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Thomas Merton: The Pursuit of Marginality

by Lawrence S. Cunningham

Dr. Cunningham is associate professor of religion at Florida State University, Tallahassee. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 6, 1978, pp. 1181-1183. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Ten years have now gone by since the tragic and untimely death of Thomas Merton. His death was a tissue of ironies: a man who had fought for monastic solitude for over 25 years died thousands of miles from his Kentucky hermitage; this passionate pacifist was flown back from Thailand in a military plane, from an airfield that was part of the network of military bases that prospered during the Vietnam years.

Things Monastic

Now that a decade has passed, we might reflect a bit on the person and significance of Thomas Merton. That task is both easy and difficult -- easy because his was one of the most familiar names of the postwar period. His spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), was hailed as a modern Confessions, though today it has a slightly smug and triumphant air about it. After that best-selling work, Merton produced scores of books, articles and volumes of poetry. He almost singlehandedly made the American Catholic public aware of its profound contemplative tradition.

Indeed, as Garry Wills pointed out in Bare Ruined Choirs, American Catholicism -- at least ‘liberal" Catholicism -- was gripped by a romantic interest in things monastic. It was not simply a question of more men going into the monastery (Cistercian monasteries did experience a phenomenal growth in that period), but the avant-garde journals of the day were filled with articles about liturgical prayer, Gregorian chant and experiments in community living.

With the coming of the Second Vatican Council and the rapid disintegration of " ’50s Catholicism," Merton should logically have gone into eclipse along with such now-ignored persons as Romano Guardini and Jacques Maritain. But, he did not suffer such an eclipse, even though he did not seem to belong to the ’60s. He wrote no ringing criticism of the church (though he had plenty of criticisms to make), nor did he become, like Hans Küng and other luminaries, a theological media star. He seemed, in fact, to be bucking history; as the cry went up for relevance and engagement in the world, Merton pressed successfully for what he had always wanted: further retreat from the world -- the life of a hermit.

From his hermitage he continued to write books on spirituality, the need for East-West religious dialogue, volumes of poetry, and resounding protests against war and racism. In the last years of his life his influence was further underscored in that others began to write books about him -- a trend that was to intensify after his death so that now we see a steady stream of theses, monographs and studies coming out each year, though we still await the authorized biography to be done by his old friend John Howard Griffin.

At the Margin of Society

What explains the continuing interest in Thomas Merton? That question demands another, more basic one: What did Thomas Merton represent himself to be or, better, how has he been perceived by his public admirers? He was not a theologian in the conventional sense of that word. He did write some impressive volumes on ascetical theology (e.g., New Seeds of Contemplation, The Climate of Monastic Prayer), but there were no books from his pen providing us with systematic reflections on the datum of the faith. He was a poet and literary critic, but I think it does no disservice to his memory to say that his poetry was not quite first rate and that his criticism was eclectic, occasional and of varying quality. He was not a social critic in any sustained fashion, though his social reflections could evoke powerful responses. as they most surely did in the early Eldridge Cleaver, who testified to that effect in Soul on Ice. Even as a monastic commentator Merton could not claim the scholarly stature of a Father Jean Leclercq.

To attempt to "classify" Merton in any of these categories -- as poet, theologian, critic or monastic commentator -- is to miss the point. Thomas Merton was primarily a monk; that is the way he defined himself from the moment he entered Gethsemani Abbey, and that is the way he understood himself in the last months before, his death. It is true that his notion of monasticism had deepened and matured over the years. He had shed any romantic notion of the monk as a cowled figure padding about a cloister garden and had come to define the monk, as he did in a talk he gave just weeks before his death, as a "marginal person who withdraws deliberately to the margin of society with a view to deepening fundamental human experience" (cf. Asian Journal, 1973, p.305).

A Concern with ‘Irrelevancy’

This notion of marginality was very much a part of Merton’s thinking, and it was his pursuit of that ideal that, paradoxically enough, brought him from the margin to the center of people’s attention, In the same talk quoted above, Merton argued that it is the monk’s vocation (as it is the vocation of the poet, the hippie, the prisoner, the displaced or dying person) to be irrelevant. He is to be irrelevant (how odd to apply that badge to oneself in 1968!) because the monk needs to live close to the edge of death, for only in that way can one understand the limits of life.

