Thomas Merton in the City

By Stagnaro, Angelo | National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

Thomas Merton in the City


Stagnaro, Angelo, National Catholic Reporter


If one asks the most important spiritual thinkers of past 100 years, most people, Catholic or not, will more likely say Thomas Merton.

Before he left for the wilds of Kentucky to become a Trappist monk, Merton lived and developed his faith in New York City what some might think was an unlikely place, not conducive to spirituality.

Merton was born in France to an irreligious, artistic family one might call "cultural Christians." That situation set the stage for his being set adrift morally later in life. He felt both fascinated and frightened by Catholicism. Though close to taking the plunge several times in his life, he resisted the pull to the faith. But, like Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven, God would not, could not, give up on Thomas Merton.

There are so many sites in New York associated with Merton that a mini-pilgrimage restricted to only the city can easily be created, including the Quaker Meeting House in Flushing, N.Y. (13716 Northern Blvd), where he became frustrated at forms of Christianity devoid of mysticism. When his family came to America when he was a toddler, they ultimately moved into his maternal grandparents' home in Queens at 241-16 Rush-more Avenue, Douglaston.

As a teenager, Merton returned to Europe for his studies and flirted with Catholicism, being impressed with the spirituality of Europeans, but when he returned to his home, he lost the interest in Catholicism he had developed there. Once in the United States, he halfheartedly explored the Episcopalians and Quakers but ultimately fell back to a self-obsessed secular humanism--that is, until God called him back once again.

As all believers know, God frequently draws straight using crooked lines. In January 1938, Merton graduated from Columbia University In June of the same year, he met Mahanambrata Brahmachari, a Hindu monk visiting from the University of Chicago. Merton was intrigued by the monk and was surprised when he directed Merton to explore his own Christian tradition and spiritual roots rather than learn more about Hinduism. Within months, Merton knocked on the door to Corpus Christi Rectory on 529 West 121st Street, just east of Broadway, and asked to be accepted into the Catholic church.

After his baptism, Merton moved to 35 Perry Street in Greenwich Village, where he lived a bohemian lifestyle while he studied for his doctorate in English at Columbia. When he lived in the Village, he attended Mass at nearby St. Joseph's on Waverly Place and 6th Avenue, the same church Dorothy Day attended before and after her conversion. It was while living here that Merton realized he wanted to become a priest.

Merton approached the Franciscans but once he confided in their vocation director that he had fathered a child out of wedlock, they rejected him. Heartbroken, Merton applied for a job teaching English at St. Bonaventure University; if he couldn't be a Franciscan, he could at least live among them. It was at St. Bonaventure where he decided he wanted to become a Trappist monk.

But all of these locations aside, none can so intimately be connected to Thomas Merton as the home in which he lived from the age of his early childhood, off and on into adulthood, until he left to teach English at St. Bonaventure.

It took a bit of time to find the house, as there has been confusion as to where it was exactly It's not labeled as the "Merton House" except for in the hearts of Trappists and those Christians and others who have been moved by the monk's writings.

The Merton House wasn't just a place where Merton hung his hat. It was a crucible in which his earliest emotional and spiritual development took place. He wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain:

  With a selfishness unusual even in a child, I was glad to move from
  Flushing to my grandparents' house in Douglaston. There I was allowed
  to do more or less as I pleased, there was plenty of food, and we had
  two dogs and several cars to play with, I did not miss Mother [who had
  died when he was 6] very much, and did not weep when I was not allowed
  to go and see her. … 

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