THOMAS MERTON. who died last week, first became widely known in America with his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948. It was immediately and extravagantly compared to the Confessions of Saint Augustine and Newrnan's A pologia. It sold over a million copies and he persistently refused to sell the film rights.
A year later, suitably pruned, prefaced by Evelyn Waugh, it appeared in England under the title Elected Silence. Waugh read it as "the record of a soul experiencing, first, disgust with the modern world, then Faith, then a clear vocation to the way in which Faith may be applied to the modern world."
Be saw in it a sign that American Catholicism was ready for the contemplative life and therefore for Christian maturity.
Elected Silence remains a powerful witness to the moods of the 1930s. Merton read Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Joyce; but also St. Augustine. St. John of the Cross and Kierkegaard. His autobiography and his Secular Journal (covering 19391941 but published only in 1959) sum up the intellectual history of a generation.
Like Julien Green—also an American though he wrote in French—he had a vision of evil stalking a world in which perfect innocence would never walk again.
Thomas Merton had become Frater M. Louis, 0.C.S.O., on the feast of Saint Joseph, 1944, when he made his simple profession. In the next few years the Abbey of Gethsemani burst at the seams with ex-servicemen monks. It became what Merton called "a furnace of tpostolic fire." His own contribution was literary : poems, articles and books poured out of his elected silence.
In the 18th and 19th centuries it had been considered a monastic sin for a Trappist to read anything other. than Scripture and the lives of the Saints. What "the lives of the saints" meant was summed up by Frater Louis thus: "a chain of fantastic miracles interspersed with pious platitudes. He broke with this tradition and Gethsernani was different.
There was nothing odd in a monk breaking silence. He wrote under obedience, and contemplata tradere — handing on to others the fruits of contemplation — had long been a monastic slogan. And Merton was a manifestly contemporary man who spoke from experience of the things of Good to a whole generation.
He was a conscious outsider. But his detachment from the world enabled him to points& its futilities and detect its growing-points. He was not simply world-rejecting, though that may have been his temptation.
His books are numerous, uneven but never trivial. The Waters of Siloe is a diverting commentary on Cistercian history. Its satire is always sympathetic, but the older generation of Trappists did not like it. In it, Merton may be said to have worked through his first "identitycrisis" as a Cistercian.
Seeds of Contemplation came next. According to Clifford Stevens, it "replaced The imitation of Christ as a manual of meditation, at least for one generation of Catholics." in Seeds of Contemplation Merton was still sharing his cloister thoughts with others. It is likely to be his most enduring work.
He tried hardest with The Ascent to Truth. It is his most closely reasoned and deeply theological book. The style is disciplined. The Ascent to Truth is an introduction to the mystical life that is both severely demand ing and supremely rewarding. Contemplation is seen as a grace, not a hobby for burntout intellectuals. The presentation of Saint John of the Cross is masterly.
But some readers prefer The Sign of Jonas, a spiritual diary, because of its frank, button-holing style. Merton was his own most rigorous critic. He knew that "imperfection is the penalty of rushing into print" and that "there are many who think that because they have written about God, they have written good books."
His most recently published book bears the significant title: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. "Guilty Bystander" expresses the dilemma of the American Cistercian today. an "outsider" by choice who is nevertheless involved with his own people and the Vietnam War.
As Christopher Sykes pointed out, the book is an amalgam of penetrating moral insights and superficial journalistic comment. The dilemma remained unresolved.
Another expression of it was Merton's desire, always refused by his superiors, to become a hermit. At one time he had the idea of going to Russia and living there as a solitary witness, "on the edge of civilisation, not at its centre." The monk as frontiersman.
His fellow-monks knew him and liked what they knew. He was once described to a visitor by a Negro monk as "Big shot monk with Seven Big Hill and lotspourtree" (poetry).
Another describes how they stopped at a roadside restaurant after an earnest discussion of the works of St. Maximux. Fr. Louis fed a coin into the juke-box. "He .returned to the table with a hedonistic glint in his eyes." remembered his colleague. He had chosen Sophisticated Swing and continued the discussion on St. Maximus, with a few asides on what Erasmus thought, of course. about solitude.