Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Thomas Merton and the Ethical Edge of Comtemplation

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Thomas Merton and the Ethical Edge of Comtemplation

Article excerpt

Merton's Contemplative Turn

Crises and turning points punctuate the life story of any person. As we call our lifetime to mind we recognize no unbroken sequence of events, but rather episodes that chart our memory with the markers of "before" and "after." Not just any event that has happened to us or that we have brought about has the capacity to stand out in this way. But we know these markers intimately, for they jut out of the blur of monotonous experience to identify us in our common and precious humanity. In recollecting the turning points of a lifetime we make contact with the realities that have indelibly changed us, events that have involved us in such a way that we know we will never be quite the same again. Genuine beginnings, whether chosen or forced upon us, call for the decision to go a different way or to accept a new situation as truly our own. In these decisions our identities are forged. In them the reality of who we are becomes transparent as we narrate the story of our loss and initiation.

The autobiographer is especially sensitive to decisive points of turning. Indeed, we might understand the task of writing an autobiography as a search for precisely these turning points that culminate in their public expression. Autobiography makes the personal memory explicit and the fabric of the author's identity vulnerably visible. Thus, when under abbot's orders Thomas Merton begins to write his life story, he himself recognizes more clearly a singular mercy that had hounded him in the various restless wanderings of his past, a mercy that had "brought (him) from Prades to Bermuda to St. Antonin to Oakham to London to Cambridge to Rome to New York to Columbia to Corpus Christi to St. Bonaventure to the Cistercian Abbey of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani."1 As a mirror of himself, Merton's life story had exposed a unity in his various turning points, a unity glimpsed in the autobiographer's retrospective turn: in the many yearning hungers that had so identified his restless soul lurked the continually bidding presence of God.

This visibility of Merton's self, however, was not to remain cloistered behind Gethsemani's walls. On October 4, 1948 Harcourt, Brace published The Seven Storey Mountain which by Labor Day-to everyone's amazement-had sold nearly 300,000 copies.2 Though relatively few readers were eager to take up Merton's vocation, still in the deep consciousness of a recently war-weary public, Merton's crisis had seemingly become their own: How does one live a life of peace in a hostile world? How does one seek the deep fullness of life in a shallow society?

The Seven Storey Mountain climaxes with Merton's decision to enter Gethsemani, to live his life as a Cistercian. When on December 10, 1941 Merton passes through the abbey gate he enacts the pivotal turning point of his pilgrim's story. Around this moment all else would become "before" and "after." In considering this point, however, a caution is in order: The Seven Storey Mountain is a youthfully romantic book, full of a piety that embarrassed Merton in later years and, if read in isolation from his mature writings, distorts our understanding of his life and thought.3 Though his entering the abbey is central, his conversion, if you will, continues. In a vital sense, the entrance gives prelude to a pilgrimage that would occupy the remainder of his life.

But as preludes establish a tonality for what follows, so does this first step in monastic life set a determinative direction in Merton's spiritual odyssey.

How do we picture this twenty-six-year-old as in December darkness he stands alone and rings the bell at the abbey gate, a gate behind which would be his home for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life? A sign of our own projections, we would be tempted to think of all he is giving up and construe his act as an unfortunate repudiation of projects, causes, and potentials that we hold dear. With Pearl Harbor at only three days' remove, some might wonder if he is responsible in abandoning the world, if that, in fact, is what he is doing. …

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