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April 2019 Issue [Reviews]

Shallow Calls to Shallow

On Thomas Merton, fifty years after his death

Discussed in this essay:

On Thomas Merton, by Mary Gordon. Shambhala. 160 pages. $22.95.

The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s account of his conversion to Catholicism in 1938 and his subsequent entry into a Trappist monastery in Kentucky called Gethsemani, sold six hundred thousand copies when it was first published, in 1948, prompted a surprising number of men to become (or want to become) Trappist monks, and has since been translated into over twenty languages. The novelist Mary Gordon, in her new study of Merton, suggests it was not a book but a phenomenon. It may have been a phenomenon, but it was not atypical. It was in fact one of many signs of a feverish religiosity following World War II—a time of religious conversions, bulging seminaries, national revivals, and interfaith goodwill increasing among what Will Herberg called “the three great faiths” in his book Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955).

Photograph from Father Louie: Photographs of Thomas Merton, by Ralph Eugene Meatyard © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts

Photograph from Father Louie: Photographs of Thomas Merton, by Ralph Eugene Meatyard © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts

Polls in 1947 indicated that the most-respected leaders in America were ministers, priests, and rabbis. In 1954, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956 “In God We Trust” became the national motto. Billy Graham became “pastor to the presidents,” and Monsignor Fulton Sheen became a television star. Religious conversions—whether to Protestantism (channeled by Graham) or to Catholicism (channeled by Sheen)—were everywhere. Even Dwight Eisenhower heard the call and was baptized by a Presbyterian minister in 1953, his first year as president. That same year, the Presidential Prayer Breakfast (later the National Prayer Breakfast) was instituted. Around this time, the term Judeo-Christian became a common description of America’s traditions.

In this period of heated piety, Catholics seemed the most successfully devout. Norman Podhoretz, with his interest in who was “making it,” said that Catholics were having their moment, and Lenny Bruce called Catholicism “the only the church.” In what was called “the Catholic Renaissance,” many Catholic intellectuals turned from modern commercialism toward eternity, or to the thirteenth century as a plausible substitute for eternity. They took up Gregorian chant, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the work of French Catholic literary stars—Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, Pierre Teilhard du Chardin, Henri de Lubac, Georges Bernanos, Henri Ghéon, Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, Simone Weil. Many of these authors were translated into En­glish for the publishing house of the Catholic Renaissance, Sheed and Ward.

Merton made Gethsemani a famous monastery by joining it, but another abbey, St. John’s in Minnesota, was even more influential and had an earlier influx of vocations. In 1943, five years before The Seven Storey Mountain was published, Eugene ­McCarthy, the later senator and presidential candidate, entered St. John’s Abbey to become a monk. To do this, he broke off his courting of the equally pious Abigail Quigly, who prayed that he would leave the abbey and come back to her. When he did, they married and set up a farm as a kind of lay monastery of their own, called St. Anne’s Farm (after the Virgin’s mother). The novelist J. F. Powers was part of the St. John’s Abbey orbit and a close friend of the ­McCarthys. They called themselves Detachers, for their detachment from the world.

St. John’s Abbey, under the famous liturgical reformer Dom Virgil Michel, was in close communication with Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker community as well as Friendship House, an interracial apostolate in Toronto founded by the White Russian turned mendicant, Baroness de Hueck. The poet Robert Lowell and his wife Jean Stafford were followers of both women, and worked for Sheed and Ward. Lowell and J. F. Powers, inspired by Dorothy Day’s pacifism, went to prison as conscientious objectors during World War II (they would later trade prison memories when they met at Yaddo). Day and de Hueck were inspirations, also, for Merton on his way to Gethsemani.

Mary Gordon says that she was too young to be impressed by The Seven Storey Mountain when it came out; but her father, she would find out later, was part of the Catholic Renaissance. It was because of him that she looked back and studied the period, and his influence can be felt not just in this book, but in much of her work. The child of an Irish-Catholic mother and a father who had converted to an ardent conservative Catholicism, Gordon was raised in a household as much caught up in that high tide of religiosity as Merton was when he wrote The Seven Storey Mountain. Gordon, the author of more than a dozen novels, short-story collections, volumes of essays, and memoirs, has since written about the church—­especially in early works, such as the novel Final Payments (1978)—often struggling to reconcile feminist beliefs with the persistent longing for those early days of orthodoxy. In her novels, Wilfrid Sheed wrote, “the Church is seen not as a good place or a bad place . . . but as a multilayered poem or vision which dominates your life equally whether you believe it or not.”

