaching that white America was engaged in an oppressive war against all non-whites, and regretting that he had earlier become a naturalized citizen.

What happened?

No one really knows. Biographer Michael Mott (The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton) seems to attribute it to Merton’s rebellious nature. Others say he simply marched to the tune of a different drummer.

I have a different theory.

Merton was, I believe, a gnostic. In his early adult years, he partially embraced ancient gnosticism. In his later years, he became a modern gnostic.

Existence is Tension

One of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, Eric Voegelin, emphasized that we exist in a thing called “the metaxy.” It’s an in-between area: between transcendence (the heavens or spiritual realm, you might think of it) and immanence (the earthy or bodily).

This reality results in tension. We are pulled up and we are pulled down. The tension isn’t pleasant, especially for those who really feel the transcendent pull. Everyone, after all, feels the immanent pull: it’s earthly life. It’s the freaks who intensely feel the transcendent pull that have the most trouble dealing with the tension of the metaxy. They’re the “troubled souls.” The freaks who deal with it well are the sages and saints. They live in harmony within both realities. The freaks who deal with it poorly are the drunks and addicts who try to kill the tension artificially.

Picture a person being tortured by being stretched between two poles, his wrists tied to ropes and pulled in opposite directions. The torture abruptly ends if you cut the rope to one of the poles. The freaks who deal with their acutely-felt tension poorly try to cut the rope to one of the poles.

Ancient Gnostics Cut Off the Immanent Pole

Around the time of Christianity, when revelation and philosophy were making it clear that there was a transcendent reality (think: God the Father) that wasn’t tied to earthly affairs (think: Zeus the father), the tension got really bad for the first time.

A lot of people simply couldn’t deal with the tension. They responded by denying the immanent pole of existence. They understood that the transcendent was truly transcendent and decided that was all that mattered. They became wholly spiritual and heavenly, denying the legitimacy, relevance, and/or actual existence of the bodily and earthly, and then acting on it to start religious movements that conformed to their stilted consciousness.

Those were the ancient gnostics

In the modern world, the gnostic phenomenon got flipped upside down. Starting with the modern world, a lot of people who couldn’t deal with the tension responded by denying the transcendent pole of existence. They became wholly bodily and earthly, and then acted on it to start, in Voegelin’s phrase, “ersatz religions,” like Marxism and Fascism. They are the modern gnostics.

Merton the Artist-Turned-Gnostic

Merton’s father was a professional painter and member of the Royal Society of British Artists. He read poetry to the young Thomas and laid down firm roots for the love of William Blake (arguably the most transcendent poet ever) in him. As a young adult, Thomas channeled his artistic blood into literature, studying the craft of writing and trying to come up with his own style. He wrote a novel (he was the classic “frustrated novelist”). He published poetry. He won a prestigious writing award from Columbia University. He liked to draw.

Merton was, to put it simply, an artist.

The artist intensely feels the tug of the transcendent. He’s pulled toward the “Beautiful” (one of the three Transcendentals in the Platonic tradition) and responds with works of art. Art, observed the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, is an expression of grace.

Yet the artist also obviously exists in the world. The result: The artist intensely feels the tension of living in the metaxy. It’s not comfortable. Such a person wants to end the tension, which he can do in all sorts of ways: alcoholism, Don Juanism, careerism . . . anything to deal with the tension.

Or he can simply lop off one of the poles that are stretching him.

I suspect that’s what Merton tried to do by joining the Trappists: he was trying to lop off the immanent as a pole of existence.

That being said, I don’t think it’s accurate to describe the young Merton as an ancient gnostic. A gnostic must act on his deformed view of existence. He must have the deformed view of existence and claim a special knowledge (gnosis) emanating from that deformed view, which he can then use to change the rest of the world to align it with the deformed view.

Deformed view of reality + claimed special knowledge + activism = gnosticism.

At the early monastic stage of Merton’s life, I think that third ingredient (activism) was lacking. Life in a monastery is the exact opposite of acting on one’s dissatisfaction with the reality of existence.

But it’s still an act to lop off (or at least greatly quell) the pressure of the immanent pole. Merton, I believe, thought his life would be all transcendence, all the time. He then got frustrated as a monk when the immanent (in particular, his abbot) still made worldly demands on him.

So he was still dissatisfied, plus he started feeling the incredibly strong pull of the immanent due to his fame. He had to try something else. He lopped off the transcendent pole.

Hence, he moved from one extreme to the other, but not really. He merely lopped off one extreme, and when that didn’t end the tension, lopped off the other extreme, at least partly (he never left his order, after all, which is something).

He himself never really moved. That, I suspect, was the problem.

The Death of the Artist-Gnostic

On December 10, 1968, Merton gave a morning talk at a Benedictine conference in Thailand about “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” in which he offered the possibility that Marxist students might be the “true monks” of 1968. He had lunch then retired to his room, where he took a shower. Upon coming out of the shower, he died, probably electrocuted by a fan that was improperly wired.

It’s too bad. He was only 53. It would’ve been interesting to see what he would’ve done if he lived longer and started to realize that modern Gnosticism wasn’t working for him.

Maybe then he would’ve gone back to pursuing a proper monastic vocation, one that, though immersed in the transcendent, also embraces the immanent. It’s clear from his journals that he was still working through such matters and searching.

Then again, he may have just gone further off the rails.

We’ll never know.