The Thomas Merton We Knew

Part 5

Rice says: "There were many things in Merton's beliefs, and in his past life, that the Cistercian Order did not want revealed or discussed. I have been told that about one third of "The Seven Storey Mountain" was deleted, and is kept somewhere -- in the archives of the monastery, or in a university library. Maybe one day it will all be made public. I'm sure it would make interesting reading."
Censorship harassed Merton throughout most of his life as a writer-monk. This became particularly true in the late 50s and early 60s, when he became a dedicated peace activist and turned much of his creative attention to what was happening out there in the world.
      Rice says: "I didn't see him from the time he went into the monastery in December 1941, until l949, after publication of "The Seven Storey Mountain". I went down there with our friends, Freedgood, Lax, and Dan Walsh, and Merton's publisher, James Laughlin, of New Directions. We met him at his Ordination ceremony, and afterwards spent two days with him. It was a great pleasure to see him, and at the same time a curious experience. Suddenly, this old drinking companion of mine back in college, this wild man I once had known, was Father Thomas Merton; well, actually, Father Louis, which was the name he took as a monk. It was a hard thing to cope with, you don't know what to say, you don't know how to approach him. But we managed.
     "I also visited him about ten years later at the small hermitage that he had been permitted to have built in the forest, outside the main monastery. He lived there alone. It was rather primitive, unheated, without a toilet, no kitchen. He would get up each day at about 2 a.m. and then go through a lengthy Trappist routine of prayers. He would meditate before the face of God like a Sufi Master, as if he were in the presence of God Himself.
     "After the initial meditation, he would begin a very rigorous day of writing. This was a productive period for him; he had turned his sights on what was happening outside the monastery. He wrote about religious subjects, secular subjects, medieval holy men, Buddhism, world politics. He was corresponding with Polish dissidents, Algerian dissidents, Russian and Vietnamese; he was talking with people around the world who had something important to say.
     "He was outspoken about the war in Vietnam, about what the French had done, what we Americans were doing and what the Vietnamese government was doing to the people of Vietnam. He had no sympathy for Hanoi, either. For him, the war was evil. When the monastery stopped him from publishing in the regular press, he found ways of getting his writing to the underground press both here and abroad. He took a lot of risks in speaking out on a moral basis against the war, and, as we can imagine, this made him a lot of enemies."
     Merton, himself, was shocked when he first encountered the small print saying, "Nihil Obstat...Imprimatur" in one of his early coveted readings -- Etienne Gilson's "The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy," which he bought while still at Columbia. "Nothing hinders...let it be printed" -- the official go-ahead from the Vatican.
     "The feeling of disgust and deception struck me like a knife in the pit of my stomach," he wrote of his shock when he opened the book on the train taking him home to Douglaston. "I felt as if I had been cheated...I was tempted to throw the thing out the window."
But instead of giving in to his horror of censorship, he actually read the book, and Gilson became one of his mentors, along with Mark Van Doren, the poet William Blake, his Columbia professor friend Dan Walsh, and the French writer Jacques Maritain.
     From Gilson, "I discovered an entirely new concept of God," he said, "expressed in the word 'Aseitas'...that God exists a se, of and by reason of Himself...that God is Being Itself..."
It was a philosophical concept that Merton felt deeply; for me, it is one more philosophical concept connected with the idea of God that my own mind cannot connect with, cannot comprehend, no matter how hard I try. I don't seem to have much control over this; my mind keeps telling me that we're on our own.
     The "imprimatur" that first shocked him on the fly-leaf of the Gilson book was a barrier that he had to deal with in a number of his own publications, and then was refused him completely in 1962 for what became known as "The Peace Book." "Peace in the Christian Era" was its official title, and it was scheduled to be published by Macmillan early that year. The decision to deny publication of "The Peace Book" was made at the very top of the Order, by the Abbot-General, himself, Dom Gabriel Sortais.
It would be hard to imagine two men as opposed in their personalities, backgrounds and beliefs as Thomas Merton and Gabriel Sortais. Merton, who as a young man reached out to the Spanish Republicans, to the underprivileged and repressed, a strong believer in democracy, a universalist who accepted all religions and beliefs, and Sortais, who, as a young man was a French upper-class street brawler for the right-wing, anti-democratic Camelots du Roi, the official street hawkers and strong-armed thugs for the newspaper and far-right movement Action Francaise of Leon Daudet and Charles Maurras, a super-patriot of France who saw all other nationalities as inferior to his own. It was inevitable that the two would clash, and that, of course, because of the authority of his position, Gabriel Sortais would prevail.
