In 1948 a young and very idealistic Trappist monk wrote the story of his own conversion. The story was classic: a young man, bursting with life and dreams, searches, desperately and intensely. He runs the gamut – booze, sex, jazz, art, writing, higher learning, travel, anything that can potentially offer respite to a painfully restless heart! He comes home empty, the thirst worse. He turns to God. The prodigal son comes home. In this case, to become a Trappist monk at the Cisterian Abbey at Gethsemani, Kentucky. Most of us read The Seven Storey Mountain. We met Thomas Merton there. But that was 1948. Merton changed, much else changed, in the 20 years until his death in 1968.
Most of us stopped reading Merton, except perhaps for a few of his more directly devotional treatises. We wondered what was happening to him. What we heard, mostly second-hand, left us uneasy. We heard he was struggling with his community, at odds with his abbot, was leaving or had left the Trappists, had neurotic problems, and was more interested in Eastern mysticism than in Christianity. The Trappists’ prize child, it seemed, had become their enfant terrible. Monica Furlong, in a recent biography of Merton (Merton: A Biography, Harper and Row, 1980), gives us a good look at the complex phenomenon which was Thomas Merton. It is a book I heartily recommend. It contains something for everyone. I say this despite the fact that the book has been severely criticized (and justly, so, I submit). For instance, John Eudes Bamberger, abbot of Genessee Abbey, Piffard, N.Y., who lived with Merton for nearly 20 years, contends that Furlong stylizes the facts to make them fit her own thesis, namely, that the Trappists stifled Merton and that he would have blossomed far more, both as writer and artist, outside of their monastic community. In the end, Furlong is out of sympathy with the monastic endeavor. She slants some of the facts accordingly.
Be that as it may, the book is a great one nonetheless. Furlong gives us a deep insight into Merton’s unconverted, prodigal years. She chronicles his struggles – his early rootlessness, the effect of his mother’s death, and his unsatisfying pilgrimage through sex, alcohol, and art – in a way which is far more honest (and thus ultimately more inspirational for us) than is Merton’s own autobiography which only hints in a generic way at his dark past. As such the book offers much to any heart whose restlessness has taken it down roads far from the Father’s house. Furlong’s description of Merton’s early struggles is good, honest, and interesting. It is, indeed, a description of Merton’s dark night of the senses. More interesting, however, is her outline of Merton’s post-Seven Storey Mountain struggles. The real mountain, for him, remained still to be climbed! The prodigal son who had found his way home had now to contend with the far less glamorous and more difficult task of remaining there – and finding there ways to express his energy and love. In the second half of the book, Furlong gives us an insight into the real grist from which Merton’s ultimate sanctity springs, his dark night of the spirit.
His struggle, as is evident, is not ultimately with his abbot, nor with his community, but is the struggle of the rich young man trying to enter the kingdom through the eye of a needle. And it is a love story, a true love story. Like all true love stories: In the beginning there is passion, in the middle there is much pain and doubt, in the end there is peace. Merton was a man gifted and rich in mind and heart. Talented and restless. After some prodigal years he turns up at his Father’s house – but he meets there not the glorified Christ of the resurrection but the Christ who is incarnated in flawed human flesh, in a concrete community. The love story follows, unglamorous but real: commitment, superiors, tasteless tasks, deadlines, community pettiness, narrowness, all interwoven with freedom, giving, dreams, and greatness. His heart pulls him on one way, his talent pulls him in another, his community pulls him in ways he would rather not go, and his God pulls him always. There is some giving and some taking, some good times and bad, some ulcers, some suspected neurosis, much frustration, occasional bitterness. He suffers, his community suffers; both grow. In the end there is peace, deep peace…with God, with his community, with the world community, and within himself. He made it! He sorted through the riddle. He found his way home from exile.
We can be helped by reading his story.