Mary Gordon’s father, David, converted to Catholicism in 1937, the year before Merton. He loved the Latin Mass (he had her memorize all of it before she was seven), revered St. Thomas More (patron of Catholic Renaissance laymen such as Mario Cuomo), admired Gregorian chant, and planned to publish a book on the right-wing Catholic poet Paul Claudel. After her father’s death, Gordon found his copy of Merton’s poems with a translation from the French stapled to the back cover. She took this to be her father’s own translation.

Her father seemed to resemble Merton in many ways—both were adult converts to Catholicism, both graduated from an Ivy League school (Harvard for Gordon, Columbia for Merton), both remembered time in En­gland and France. Both were writers—­David published articles in Catholic magazines and took money from his wife to launch a Catholic journal. This link through her father gives Gordon “the eerie feeling of connectedness between my life and Merton’s.” She continued to feel that way even though the link frayed a little more each time she looked at it. To write The Shadow Man (1997), her still-adoring book about her father, who died in 1952 when she was only seven years old, she discovered that he had encased her childhood in a lovingly intricate shell of lies.

He told her that he was an only child, like her (he had a sister). She thought her mother was his only wife (he had an earlier one). He said he went to Europe, though he never had a passport (he was born in Europe, though, as a Jewish child from Lithuania named Israel). He claimed he attended Harvard (he never graduated from high school). He suggested he wrote high literary criticism (he ran a porn magazine called Hot Dog).

He was indeed part of the Catholic Renaissance, but part of its dark side. He was a church triumphalist who thought, with Father Leonard Feeney, that all non-Catholics go to hell. He admired Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, and Joe ­McCarthy. It might have softened his daughter’s pain on confronting these discoveries if she had noted that many other Catholics shared one or more of these failings in the 1940s and 1950s. It was not all just Gregorian chant and Thomas Aquinas in the church of Pius XII that David Gordon and Thomas Merton joined.

Her devotion to him, nevertheless, remained unshaken. In fact, she was made acutely uncomfortable that he was not buried in congenial company, but with people who had not appreciated him. So she went through the complicated process of exhuming his body and having it reburied in consecrated Catholic ground, with a ceremony in proper ecclesiastical Latin. More to the point, she continued to see a link between her father and Merton. Only this can explain the unusual shape of her new book, which examines Merton’s seemingly contradictory identities as a writer and a monk through four chapters.

The nature of Gordon’s affection for Merton is common among his devotees, who see something sympathetic in his struggle to find God, and admire the way he went on to combine the spiritual asceticism of monastic life with a more temporal, progressive concern for the moral dilemmas of the world. Gordon is deeply invested in her imagined tie to Merton, living with him so intently that she says when she saw, getting out of the bathtub, a picture of him on one of his books, she “quickly covered [herself] with a towel.” And when she reads a late passage in the journals, she bursts out, “ ‘Oh, Tom, don’t you know you have only days to live?’ I want to reach into the pages and pull him back into life.”

In her book, she leaves aside Merton’s poems (not very good, she thinks) and his study of Eastern religions, which broke him out of the triumphal church of The Seven Storey Mountain. She concentrates instead on what she considers Merton’s three most important writings—the pivotal Seven Storey Mountain, of course (despite its triumphalism), the seven volumes of his journals, and his posthumously published novel My Argument with the Gestapo, one of five he had written before becoming a monk, and the only one he did not destroy. He preserved it, and was preparing it for publication when he died.

Though this early autobiographical novel is not much more than third-rate Joyce, fourth-rate Eliot, and some out-of-date Surrealism, Gordon is drawn to the way in which the thinly disguised Merton as protagonist lived the very things David Gordon claimed to have lived—college, En­gland, France. The same sequence is repeated by Merton in The Seven Storey Mountain without the disguise of fiction. But that tale of a worldly young Merton finding God mutes a key event, the reason for his departure from Cambridge University before he finished his course of studies. Merton’s father died just before Merton entered Cambridge, and the guardian who supplied his funds yanked him home when it became known that he had impregnated a local Cambridge girl. Gordon regrets that Merton showed no later interest in the girl and his baby (though the reason for that may lie in his novel’s possible slight reference to the event, of which Gordon does not take note: “I several times went out with a girl who was known all over Cambridge as the ‘Freshman’s delight’ ”).