This concern with the peculiar status of the monk is the leitmotif of the volume Contemplation in a World of Action (1973), which brought together a large number of Merton’s essays and conference papers on the monastic life done during the ’60s. In this volume his idea of "irrelevancy" is expressed in a somewhat different way: "The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness. In a certain sense he is supposed to be ‘useless’ because his mission is not to do this or that job but to be a man of God" (p. 27). It is from this peculiar perspective that the monk should be able to get a sense of the deepest meaning of life itself; he also "will be in some sense critical of the world, of its routines, its confusions. and its sometimes tragic failures to provide other men with lives that are fully sane and human" (p. 28).

This sense of distance and marginality had to be lived in creative tension with the real world. Merton was anxious to erase the earlier conception of the Trappist that he himself had helped so create in Seven Storey Mountain: "The man who spurned New York, spat on Chicago, and tromped on Louisville, heading for the woods with Thoreau in one pocket, John of the Cross in another, and holding the Bible open to the Apocalypse" (Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 159). In fact, Merton the solitary carried on a passionate, if critical, dialogue with the world. His writings and his addresses attest to a Catholic appetite for the problems and hopes of the modern world.

A Peculiar Angle of Vision

It could be argued that Merton as a monk solitary proved his relevance to modern Catholic life precisely in that peculiar angle of vision which his hermitage afforded him. Many of the issues that exercised Merton’s mind in the last decade or so of his life anticipated many of the topics that occupy us in the ‘70s but which seemed esoteric or trivial at any earlier time.

In the first place, Merton shared, from an early period in his life, a marked interest in cultures other than those of western Europe. He was a passionate student of the poetry and culture of Latin America and of Vietnam. One of his novices, Ernesto Cardenal, was himself to become a poet of stature in his native Nicaragua as well as one of his country’s most vociferous social critics. At this writing, Cardenal’s monastic experiment at Solentiname has been destroyed by the police, and Cardenal, the epitome now of the marginal man, is on the run.

Second, Merton had an early and an abiding interest in Eastern thought, especially in Zen Buddhism and, in his last years, Tibetan Buddhism. Such an interest among many today is a commonplace. What marked Merton’s interest in Eastern thought was his refusal to make facile and misleading appropriations of Eastern spirituality. His study of the East was serious, ongoing and thorough. He exemplified to a significant degree that journey which Notre Dame theologian John Dunne has called (in The Way of All the Earth. 1972) "crossing over."

Merton went to the East not as a teacher or a missionary but as a pilgrim and a student. He went to learn what the East had learned about the monastic life in particular and spirituality in general. His purpose -- as even, the somewhat fragmentary Asian Journal makes clear -- was to enhance the contemplative life of his own tradition. Merton was able to use Buddhist concepts to critique and clarify his own life. One example must suffice. It is quite evident that his own desire for more solitude was tempered considerably by the Buddhist concept of "compassion"; he began to see that his own life had to oscillate between the anonymity of eremetical silence and an openness to the needs of others on both an individual and a social level. It was seemingly because of this clarification that Merton opted for a life which was to balance deep solitude with ‘periods of availability.

A Sane Voice

Finally, and most important, Merton was the foremost American spiritual writer of his generation. He was a theologian in the ancient patristic sense of the word: one who could speak existentially about the experience of God. His status as a spiritual writer is assured both because of his profound grasp of the Western tradition of spirituality and because of his ability to convey that tradition to an audience of contemporary people. In the ‘60s he was almost a vox clamantis in deserto as he argued against a mindless activism cut off from the deep roots of prayer and reflection.

If he was a lone voice then, he is a sane voice today whose interest in spirituality is manifest. Alas, even Christian circles are not immune to odd currents of pseudo-spirituality which are products of the general air of psycobabble. It is precisely in this area that Merton can be a model for our day. He was able to be a part of the ancient tradition of Christian monasticism while being alert to ways in which that tradition could be enhanced, enlarged and made more available to today’s world.

Max Weber once said that the Reformation made every man a monk and the whole world a monastery. There is truth in that statement, but the end result, in technological society at least, has been to imitate many of the worst aspects of historic monasticism: conformity, uniformity and an obsessive concern with communal discipline. In that sense the observance of the monastery of Cluny in the 12th century sounds suspiciously like a spiritual version of life on a modern assembly line.

There need to be persons today who can step back from such orders of life to see from a detached point of view. We find them among our poets, revolutionaries, critics, dropouts and nonconformists. Every once in a while we find them where we should expect to: in our monasteries. Thomas Merton was surely one of those rare souls who are able to turn the marginality of their lives into a presence of importance for the whole church. St. Thomas More once said that what the world needed most was more houses for the poor and more real monks. Ever so slowly we are getting the former; in rare grace-filled periods, we also get the latter. For that small favor we should thank God.

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