     Merton has written of Dom Gabriel's refusal to permit the publication of a Merton piece on Teilhard de Chardin: "The decision means little to me one way or the other, and I can accept it without difficulty. Less easily the stuffy authoritarianism of Dom Gabriel, who cannot help being an autocrat, even while multiplying protestations of love. I rebel against being treated as a 'property,' as an 'instrument' and as a 'thing' by the Superiors of this Order. He definitely insists that I think as he thinks, for to think with him is to 'think with the Church.' To many this would seem quite obvious. Is it not the formula they follow in Moscow?"
     On another occasion, he writes: "I have been for the past few days anxious and disturbed because the Abbot-General is on his way...There will be 'les explications.' What I fear is the arduous labor of trying to bridge the gap between us without simply pretending that I agree with him. To obey at once him and my own conscience, without being disobedient or servile...I must trust God and not resist authority even when it is authoritarian."
     Dom Gabriel's letter to Merton informing him of the ban, and ordering him to stop writing about nuclear war reeks of superiority -- superior position in the hierarchy, superior intellect, superior spirituality:
     "Je sais très bien, cher fils, que vous ne prétendez nullement être le seul à parler du problème de la guerre atomique... Je veux seulement souligner nettement la différence des deux ordres: celui de l'enseignement, qui appartient à la hiérarchie et à ceux qu'elle veut bien déléguer pour cela; et celui de la prière, qui appartient -- entre autres -- au moine, ou plutôt auquel le moine appartient.
     "Vous comprendrez donc que je ne vous demande pas de vous désintéresser du sort du monde. Mais je vous crois en mesure d'influer sur lui par votre prière et votre vie retirée en Dieu beaucoup mieux encore que par vos écrits. Et c'est pourquoi je ne pense pas nuire à la cause que vous défendez en vous demandant de renoncer à la publication du livre que vous avez préparé et de vous abstenir désormais d'écrire sur ce sujet de la guerre atomique, de sa préparation, etc." (1)
     While in Atlanta a couple of years ago, I went with my niece, Joy Griffin, to nearby Conyers to visit Father Paul (whose name at birth and until he joined the Trappists was Frank Bourne) at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Ghost; Father Paul had been chief censor for the Order in the United States and was asked to pay special attention to Merton's voluminous writing. We arrived too early and waited for about an hour while he took his afternoon rest, which he visibly needed. A tall, frail man of 87, with a wonderful smile, he said, yes, he had been the censor of Father Louis, and quite reluctantly so. But he did use the word "censor"; the administrative directricehad said that Father Paul "critiqued" Merton's writings. Father Paul seemed lightly apologetic about the whole matter.
     "I told Dom Gabriel when he appointed me that the man I was being asked to censor knew much more about the Cistercian Order than I do," he said to me. "But Dom Gabriel insisted; 'Vous avez du bon sens, vous pouvez le faire.'"
     From the way Father Paul described his conception of his functions to me, he must have been more of a copy-editor than a censor. "I just corrected mistakes in his texts," he said. "I never changed anything. Sometimes he was so busy with writing and everything else that he would forget to attribute passages to their author. He thanked me for this."
Smiling broadly at his own audacity, he said: "I told him, if you didn't write so much, you would write better."
     Dom Gabriel died in 1963, and the succeeding Abbot-General was easier to deal with where censorship was concerned. By 1967, Father Paul was able to write to Merton that "the green light was on." But, for whatever reason, Father Paul told me, "maybe it was just habit, Father Louis continued to send me his manuscripts. On one occasion, he sent me a novel he had written years ago. I had to write back and tell him: I'm not even allowed to read novels, how can I censor this book for you?"
"Your friend was an extraordinary fellow," Father Paul said. "Of course, we couldn't talk with each other in those days, and I regret that. All our talking was by mail."
     He went back slowly and carefully in the Georgia heat to resume his rest. It was very clear from our conversation that Father Paul, as Chief Censor, was not at all the main force that frustrated and harassed Merton the writer and peace activist. That was Dom Gabriel Sortais. In fact, his fellow monks protected Merton and helped him in clandestine distribution of much of the censored material. The Abbot at Gethsemani waited several months before passing along to Merton the letter from Dom Gabriel banning "The Peace Book" and ordering him to stop writing about nuclear war, to allow Merton time to continue publishing articles around the country and abroad. Dom James also approved distribution of mimeographed copies of part of "The Peace Book" even after he had handed over Dom Gabriel's letter to Merton.
     I learned more about Father Paul a month or so after our visit with him at the Monastery. Celestine Sibley, another of my Southern heroines, along with Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers, wrote in her column in "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution", "They buried Father Paul last week, laying him to rest in Georgia clay in the habit of a Trappist monk..." He had died only a few days after our visit.
     "He was a cosmopolitan gentleman before he became religious," she said, "traveling the world and enjoying its attractions as a young man." It sounds like Thomas Merton. "He knew Picasso in Paris and later he was to know the intellectuals of the Catholic Church...he was a liberal censor (for Merton), a fellow priest told me."
