It was 1973 and I was a student at the Columbia School of Journalism. I had chosen to study and write about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. I had contacted longtime worker Jim Forest, who knew Dorothy and he had introduced me to Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who was committed to the Catholic Worker philosophy also. I learned that many members of what was called the Catholic left were devotees of Dorothy Day.
Father Dan, as he was called, and Jim decided to establish the Thomas Merton Life Center in donated space at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Divine at the edge of the Columbia campus. The goals of the Merton Center included making Merton’s views on social issues better known, and supporting the work of a boycott being led by the United Farm Workers Union, headed by Cesar Chavez.
The following talk about Merton, a close friend of Father Dan, was delivered as the first of a planned series of Sunday night lectures on January 28, 1973. To my knowledge, it has never before been published.
– Doug Lavine
A group of us gathered at the Trappist Monastery in 1965 for a few days’ retreat. Most of those who came have either since died or gone to prison—so I suppose the retreat could be termed in some wild way a success.
But I wanted to speak of one incident that not only says something about Merton, but sheds light on his need for us. The incident sheds some light on Philip [Berrigan] also. Merton had passed the word quietly from some remote height, probably the abbot, that the Protestants who were invited for the weekend were not to be invited to partake of the Eucharist. And Merton passed the command on. He was still semi-literate in that regard. The beauty of the scene as it developed was that Philip arrived late for the Eucharist. He came storming in after the word had gotten around. And he hadn’t heard the word. So oat the offertory he began passing the bread and inviting everybody present to pour the cup, and the thing was a fait accompli. Everybody received communion together in spite of this absurd order. And that was a moment of great truth and insight for us all.
A Mennonite theologian came up after the Eucharist and said, “If it’s that simple, sign me up.” And A. J. Muste in a rather more quiet way echoed the same sentiments. That was a beginning of sorts, because Merton was listening to something that had gotten a little bit beyond control. And that was important for him also.
I like to remember him and recommend his memory to all of us tonight by a very simple bread and butter idea. It seems to me that he was a good teacher. He was a teacher, a good one in the sense that Che Guevara and others throughout the world who have perhaps suffered more in public, have made current. You remember that he saw his role in Latin America as a teacher. And it became evident that the mythology about those guerrillas—that were storming into villages in order to kill or rape or destroy, was a fabrication of the so-called “First World.” He wrote, “we saw ourselves first of all as teachers.” This is the way I think of Merton.
And I think his teaching office continues. In a monosyllabic and very simple and direct way. He loved to translate the wisdom of a tradition to those who are all but cut off, alienated, uprooted from a tradition. And in the midst of that good teaching office, he found of course, that a great deal of cruelty and suffering was necessary to be endured. Because his understanding of a teacher’s work separates him from those alienated academics who conceive of themselves as never being up against any wall of conscience.
The fact was that, enticed as he was—enticed as we all are—by a corrupt culture that asks us to become celebrities at the expense of life and death issues, he never yielded. And this was a very simple fact for a teacher. He was to stand somewhere and never lie down until pushed down by the big paw of death. You stood somewhere if you presumed to teach. You never allowed the media to buy you. You were never part of their all but universal triumph which is to make disposable personalities out of men and women who once had been gifted with a conscience and had stood somewhere. At any point in Merton’s career, as I have often pondered, it would have been ridiculously simple for him to begin wearing a kind of sandwich board over his monk’s habit—fabricated out of his latest dustjackets—to parade about in that costume and stop there. But he went on and on and on. And incurred, as every teacher worthy of the name must, the ignominy of what he called being pushed to the edge, which he thought of simply as the common lot of thoughtful men and women today. And so his preaching office developed.
I don’t have to stress the protean character of his talent. I’m not here to either praise him or to bury him. Nobody seems able yet to compile a complete bibliography of the work he did in those 20 or 25 years of his most creative and mature life. It seems to be true that there was almost as much unpublished material as there was published. So that we can continue to hear his great voice from the other bank of the Styx.
Dorothy Day hit his talent squarely on the head in the Catholic Worker when she wrote something like this: “We do not expect from Thomas Merton the profound research of a scholar. We expect from him the devotion to the truth, of a teacher.” The French have a word for it; they call it something like haute vulgarization, which I would translate simply: he got the word around.
We could spend many hours rather than one clumsy evening trying to understand that combination of circumstance. Of strength and weakness, of talents and of lacks, of devotion to life and of indifference toward physical death, of a kind of Picasso face and mind, of innovation and tradition, and a kind of spiritual finesse and edge which would never be dulled in this world. A combination of all these things produced what brings us here tonight. A very mysterious chemical and physical combination. Exposure to the world, return to the world. He got the word around.
