Last week I had the pleasure and opportunity to take a week’s cruise through the western Caribbean. When anyone asked me, I said I was taking time to visit churches, which was true. I had the chance to visit places of worship in Cozumel, Mexico, and Falmouth, Jamaica. There was no church on the privately-owned island in the Bahamas where we picnicked; and my experience of Grand Cayman was limited to the bus tour, though we did stop for refreshments in the village of Hell. Jamaica is predominantly Anglican, or at least the largest and oldest church in Falmouth is Anglican, appropriate in that Jamaica is a commonwealth of Great Britain. There is some humor in that the Catholic Church down the road was built in the shape of a biretta, the old-style hat worn by priests in my youth. This in-your-face architecture can be seen in the parish’s website. Given that walking tours of Falmouth are provided by the country’s park police, I would venture a guess that all the churches there suffer from under-utilization.
We generally do our shore trips in the mornings, and then enjoy the afternoons on ship reading on the balcony or at several comfortable reading sites spread throughout the vessel. Our home ship was Celebrity’s “Silhouette.” We had crossed the Mediterranean and the Atlantic in this same boat in 2013, and it is like home to us. My favorite getaway on the ship is the Hideaway, a little reading/coffee nook on the seventh deck with funky furniture like upholstered eggs that you crawl into. Thanks to the miracle of back-lit IPads, it is easy to lose several hours in a good book with all the solitude of a monastery.
I don’t post on the Café during cruises, partly because I don’t have my resource library close at hand, and partly because, as a rule, we don’t purchase a wireless package, which can be pricey on cruise ships. Plus, the Weebly blog platform works much more effectively from a PC than an IPad. So, without posting duties and cut off from the world, I had an opportunity to engage in considerable reading. I did bring some books for future courses I am teaching, but my primary read for the trip was The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends (Kindle-1989) by Thomas Merton.
Thomas Merton has played a significant role in my life, dating back to my years as a graduate seminary student when I submitted his name as an author for my final oral examinations in moral/spiritual theology. Merton, the Trappist monk and probably America’s best known spiritual writer of the twentieth century, had tragically died of electrocution just a few years before, and the first spate of biographies, reprints, and impressions were flooding the market in the early 1970’s. I can’t say that in my 20’s I was immersed in a life of meditation, but I was deeply impressed and intrigued by anyone who could enter the austerity of a monastery, as were millions of readers who bought his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, in 1949 and ever after. (SSM is a Kindle best seller in 2017!) One of my earliest impressions of him was his opposition to the Viet Nam War from behind the cloister walls, a point that one of my examiners found offensive. I learned then that Merton was and remains a highly controversial figure.
[Talking about cruising and ships passing in the night: Merton and I applied for the very same province of the Franciscan Order, he in 1940 and I in 1962. The province rejected Merton and accepted me. In football, that is known as a bad draft.]
The book at hand, The Road to Joy, is a selection of his letters to friends. There are a number of such volumes of his letters to particular populations. (In 2002 I reviewed his volume of correspondence to writers.) His letters to friends, the second released by his foundation, is a delight, and quite honestly provides a moving insight into the complexities of a man who strove for holiness but never forgot he was an SOB, either.
Before going further, it might be useful to suggest a Merton biography or two if you are unfamiliar with the man. My personal favorite is Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (1984), the first critical biography and probably the first to have access to at least some of the monk’s private journals and letters. I take note of another biography, Living Wisdom: The Life of Thomas Merton by Jim Forest (1991, 2008), that I have ordered to read on Prime this week. The journals/diary—seven volumes—and the published letters in many volumes today—were released gradually over many years as they involved identified living persons, sometimes in unflattering or compromised ways.
In reading on the ship, I was amazed again at the wide range of friends Merton cultivated over his lifetime of 53 years. In the early years of his correspondence—he entered Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky in 1941—his letters were limited to longtime friends he had known at Columbia University, St. Bonaventure University, and in his years living in New York City. With the publication of SSM in 1948 and a growing international reputation, Merton developed new friends who encountered him as a monk, a priest, and a man in pursuit of deeper communion with God. The irony is that when Merton entered the Order in 1941, he was fully prepared to sacrifice any thoughts of a writing career. However, early in his monastic life his superiors encouraged him to take up spiritual writing, and eventually approved the idea of a spiritual autobiography. All the same, Merton was restricted by monastic rules: his letters were censored and limited in number, and he virtually never had visitors until very late in his life. Nor was he permitted to travel outside the monastery until the last few years of his life.