An early fan and promoter of The Seven Storey Mountain was Evelyn Waugh. Waugh’s favor made his British publisher ask Waugh to be an additional cutter and corrector of the book (Robert Giroux had edited the American edition thoroughly), which Waugh retitled Elected Silence for the En­glish market. The best-known aspect of Gethsemani was the fact that Cistercians of the Strict Observance (as the Trappists are formally named) maintain a prayerful silence with one another. Waugh, who admired this dedication to silence, was critical later on when he saw how publicly voluble Merton became with his flood of books. In his twenty-seven years at Gethsemani, he often published two or three books a year, while also writing articles, public statements, an expansive journal, ancillary diaries, and fifteen thousand letters (many to celebrities). In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton said that his writing was just doing the Lord’s work, like that of his brother monks milking cows or making cheese. When Waugh said that contemplative orders should stick to making cheese and liqueurs, Merton responded by telling Waugh to say the rosary every day (especially if he did not like doing it). Their warm mutual admiration coolly evanesced.

Photograph by Thomas Merton. Courtesy Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, Louisville, Kentucky

Photograph by Thomas Merton. Courtesy Merton Legacy Trust and the
Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, Louisville, Kentucky

After Merton published The Seven Storey Mountain, and people started showing up at his abbey as postulants to become monks or as “seculars” making weekend retreats, Merton’s books began to earn real money for Gethsemani, funds needed to handle the flood of applicants and visitors he had inspired. His output now had to match this influx. His otherworldly superiors, meanwhile, suddenly had a crass stake in his popularity—it brought the abbey fame, recruits, and money. In time he would begin to resent this, saying the publicity made him feel “cheap”: “I am sickened . . . by being treated as an article for sale, as a commodity.”

He became depressed and sour about what was happening to the abbey. It was staging itself, in a kind of “liturgical vaudeville,” which heightened the flow of people he was bringing in—“all those guys, some solid, mostly half-wits I think, who are nevertheless good, well-meaning people and honest in their way, and many of whom are here on account of me.”

The abbey tried to make Merton more than an ornament of its establishment, giving him responsible roles such as the novice master. But he preferred to devote himself to his writing, and he let his fellow monks know in an open letter that he would not serve as the abbot, should that office come open, not wanting to spend the rest of his life “arguing about trifles with 125 confused and anxiety-ridden monks.” The brothers could not publicly express discontent with that insult. He was their source of the world’s respect.

As he distanced himself from the monks, he was amassing an adoring fan club, corresponding feverishly with peace and civil-rights activists who looked to him for moral confirmation of their cause. Other notables in the Catholic Renaissance were bouncing back from the Middle Ages, giving up detachment for engagement, moving from Pius XII to John ­XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Eugene and Abigail McCarthy left St. Anne’s Farm and opposed the Vietnam War. Robert Lowell gave up work for Sheed and Ward and would in time organize resistance to Lyndon Johnson. Jerry Brown left the seminary and became the governor of California, carrying his Teilhard with him. But these relicts of the Catholic Renaissance liked the fact that Merton was famously still detached, still in a silent monastery; it gave his rush of new writings about civil rights and peace a moral heft they needed.

Merton wanted to be with these former Catholic Renaissance figures—­but he was wedged too far back in the monastic Middle Ages to slip out easily. Rather than leaving the holy for the profane, he would try to blend the two. He found ways to get out of the abbey for conferences, health treatments, meetings with editors and agents. His ecstatic reaction in 1964 at returning to New York, whose tawdry allure was scorned in The Seven Storey Mountain, was that of a man drearily imprisoned and desperate to be free.

Merton’s superiors tried to restrain him, mainly by censoring his writings. This reached a crisis in 1962, although Gordon does not explore this. From Rome, the abbot general of the Cistercian order, Dom Gabriel Sortais, ordered Merton to stop writing about the nuclear threat. Merton wrote to his circle of outside admirers that Cistercians thought his position “a hateful distraction, withdrawing one’s mind from Baby Jesus in the Crib. Strange to say, no one seems concerned at the fact that the crib is directly under the bomb.” He had access to mimeograph machines, so he circulated his own version of samizdat, smuggled past monastic guards, supplying his allies with new arguments they could quote among themselves or in their own writing.

Despite opposition from a hostile abbot, Merton was surprisingly successful at getting the visitors and books and music he wanted to keep him up with “the movement.” He was reading James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Eldridge Cleaver, and Malcolm X, and listening to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Joan Baez. He worked through two contacts to get a visit from Baez, and they commiserated with Dylan in a stressful time for the singer.

He was able to get such special treatment simply because he threatened to leave the Cistercians for a more contemplative life in stricter monasteries. In 1965, to keep him on the vast grounds of the abbey, the abbot approved a state of virtual secession within the monastery. Merton could live in his own hermitage, distant from the main house, where he asked that other monks not visit him. He said that he wanted more solitude, but he told the truth in his journal, that he wanted “all the liberty and leeway I have in the hermitage.” It gave admiring outsiders easier access to him and let him slip off the grounds to make unmonitored phone calls to them. Gregory Zilboorg, the first psychoanalyst who treated him, said, “You want a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying hermit.”

One year into life at his own hermitage, he found the place useful in an unanticipated way. In 1966, he had back surgery in a Louisville hospital, where he fell in love with a young student nurse. Though many people think he referred to her only as “M,” to protect her privacy, he wrote of her in his journal as Margie. (It was the editor of the relevant journal volume who first used “M.”) Merton had been visiting another psychiatrist, James Wygal, for his depression. The doctor, though he did not approve of the tryst, lent them (not for the last time) his office for their meeting. Later Merton wrote: “I keep remembering her body, her nakedness, the day at Wygal’s, and it haunts me.” In his poems to her, he would write of their “worshiping hands” and how “I cling to the round hull / Of your hips.” She was twenty-five; he was fifty-one.

He used trips to the airport for meeting literary friends as excuses for seeing her. She also met him in a woods by the abbey, bringing a picnic basket and a bottle of sauterne, where, he wrote, “[we] drank our wine and read poems and talked of ourselves and mostly made love and love and love.” When an overheard phone call to her was reported to his abbot, that official tried to break off the affair. Though the abbot did not want to lose Merton from Gethsemani, keeping him there while the affair continued would risk a scandal. Merton thought Abbot James Fox was inhuman and “jealous of me.” He was ordered by the abbot to make a complete break. The abbot asked for Margie’s name, to write her himself, explaining why there would be no more phone calls, but Merton refused.

When Baez and the peace activist Ira Sandperl visited Merton’s hermitage, and heard how he missed Margie, who had gone back to her home in Cincinnati after finishing her training in the Louisville hospital,

Joan was ready to drive ninety miles an hour through the rain to Cincinnati so I could see M when she got off at the hospital (11:30 pm). So went to Bardstown and called M. But then they could not get their reservations changed to a convenient time. Just as well I did not go!

Other monks sensed that something was wrong with Merton, but he dismissed them as “Boy Scouts.” When, in the fifth month of the affair, Abbot Fox realized that Merton was not keeping his verbal promises, Merton offered him a written pledge to observe solitude for the rest of his life. Merton was surprisingly jaunty about this in his journal:

Dom James signed it with me, content that he now had me in the bank as an asset that would not go out and lose itself in some crap game of love (is he sure—? The awful crap game of love!).

But as soon as he took a trip to the University of Louisville library, he found a phone booth from which to call Margie, and wrote her a poem about the call.

He justified breaking his pledge out of concern for her, suggesting that a complete end to their relationship “would be very bad for her.” But ultimately what he cared most about was the audience he had created for his spiritual leadership:

There are too many people in the world who rely on the fact that I am serious about deepening an inner dimension of experience that they desire and that is closed to them. And it is not closed to me. This is a gift that has been given me not for myself but for everyone, even including Margie. I cannot let it be squandered and dissipated foolishly. It would be criminal to do so. In the end I would ruin her along with myself.

Mary Gordon does not seem to feel the essential smugness of this pose. Merton’s commitment to Margie had always been hedged about with his prestige as a monk. “I don’t really want married life anyway; I want the life I have vowed.” Gordon is right to treat the six-month obsession with “M” as trivial in itself. This was never Shakespeare’s “marriage of true minds,” as exemplified by Abelard and Héloïse. Here deep did not call to deep, but shallow to shallow.

Yet the web of lies that Gordon stipulates for Merton in love is not confined to that episode. It is at one with a pattern built into his “apostolate” as the with-it monk. He pretended to love the monastic community he thought full of “half-wits,” whom he wanted nothing more to do with, as part of the quest for a “greater solitude” he used to increase his audience of fans and the famous. He wanted the best of both worlds, as a holy preacher and a covert sinner.

 is a professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University. His most recent book is What the Qur’an Meant.

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