     Merton had a number of ways of distributing articles that he was having imprimatur difficulties with; one way was simply to mimeograph the articles and mail them out by hand to individuals both here and abroad. But his main outlet was "Jubilee," which Rice had got started in 1953, as "a magazine of the Church and its people," after a number of years of preparation and fund-raising. Rice says "Jubilee" probably published more of Merton than any other publication.
     Rice launched "Jubilee" as "a Catholic magazine with a pictorial format and a commitment to the Church's social teachings." My friend John Robaton, who teaches photo journalism at Boston University, says it was "the best picture magazine in America."
"'Jubilee' had fourteen bumpy but interesting years," Rice says. "We covered an unusually broad variety of subjects, from the cold war to first communion dresses, to corruption on the New York and Manila waterfronts, cooperatives, contemplation, the Desert Fathers, very early reports on apartheid in South Africa, and on the impending disaster in Vietnam.
"'Jubilee' set no boundaries. The Eastern rites were presented, to the amazement of some Catholics who had never heard of them, and the Orthodox churches in all their glory and tribulation, and other faiths, including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as Judaism."
     Merton regularly sent articles from Gethsemani. In late 1955, Lax returned from Europe, where he had been living in a Dominican house of studies, to write occasional pieces. Wilfrid Sheed eventually joined the staff as book and movie critic. And I, from Paris, where I was with the European Edition of "The New York Herald Tribune", sent a text with pictures about Max Jacob, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, poet and friend of Picasso; Max had been taken by the Germans from the Benedictine Abbey at St. Benoit on the Loire, and died on his way to prison camp.
     Many of the thoughts of the banned "Peace Book" were published in "Jubilee," in particular those contained in a long, slashing, deeply researched editorial entitled "Religion and the Bomb," which appeared in the issue of May, 1962. Merton wrote to his friend W.H. ("Ping") Ferry, of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions: "Talk about strident. I do not realize how strident I've been until I get into print. The one in this month's 'Jubilee' will set a whole lot of people right on their ear and I guess it is my fault. I could after all have been more circumspect and moderate, and there are smoother ways of saying the same thing. I lash out with a baseball bat. Some professor of non-violence I am."
What he was lashing out at was the Church itself; in fact, all of Christianity. He could not, did not accept a growing consensus approving a first nuclear strike.
     "It is absurd and immoral to pretend that Christendom can be defended by the H-bomb," he says in "Religion and the Bomb." "St. Augustine would say, the weapon with which we would attempt to destroy the enemy would pass through our own heart to reach him. We would be annihilated morally and no doubt physically as well. The H-bomb may possibly wipe out Western society if it is used by Communists, but it will destroy Christendom spiritually if it is used as a weapon of aggression by Christians."
The stridency he referred to in his letter to Ping Ferry reverberated in the final paragraphs, in which he calls for non-cooperation on the part of Christians:
     "If the nation prepares to defend itself by methods that will almost certainly be immoral and illicit, then the Christian has not only the right but also the duty to question the validity of these methods, and to protest against them, even to the point of refusing his cooperation in their unjust and immoral use...
"If we are going to defend Christianity and save it from the disastrous inroads of materialism and totalitarian autocracy, we must begin by realizing that the struggle necessarily begins within ourselves, both personally and as a group. The problem affects both the individual and the collective conscience of Christians.
     "If we spontaneously approve of nuclear terrorism, if we become apologists for the uninhibited use of naked power, we are thinking like Communists, we are behaving like Nazis, and we are well on the way to becoming either one or the other. In that event we had better face the fact that we are destroying our own Christian heritage."
     The monk was speaking out from behind his monastery walls, fervently and effectively. And he was heard. Five years later, in 1967, "'Jubilee' just stopped," Rice says. "It ran out of money.
"In looking back over its fourteen years, it seemed that 'Jubilee' had lived its life, had served its purpose. It was one voice of many during a time when clergy and laity joined together in a common vision and worked together in meaningful social causes. It did a pretty good job in documenting the struggles of people of many faiths. And Merton offered insights and guidance rarely seen in other publications."
     The following year, Merton would be gone, too.

     (1) Translation from the French of Dom Gabriel Sortais' letter: "I know very well, my son, that you do not pretend to be the only one speaking out about the problem of atomic war...I merely want to emphasize clearly the difference between the two orders: the teaching order, that belongs to the hierarchy and to those delegated by the hierarchy for that purpose; and prayer, which belongs, among others, to the monk, or rather, to which the monk belongs.
"You will understand then, that I am not asking you to be indifferent to the fate of the world. But I believe you have the power to influence the world by your prayers and by your life withdrawn into God much more than by your writings. And that is why I do not think I am doing harm to the cause you are defending by asking you to give up publication of the book you have prepared and to abstain from now on from writing on this subject of atomic warfare and the preparations for it, etc."

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