I have been thinking and talking a lot about Merton. He seems always to
be present during these late stages of our existences. Why do we think
of him so much? In Rice's case, it comes in part from his faith (he has
always been a confirmed though individualized Catholic), and his faltering
health (Parkinson's disease is rapidly gaining ground on him). In addition,
his eyesight, never good, is failing. These
things haunt and harass him and make him look for support, from Merton.
In my case, it is probably the absence of faith; I need him to replace
something I lost many years ago.
But in both cases, the basic reason comes from a desire to set the record
straight about our friend, and drinking companion, from college days at
Columbia: Thomas Merton, monk and mystic, the author of "New Seeds of
Contemplation," "My Argument with the Gestapo," "The Wisdom of the Desert,"
"The Seven Storey Mountain," and other books widely read around the world;
writing mentor, fellow hitch-hiker, poet, artist, peace advocate and universal
good guy. We looked up to him; he was our sophisticated and culture-wise
Merton we knew, who is still in the lives of both of us, was a different
man, and monk, from the saintly person of pre-fabricated purity that has
become his image these days. He was a real person, not a saint; he was
a mystic searching for God, but a God that crossed the boundaries of all
religions; his was not a purely Christian soul. He developed closer spiritual
ties than Church authorities will ever admit to the Eastern religions,
Hinduism as well as Buddhism. In fact just before his appalling accidental
death in December 1968, he was saying openly that Christianity could be
greatly improved by a strong dose of Buddhism and Hinduism into its faith.
These are things the record needs.
us Merton was one of the seminal figures of our time. He was deeply curious
about all religions, all areas of thought and philosophy. Rice says: "The
Church has not done right by him. In fact, the Church has wronged him,
and continues to wrong him, by glossing over, by evading the universality
of his thought. The Church wants to obscure his basic human nature, his
reaching out to other people in a desire to create a common bond, not
necessarily based on religion."
I think there are two Churches," Rice says, "one run by the Vatican and
the other by Merton. The one run by the Vatican is exclusionary and cold
and based on dogma. The one run by Merton reaches out to the whole world
and is based on faith."
and I were 18, Merton was 21 when we first met at Columbia. I don't know
how, or why, it started, but we always called each other by our surnames;
the practice was extended to the entire group involved with the magazine
"Jester". I arrived at the college in 1936, from Atlanta; Rice, from Brooklyn.
Merton had transferred from Cambridge University in England, from which
he was being expelled for lack of work. He had fathered an illegitimate
child, a little girl (who later was killed, I'm told, during the German
air raids on London), and because of the scandal his British guardian
advised him with hardened logic to go to America. I have always thought
of him as a deliberate exile. He couldn't have loved the studied insouciance,
the class arrogance and snobbishness, the fashionable idleness of the
pre-war ruling class in England. Pamela, my wife, after her younger years
in Newcastle, York and Leamington Spa in a comfortable lower middle class
family, still steams when she thinks, mostly inadvertently, and sometimes
quite abruptly, of class distinction in England. Merton must have loathed
people like the complete elitist, Clive Bell, and he couldn't have liked
Vanessa Stephen very much either, nor people like Ronald Firbank, Wyndham
Lewis and the empty-headed Duke of Windsor, to say nothing of his bride.
He was divided within himself about having fled to America, a country
whose culture he quietly said he secretly despised, while at the same
time loving it and needing it.
terms of sophistication, he was miles ahead of most of us. He dazzled
the country boy from the South, as well as the starry-eyed kid from Brooklyn.
He did all the things we thought about but didn't do -- at least, not
yet. He drank a lot, partied, chased (and caught) women. He impressed
the hell out of both of us by saying he had learned Hungarian in bed.
Beyond these classical youthful, gallant boasts, he was also a very serious
man. Looking back, it seems to me he was always right from the very start
on the big issues of yesterday (most of which remain the big issues of
today) -- on racism in America, on social justice, war and peace, the
trials of democracy that require us to work hard at it or lose it; the
bomb; fairness; the value of the arts and the meaning of his own life
and the lives of his fellow human beings, all of them.
of that ever changed in the Merton who went off and closed the monastery
walls around him at Gethsemani in Kentucky. He never lost interest in
the important issues, and never stopped speaking out, often against the
wishes of his superiors. He endured a continuing struggle with censorship
within the Catholic Church, and particularly from within the Trappist
Order. Whenever he lost a censorship struggle with the Trappists, he turned
to a kind of underground press, centered on Rice's magazine "Jubilee,"
and published articles that were often much more courageous and on-target
than the run-of-the-mill political commentary of the times.
owe Merton introductions into my own cultural life of James Joyce, Graham
Greene (he gave me "Brighton Rock" right after it came out in 1938, when
I was 20), and Evelyn Waugh (Tom and he carried on an extraordinary correspondence
for many years); Picasso, Georges Braque, Matisse, and, in the music world,
Mozart. He influenced me so totally that I wrote a mocking parody for
"Jester" of my absolutely favorite writer, my fellow Southerner, Thomas
Wolfe, whom I adored, and imitated -- at the age of eighteen, and maybe
three or four years more. Tom did not share my affection for Wolfe; even
today I feel a quiet surge of embarrassment for having found it necessary
to poke fun at my favorite author in order to please the new people in
my life. (One close friend of those days, who is still a close friend
now, made fun of me: "You're on the periphery of a coterie.") Merton also,
without any great resistance from me, guided me to Mark Van Doren's class
on Shakespeare; the experience is at the top of the list of the many wonderful
things I got from Columbia as an undergraduate in the late 30s; with Mark
Van Doren around to set the casual, human, contemporary tone flowing from
Shakespeare, the reaction to the poet is voluntary and full. (With all
that, I still could never get accustomed to the fact that student Merton
and Professor Van Doren constantly referred to each other as "Tom" and
also led me to jazz, away from Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller,
to Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Billie Holiday, the
Mound City Blue Blowers, the Austin High School Gang, Peewee Russell,
Eddie Condon; he was a jazz lover all his life, and looked for live jazz
wherever he could find it, in his travels as a monk, for medical or other
reasons, to Louisville or New York.
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