Thomas Merton’s influence Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

I write these words on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, one of the greatest spiritual writers of the 20th century and a man who had a decisive influence on me and my vocation to the priesthood.

I first encountered Merton's writing in a peculiar way. My brother and I were both working at a bookstore in the Chicago suburbs. One afternoon, he tossed me a tattered paperback with a torn cover that the manager had decided to discard.

My brother said, "You might like this; it's written by a Trappist monk." I replied, with the blithe confidence of a 16-year-old, "I don't want to read a book by some Buddhist." He responded, "Trappists are Catholics, you idiot."

Merton’s writings

The book was The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton's passionate, articulate, smart, and moving account of his journey from worldling to Trappist monk. I became completely caught up in the drama and romance of Merton's story, which is essentially the tale of how a man fell in love with God.

Fulton Sheen referred to it as a contemporary version of St. Augustine's Confessions. Moreover, it contributed to the startling influx of young men into monasteries and Religious communities across the United States in the postwar era.

The Sign of Jonas, a journal that Merton kept in the years leading up to his priestly ordination, became a particular favorite. That work concludes with an essay called "Firewatch: July 4, 1952," which Jacques Maritain referred to as the greatest piece of spiritual writing in the 20th century.

Merton opened the door to the wealth of the Catholic spiritual tradition: I first learned about John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux, Odo of Cluny, the Victorines, Origen, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Hans Urs von Balthasar from him.

Contemplation

The central theme of Merton's writings is contemplation. He stressed that it is not the exclusive preserve of spiritual athletes, but rather something that belongs to all the baptized and stands at the heart of Christian life. For contemplation is consciously discovering a new center in God and at the same time discovering the point of connection to everyone and everything else in the cosmos.

Following the French spiritual masters, Merton called this le point vierge, the virginal point. In his epiphanic experience at the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville, Merton felt, through le point vierge, a connection to the ordinary passersby so powerful it compelled him to exclaim, "There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."

Viewed with suspicion

Sadly, for many younger Catholics today, Merton is viewed with a certain suspicion for two reasons. First, when he was 51, he fell in love with a young nurse who cared for him after back surgery. Though it is almost certain that this was exclusively an affair of the heart, it was unseemly for a middle-aged priest to have been so infatuated with a younger woman.

Merton worked through this period and returned to his vowed monastic life. The journal he kept during that year is so spiritually illuminating that I often recommend it to brother priests who are wrestling with celibacy. To dismiss Merton because of this inappropriate relationship strikes me as disproportionate.

The second reason some younger Catholics are wary of Merton is his interest in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. They see this as an indication of a religious relativism.

Merton was fascinated by Eastern religions and felt that Christians could benefit from a greater understanding of their theory and practice, but he never felt that all religions were the same or that Christians should move "beyond" Christianity.

Profound effect

About 10 years ago, I had the privilege of giving a retreat to the monks at Merton's monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky. After the retreat, Merton's secretary, Br. Patrick Hart, took me in a jeep out to see the hermitage that Merton occupied the last years of his life.

While we were sitting on the front porch, he looked at me intently and said, "Could you tell anyone that’s interested that Thomas Merton died a monk of Gethsemani Abbey and a priest of the Catholic Church?" He was as bothered as I am by the silly suggestion that Merton was leaving the priesthood or abandoning the Catholic faith.

Thomas Merton was not perfect, but he was a master of the spiritual life, and his life and work had a profound effect on me and an army of others around the world. I offer this birthday tribute as a small token of gratitude.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org