For all of this, the output of books and letters is startling in number and quality. All of the reputable biographers agree that Merton remained faithful to the monastic schedule of public and personal prayer. He understood that to teach (young novice monks), write publicly, and counsel would be fraudulent without a personal communion with God. What makes his letters compelling is his realization that he was something of a paradox: a man living the life of a professed recluse while very much in the public eye. I got the sense that Merton knew himself very well and understood the rewards of fame.
The very first section of letters are those to Merton’s earlier professor of English at Columbia University, the noted American Poet Mark Van Doren. The 1939 letters are playful, but in 1940 Merton writes about “leaving the world” and then his disappointment at being rejected by the friars. He submits a copy of a proposed novel for his mentor’s review and wryly discusses his draft physical. The post-graduate Merton was teaching at St. Bonaventure University in 1941 but he writes “there is still this very big open question about what I am to do.” On December 13 Merton writes a hasty note to Van Doren making a gift of his manuscripts should any prove profitable (some poems were published) as he is entering Gethsemane in Kentucky, his monastic home for the rest of his life.
His next letter to Van Doren does not appear until April, 1942, where Merton bubbles with enthusiasm over his new life and lays out its theological meaning in ways that remind us that there is nothing quite like the zeal of a convert [although he does ask if any of his writings were selling.] In May 1943, he tells his old friend he is getting the itch to write again, and by 1945 his letters to Van Doren speak of his poetry being reviewed by his order’s censors prior to submitting for publication. The letters between the two men decrease over the next decade as Merton’s success as a writer increased his correspondence accordingly.
But on April 9, 1957, Merton writes “I had another occasion to think of you, when news of Charlie’s exploits on TV filtered through.” “Charlie” is Mark’s son, then the reigning champion of television’s “21” game show. However, a public investigation revealed that Charlie had been fed the questions in advance, a scandal powerfully portrayed in Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show, in which actor Paul Scofield plays the role of the tortured father Mark. There is no further mention of this in letters, but the editors insert a note after the April 9 correspondence reporting that Mark and his wife came to Gethsemane to see Merton later that year.
Toward the end of Merton’s life, the mail he received at the monastery was too much to answer, but apparently, every letter was screened by Merton or a fellow monk for correspondence that demanded attention. On January 9, 1967, he received a letter from a tormented homosexual trying to live faithfully in the Church. After initial words of encouragement, Merton wrote: “Homosexuality is not a more “unforgiveable” sin than any other, and the rules are the same. You do the best you can, you honestly try to fight it, be sorry, try to avoid occasions, all the usual things. You may not always succeed but in this as anything else God sees your good will and takes it into account. Trust his mercy and keep trying. And have recourse to all the spiritual aids available.” (Loc 7490)
Merton received countless letters from children and minors asking his help with their reports and term papers. Generally, he sent them a booklet provided to visitors to the monastery, but he developed several pen-pal relationships with young people who kept him abreast of 1960’s rock music, sending him albums and tapes. He became a fan of Bob Dylan’s poetry. He explained to a young girl that he was moving from the monastery to a small hermitage to live a hermit’s existence, but he quickly added that his life as a hermit was not the same as “Herman and his Hermits.”
This past Wednesday I completed teaching a course on adult spirituality for a Catholic school faculty, and I spoke at some length about Merton. Fresh from my sea time with an old friend, I talked about the importance of “getting to know” a saint or a spiritual person as a critical step in developing an adult life of prayer. Merton will never be canonized because his paper trail is too detailed—his struggles between religious idealism and an intellectual’s cynicism/pride is all there to see, and he is no plaster saint. And yet, it is the struggle that has inspired me and apparently many others, that even burdened with our unique shades of original sin the forgiveness of God and the grace to aspire to holiness through daily prayer are always with us, to be rediscovered in times of sin, sickness, crisis and loss. Or vacations. I’m glad I found my friend again in the Hideaway on Deck 7.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything