Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton; drawing by David Levine

George Woodcock and the late Thomas Merton are both of them copious and fluent writers and their coming together in Woodcock’s study of Merton seems appropriate in many ways. Woodcock, not a Christian, is predisposed by his gentle anarchism (Kropotkin rather than Bakunin) to be a sympathetic expositor of Merton’s religious and moral views. He is far enough away from his subject not to fall into hagiography and he has enough feeling for Merton’s spiritual style to make us trust the exposition. If he is, as I shall suggest, too relaxed in his judgments on the quality of Merton’s work, his fault is a generous one.

In the United States the churches tend to be known and judged in the persons of those of their members who come into prominence. This is true even of Catholicism. Whereas in the rest of the world it is hard to find a representative human being to stand for the Church of General Franco and Julius Nyerere, Konrad Adenauer and Heinrich Böll, in the United States Catholicism immediately calls up the thought of the late Cardinal Spellman and of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen; but for some of the generation now growing old or middle-aged American Catholicism also means Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

With the publication in 1948 of his immensely successful autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, a book praised by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons, Merton achieved a fame he never lost. It is hard to read it again, after many years, without feeling slightly embarrassed. It has a generous rush of high spirits. The early Merton is like a young horse galloping round a field: it is a wonderfully invigorating sight but it has a peculiar pathos for the observer, who knows the bit and bridle and the harness have already been prepared. He is very knowing—too knowing—about ideas and writers he has come across in his growing-up. He is especially absurd on D.H. Lawrence, whom he took to be a worshiper of what he calls “the sex instinct” and a proto-fascist. In his account of his conversion to Catholicism and his later conviction that he has a calling to the life of a Trappist monk he is inclined to turn what is in any case dramatic into melodrama, and there is a touch of morose pleasure in some of the accounts of his inner turmoils. Neither Catholicism nor the calling to so hard a form of the religious life as the Trappist (at least, as it then was: Woodcock suggests that the rule is now more relaxed) need be blamed for the slightly self-indulgent soliloquy Merton goes in for—nothing could be more inept than Bishop Sheen’s comparison of The Seven Storey Mountain to Saint Augustine’s Confessions.

His later life and writings make it plain that beneath what is too easy in the autobiography there is a sane, serious, humorous, acute, kind, brave man. The irony of his life is all-encompassing: his autobiography made him the darling of Catholic bien pensants in the United States and elsewhere, but as he moved toward opposition to the Vietnam war and to the strategy of nuclear deterrence such admiration fell away and his former admirers tried to bully his abbot into suppressing his writings.1 He became a Trappist to pursue the contemplative life in the silence and obscurity of a monastic community and his abbot encouraged him in a life of writing and teaching and administration. He fled from the world and the world pursued him to his refuge. He sought to live out his life in one place under religious obedience and away from the technical wonders of modern society, and he survived to find his abbey made noisy by elaborate machines and was himself electrocuted in Bangkok (Karl Barth, far away in Switzerland, died on the same day) through the malfunctioning of a lamp.

There is probably a Merton archive somewhere and I know that doctoral dissertations are being written about him. This is understandable; Merton’s career and ideas represent an important bridge-passage in the history of American Catholicism. He gave a name of some note to those who came out in public and at some personal cost against the war in Southeast Asia, and he helped to construct arguments in their defense. He, with the Berrigan brothers and many others, did for that generation what Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker had done, though with much less attention from the organs of publicity and information, for an earlier generation. (Not that the Catholic Worker influence vanished in the Sixties. On the contrary: my guess is that the future historian will find the stature of Dorothy Day and her collaborators increasing all the time; hard thinking, good writing, an evident unity of thought and action, such things may have little immediate effect, at least as the world sees it; but they count for much over a long period.) There is, however, a marked inclination, shared by Woodcock, to think more highly of Merton’s work than it deserves. Most agree that he wrote too much and too variously; Woodcock has some shrewd things to say about the weaker work. But he quotes, apparently with approval, at least as offering an adequate account of the point under discussion, the following piece from Silence in Heaven.


The monastic life is a life wholly centered upon this tremendous existential silence of God which nobody has ever been able to explain, and which is, nevertheless, the heart of all that is real…. The monastic life is not dedicated to a sounding communication among men. It lives by a soundless communication in mystery between man and God, between man and his brother, and between man and all created things.

The value of the monks’ Public Prayer is therefore not drawn so much from its sound as from the deep silence of God which enters into that sound and gives it actuality, value, meaning. The beauty of Gregorian chant, and that which distinguishes it from every other kind of music, lies in the fact that its measured sound, in itself beautiful, tends to lead the soul, by its beauty, into the infinitely more beautiful silence of God. Chant that does not have this effect, no matter how great its technical perfection, is practically without value. It is empty of the silence of wisdom, which is its substance and its life.

This is a representative piece of Merton’s work as expositor and analyst.

One notices how overwritten it is. The monastic life is “wholly centered,” God’s silence is “tremendous” and “existential“; “all that is” is made to decline into the commonplace by the addition of “real.” Just to remove these and other excessive bits of writing strengthens the tone of the passage and brings it closer to having the effect Merton is seeking. As a piece of argument the second paragraph is curious. That monks spend much of their days and nights making a joyful noise to the Lord, that the Psalms of David are the heart of their devotional life, these seem to offer a difficulty for the Merton thesis about the Divine silence and about the monk’s dedication to silence. All is made to look all right: the “actuality” and beauty of this sound, and its value, which is made into something over and above actuality and beauty, come from God’s silence which “enters into” the sound. There is a vague sense that a problem has been set and solved: it strikes me as simply fudge.

Christian theology is indeed involved in the paradox of a God who speaks, who communicates his Word, his Logos, to men, not in the form simply of sound but in the flesh and blood of a man, and who also remains hidden, both absolutely and as one who appears incognito, and who lies beyond all positive predications. This paradox can be stated, or celebrated, as by Max Picard in Die Welt des Schweigens,2 or analyzed by philosophers, or dismissed as a surd in the enterprise of Christian theology. But it can’t be made smooth in the way Merton puts it. What in the passage is uncommonly interesting is not so much the problem set by God’s speaking and God’s silence as the problem set by the extraordinary character of the music of the chant.

To Simone Weil the chant seemed an expression of God’s glory and man’s response to it; Eric Gill tells us that when he first heard the chant, sung by the monks of Mont César at Louvain, he “was so moved…as to be almost frightened.”3 It is plain that Merton too was moved. The most affecting thing in the autobiography I find to be his account of the first impression of the assemblage of monks engaged in chanting the Office, the opus Dei, in the abbey that was later to be his home. It is overwritten in the same way as the passage I have just noted (for example, he can’t write that something pierced him to the heart and leave it at that, he has to add the banal “like a knife”), but through the excesses and banalities of the style something authentic reaches out to us.

No one with a rudimentary religious and musical culture can fail to be shaken by a great monastic choir’s singing of the chant. Such a choir may take some finding today. Some religious communities have responded to the happenings of the period since the second Vatican Council with a combination of recklessness and Philistinism, discarding the chant along with other—as they suppose—lumber. They lie under the mistaken impression that this recommends them to the intelligent laity.


Merton wrote many poems. Much of the poetry is like the prose, easy—too easy—and fluent. Woodcock thinks more highly of it than I can bring myself to do. Of course, the content and the thought are often interesting; such a late volume as Cables to the Ace is the work of a man whose mind is always working. A lot of it is, if not straightforwardly didactic and hortatory, concerned to excite approvable attitudes in the reader. In some of the earlier poems there is an old-fashioned romantic air one can’t but like, as in “Rievaulx: St. Ailred”:

Once when the white clouds praised you, Yorkshire,
Flying before the sun, flying before the eastern wind,
What greenness grew along the waters,
Flowering in the valleys of the purple moor….

* * *

The sun that plays in the amazing church
Melts all the rigor of those cowls as grey as stone—
Or in the evening gloom that clouds them through these tintless panes,
The choirs fall down in tidal waves
And thunder on the darkened forms in a white surf of Glorias….

This is engaging, but embarrassing, like the kind of verse one wrote in adolescence. We note the same faults in the verse as in the prose: “the amazing church,” “the eastern wind,” “tintless panes.” I don’t know what goes on in “creative writing” courses in universities, but I imagine the students are taught not to fall into such traps as these. Strangely, some of the earlier poems don’t have these faults, as, for example, the fine “Song from Our Lady of Cobre,” rightly picked out for praise by Woodcock. Merton greatly admired Hopkins. Perhaps if he had, like Hopkins, found the relation between the poet and the religious a torturing one he would have written less but better. Not that one would wish a man to have the kind of fortune that enables him to write “Carrion Comfort” or “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”; but this is the standard by which one who seeks to transform an intense life in religion into poetry must be judged.

Merton will be remembered for two things: his place, especially among Catholics, in the thinking about the morality of war and, more broadly, of the way modern industrial society is run; and his partially successful attempt to bring out, through study and personal encounter, what is common to Asian and Western monachism and to Asian and Western forms of mysticism and the contemplative life. (Other monks, Aelred Graham and Bede Griffiths, for example, ought to be mentioned in this connection.)