Some of you may also know, though it is not spoken of currently in his books, that in the process of getting the word around he suffered a great deal in his own community. It is a mark of his spiritual greatness that he was unwilling to vulgarize that suffering. But he spoke of it from time to time, always with a fine edge of absurdity which I think he learned mainly from Camus. He wrote oof it in a letter toward the last year of his life: “If I had to do it all over again I would never become a monk, but now that I’m here they’ll never throw me out.” It was exactly that high-wire act, that delicate balance between the obsessive call of the culture and malice and pusillanimity of churchmen that enabled him to continue walking, continue speaking, continue balancing all kinds of good things—and keep moving.
Sense of the Absurd
I would like to recall a few of his special attributes. It seems to me (I’ve already spoken of this) his mind was marked by a profound sense of the absurd. I leave it to the Frenchmen present to help analyze this. Certainly there was a saving sense of humor which allowed him to limit the claim of the sacred as well as the secular—and to claim his own freedom in the middle. He used to say that he thought 90 percent of the things he was required to do all day long were absurd. And because they were absurd, he did them; that’s a quote.
Along with his sense of the absurd one must also mention a profound sense of the tragic. He knew death up close. There are certain sections of his autobiography that are still unknown, but it is quite certain that he knew both love and death, very closely. HE knew death by war, and smelled its stench on the prevailing winds before any of us had quite recovered from the American Dream in the Sixties. His sense of the tragic allowed him to see what was shortly to come down. And that was a service of inestimable worth. It meant that a lot of us must leap quickly over wide chasms in order to come on the truth that the dreams very nearly exploded, and the filthy dawn was at hand.
I can still recall with a sense both of gratitude and horror an article of Merton’s in the Catholic Worker—I think it was in ’60—in which he said unmentionable things about nuclear stockpiling and international violence and the conscience of believers. It was at that point on a Saturday afternoon in the upstate town of Syracuse that I resumed a correspondence with him that had lapsed since ’48 or ’47. I wrote him that I found it impossible to live alone with what he was saying. And within a week there was a letter back: “Come on down and we’ll talk about it.” And we started over. And when it ends nobody knows.
He was a scandal in his own community. I say this not by way of putting down his community or himself, but simply as a way of trying to get at the truth of things. The fact is that he was an inspired bum. And that he never lost the bummish ways of Columbia and the upper West side of Manhattan. After his death, after Catonsville, while we were out on appeal, I remember wandering in the bitter January nights on the West Side, not conscious that he had been there—only knowing that it was my own scene, trying to recover a sense of that life which he had begun there. Merton’s life in the filth, in the human mix, in the hope, in the bad weather, in the student scene, in that tremendous unassimilable crowd scene. I came to realize later that his own life had begun here, and that it was very fitting to mourn, and to recover from his death, in the very same streets. Especially since something rather interesting lay ahead for myself and my friends.
I want to mention as another ingredient of his soul, that he insisted in an utterly insane time upon something very simple. Everyone who wanted to wear a skin in the world as he repeated in season and out, had better also grow and nurture an inside. And this was something almost unheard of, something scandalous in the Sixties. It was of course chic to have an outside, a tough hide to face pigs and violence and a rhetoric which destroyed it as it moved. But it was utterly unheard of that anyone who was “with anything” would talk about something so absurd as meditation. He did. And after so much has collapsed and faded, so many movements have proven disposable, childish, subject to illusion and violence—after all this, his voice is getting heard—all over again.
It was quite simple, finally. He wanted to be a monk with every fibre of his soul, and he wanted to be a public person with every fibre of his soul. So he did something very direct. He worked at both a public and an inner life. He died vindicating both. He lived for the sake of both. And so he remains a scandal, a puzzle, a turn around, a no no, a hope for so many of us.
Again, he used to say, “a monk was someone who was capable of living at the edge.” He wasn’t allowed to do this geographically until very shortly before his death when he became a gyrovague himself. But his early Columbia bummishness, which he never quite graduated out of, helped him understand that a monk had better keep moving. He had tried for years to get in motion, geographically, physically, as his head and heart were always in motion. His early dream was to establish, together with one or two other non-professionals in the monastery, some sort of experimental ashram in Latin America. And he chose, strangely enough, a shrink and a musician as his companions. Or they chose him—it never became clear. But in any case there were three who petitioned to go from Gethsemane to one of the favellas, one of the slum areas, of a big Latin American city and start over. It was never granted and so he gave up on it. It was part of the absurdity, part of his deepest suffering, that the great Hegira was not to be—at least not in the form he had so longed to see.
But the fact is that he stayed planted where he was for some 30 years until about two months before his death. And when he started to move he shortly died of it. So perhaps we should be glad that he didn’t start to move earlier.
But I would like to demythologize my friend, as an act of love. I wouldn’t want his statue hoisted in the manner of the opening of the film La Dolce Vita—across New York by helicopter—to be deposited in the façade of St. John the Divine (Cathedral). I think if he is going to be a helpful presence among us, it is going to be because he is no bigger than life. Because I think he realized vividly, imaginatively, in the crude manner of a creator, that there is nothing bigger than life. ♦