Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Vindicating Thomas Merton

The key to his thought lies in his journals

Photo-montage courtesy of http://users.belgacom.net/merton/Recently, a controversy has ensued triggered by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' (NCCB) National Adult Catechism Committe to drop the name of Thomas Merton from its list of exemplary American Catholics. As reported by fellow blogger Christopher Blosser in Against the Grain, "A little more than a year ago, Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead voice their disappointment with the inclusion of Thomas Merton in the draft of the NCCB's new National Adult Catechism in an article for Catholic World News (The New National Adult Catechism Revisited CWNews, Nov. 2003). Their article contained a blatantly slanderous and damning portrayal of Thomas Merton as an unfaithful Catholic:
. . . we now turn immediately to the very first "story" in Part 1, Chapter 1, of the draft NAC, and we find that, incredibly, the supposed "exemplary Catholic" featured in this first story is none other than that lapsed monk, Thomas Merton, a one-time professed Catholic religious, who later left his monastery, and, at the end of his life, was actually off wandering in the East, seeking the consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality. Now it is true that Thomas Merton was a gifted writer, which in part explains why he continues to have votaries today; he wrote beautiful words about the needs of the human heart in its search for truth and grace. Some of these words are quoted here, and apparently were the pretext for featuring Merton in this chapter. The chapter is actually richer than that, though, and features at the end some wonderful quotations from St. Augustine.
Monsignor Wrenn's and Mr. Whitehead's objections were strong enough to influence the Catechism Committee to drop Merton's name from its list. I find the excuses and explanations emanating from the NCCB completely unsatisfactory and condescending.

Mr. Blosser's article in Merton's defense is well done, eloquent and effective, and I will not reinvent the wheel by writing a parallel one. I'll limit myself to quoting an entry from Merton's journal dated June 26, 1965:
The Feast of the Sacred Heart was for me a day of grace and seriousness. Twenty years ago I was uncomfortable with this concept. Now I see the real meaning of it (quite apart from the externals). It is the center, the "heart" of the whole Christian mystery.

There is one thing more - I may be interested in Oriental religions, etc., but there can be no obscuring the essential difference - this personal communion with Christ at the center and heart of all reality, as a source of grace and life. "God is love" may perhaps be clarified if one says that "God is void" and if the void one finds absolute indetermination and hence absolute freedom. (With freedom, the void becomes fulness and 0 = infinity). All that is "interesting" but none of it touches on the mystery of personality in God, and His personal love for me. Again, I am void too - and I have freedom, or am a kind of freedom, meaningless unless oriented to Him.
I see nothing in Merton's subsequent writings where he recanted from this Theocentric and Christocentric perspective.

Merton was a very complex personality and in his rush to be "everything to everyone" his life often became a "sign of contradiction." But the key to his thought and inner beliefs lies in his journals. Monsignor Wrenn's and Mr. Whitehead failed to recognize this key and therefore got some very basic facts wrong. Their sloppy research resulted in the unfair demotion of Thomas Merton as an exemplary American Catholic from the new American Adult Catechism.