The Thomas Merton We Knew

Part 1

Rice and 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 role model.
     The 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.
     For 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."
     "Sometimes 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."
     Rice 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.
     In 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.
     None 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.
     I 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 "Mark".)
     Merton 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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