Historically American Catholics have found themselves, rather curiously, among the most intensely patriotic of American groups, even where the military enterprise was morally suspect. It is as though they were always trying to disprove the thesis of many native Protestants, especially in the South, that Catholics were necessarily half-hearted citizens, their loyalty in the last resort going to a foreign potentate, and a wop potentate at that. In the demonology of Protestant nativism they were classed with blacks and Jews, not quite fully members of the American family, and nourished alarmingly by the prolific Irish, Slavs, and Latins, all groups that within the memory of many living Americans were regarded as less desirable immigrants than the English and Scottish, the Scandinavians, and the Germans. It was the strength of this feeling against Catholicism that wrecked the presidential hopes of Al Smith; most were surprised to find it so diminished during the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy.

Perhaps the Kennedy years marked not only the end of the effectiveness of a certain kind of political anti-Catholicism but also the end of unquestioning loyalty to great national objectives on the part of Catholics. The nation now saw nuns and clergymen marching in Selma, Alabama; and among the first burners of draft cards and participators in other symbolic acts of protest against the war in Vietnam were Catholics, lay and clerical. In these years Thomas Merton passed from the somewhat simple-minded political stance that shows itself in the autobiography to a more severe view of the fundamental character of Western society.

In Love and Living, a useful selection from Merton’s occasional writings, there is a brief section on war.

War represents a vice that mankind would like to get rid of but which it cannot do without. Man is like an alcoholic who knows that drink will destroy him but who always has a reason for drinking…. The motive for which men are led to fight today is that war is necessary to destroy those who threaten our peace! It should be clear from this that war is, in fact, totally irrational, and that it proceeds to its violent ritual with the chanting of perfect nonsense.

This is to take war to be a symptom of a general pathological state in which men as such are immersed. Later, Merton goes on to take the bombing of Dresden as an example of a great atrocity, greater than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; but in characterizing Dresden as an atrocity he relies on arguments—that it was not a military target, that it was unnecessary to victory in the war—that seem not to be compatible with his view of war as generally vicious. He cites John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris and the declaration of the second Vatican Council that “any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself [and] merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” and seems to understand that such statements call for rational moral judgments of this or that act of war; but he then goes on to argue that “to appeal against war to reason is to make an appeal that cannot have any serious effect on the war makers themselves.”

This very pessimistic doctrine isn’t, of course, without some support from history, but it is a debilitating doctrine, morally and intellectually, all the same. It robs of its interest, and of its value as a precedent, the growth of “selective” conscientious objection during the war in Vietnam, where some objectors were not absolute pacifists but found their conscientious judgments made it impossible for them to fight in that particular war. These judgments have been subsequently ratified by so large a consensus of thoughtful Americans of very different political standpoints that they can no longer be thought willful or eccentric.4

Merton does not always offer this despairing analysis. Sometimes he speaks of violence as rooted in a particular social structure; and he has a vision of clean, small, frugal, loving communities to replace the wastelands of urban society, and in this he is, as Woodcock is eager to point out, close to Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, a book he didn’t live to read. And if we have to say that his philosophy of society was made up of scraps that didn’t always compose a systematic whole, we have to add that in his eclecticism he responded in a human way, and without sentimentality, to the two vilest phenomena of his period: anti-Semitism and racial discrimination founded upon pigmentation. And, as Woodcock writes: “the Negroes were the Jews of Merton’s life.” What he wrote prompted the admiration and liking of many black Americans, Eldridge Cleaver among them. He saw more clearly than many liberals that out of the civil rights struggle of the early Sixties would come a tougher kind of black leadership. He seems to have welcomed this and, like so many, didn’t perceive that this leadership is honored and not insulted by a rigorous criticism of the confused formulations of “black consciousness,” “black theology,” and so on.

One of the most engaging features of Merton’s mind and sensibility is his feeling for what is authentic and pure, even when it occurs outside the house of Latin Catholicism. He was attracted by the tradition of the Shakers, who, he said, “have been something of a sign, a mystery, a strange attempt at utter honesty which, in trying perhaps to be too ideally pure, was nevertheless pure—with moments of absurdity.” Later, he extended his interests and sympathies to the great non-Christian religions, especially the Buddhist traditions, and especially to their expression in the forms of monasticism. This was his last great passion, one that George Woodcock is well equipped to comment on, and in a sense he can be said to have had a happy death, for when he encountered his bizarre death in Bangkok it was not before he had been able to utter his own word:

The combination of the natural techniques and the graces and the other things that have been manifested in Asia and the Christian liberty of the Gospel should bring us all at last to that full and transcendent liberty which is beyond mere cultural differences and mere externals—and mere this or that.

Thus he spoke on the day of his death; and so he speaks to us still in Woodcock’s life and in his surviving work. That we still want to criticize his arguments and debate his conclusions is a sign that his strenuously lived life contains much to tease and captivate us.

This Issue

September 27, 1979