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Theological Notebook: On the 40th Anniversary of the Death of Thomas Merton, OCSO

Thomas Merton died 40 years ago today, electrocuted by the faulty wiring of his floor fan as he stepped out of his shower at a world-wide conference of monks in Bangkok. The National Catholic Reporter has an article commemorating Merton, which in a Left kind of way seems to magnify the tour Merton made at the end of his life, where he, as one of the West's best scholars of Asian religion, resonated deeply with the forms of Hindu and Buddhist display he encountered there, as though his Christianity were best remembered by not being mentioned, and best characterized by his open-mindedness. By way of contrast, the Wikipedia article on Merton dotes, in a kind of Right way, on the early Merton of the conversion story detailed in his bestselling The Seven-Storey Mountain, as though the deep immersion into the social justice causes of the 1960s was not a direct outgrowth of both his Christian and monastic callings.

When I was at Notre Dame, I was lucky enough to aid Lawrence Cunningham in the editing and production of the 1952-60 volume of Merton's private journals, published as A Search For Solitude: Pursuing the Monk's True Life. It is this little-mentioned in-between period of Merton's life, extending into the 1960s, that has come to be of greater interest to me, and was fed even more by stories from Chrysogonus as he recalled his old friend and teacher at the Abbey of Gethsemani. This was the time of experiments in hermitage, in solitude, of the writing of Thoughts In Solitude and of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. It was the time of his mystical dream of a Jewish girl named Proverb and his Louisville street corner vision of Love and what is lovely in all people. It was the time of falling in love with a young nurse who had taken care of him in the hospital and of having to let that go in the face of his own true calling, but with the knowledge that he had finally become a person who could truly love another.

The caricatures of Merton – the Christian who fell into Eastern fascinations, or the Christian who left behind Christianity for true Eastern wisdom – are convenient fictions for their promoters. Merton instead recognized and actuated in himself the Second Vatican Council's mandate toward what is good in all religions in the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate; Merton was the liturgical "conservative" who took a number of relics with him from Gethsemani on his "liberal" journey through Asia. He was the Christian monk and scholar of Christian spirituality first so that he could actually be equiped to be a Westerner who could enter into Asian monasticisms, and was recognized as possessing a keener kind of insight by Easterns like D.T. Suzuki or the young Dalai Lama because he came out of a fully-formed spiritual tradition rather than being one of the more dislocated Westerners more commonly exploring Eastern perspectives. He was simply who he was: gifted, extreme, wounded, given to saying over-the-top things, but leveling them out into wisdom through editing and contemplation and prayer.
Tags: asia, books, catholicism, chrysogonus waddell, monasticism, mysticism/spirituality, notre dame, second vatican council, theological notebook, thomas merton

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