Friday, July 18, 2014

An Opinion and an endorsement - The Many Lives and Last Days of Thomas Merton

Lately (the last 2 or 3 years), it has seemed to me that the cult of Thomas Merton has run its course. The charismatic pull of his personality and his time - the 1950s, Vatican 2, the War in Vietnam, Civil Rights - related to many of our personal histories. Merton personified for us a way to understand our history and time. Our Church. Our country.

Merton died in 1968. My mother died in 1973 and I often marvel that she died before microwave ovens, answering machines, VCRs. Long before computers became integral to our lives. Times have changed. A couple of generations have passed since Merton lived.

There is still interest in and a need for institutional monasticism in our world. Monks have something to offer us, but rather than drawing more people to monasteries (as Seven Story Mountain did in the 40s), I think that monasticism should open out, shining its light toward the world rather than inward upon itself. Pope Francis is picking up where Merton left off.

Over the last 50 years many books have been written about Merton. Films have been made. Merton has become an industry in itself. Just look at this blog, where I’ve been almost obsessively exploring Merton’s art, photography, writing, friendships, every little thing.

Over this time a funny thing has happened: I’ve internalized Merton. Who Merton is/was, is who I am. If that makes any sense. What Merton was doing in his lifetime, in his monastery, I do in my own lifespan. Knowing Merton, and how he did it, has helped me to find my own way. But I no longer need to keep Merton always at my side; I can take off in other directions on my own, confident that what I’ve learned from him is still valid and grounding, but it’s not the whole story. There is more to the story. Can I call it future?

I’m not much interested in the new books that continually come out about Merton. I find very little that is new in them.

However, all that being said, I am endorsing a film that Morgan Atkinson is undertaking: The Many Lives and Last Days of Thomas Merton. The film is focusing upon that final pilgrimage of Merton's life - to New Mexico, California, to the East. Out of the Monastery. This feels like a bridge to me.

Mr. Atkinson is needing funding for this film. Please help if you can. It will be released in 2015 the 100th anniversary of Merton's birth.


  1. A very interesting post, Beth. Thank you for sharing your journey.

  2. Thank you Beth for your awesome and inspiring blog. It is always a joy to read - and always an opportunity for me to look in the mirror and and ask those questions we all do - who am I, what instrument am I called to play in the symphony of God's will - the same questions Fr Louis asked Of God....

    God bless you!

  3. I read this post numerous times and slept on it. I really do appreciate this blog, even though I believe it portrays Merton as a Buddhist and reluctant Catholic. That, in its self, is a different conversation.

    Merton ran his course? Seriously? The 100th year of his birth is next year. There is a movie, a documentary and a great surprise was an indie album of music put to his poetry that is fabulous. This is precisely his time!!!

    Congratulations on "not needing Merton by your side" but was this blog about you or Merton? If you are done with it that is fine. But dont decide when its Merton's time. It"s not your right.

    The most aggravating part of your post is when you talk about an active monasticism when Merton spent so much time to defend the contemplative path against such attacks. You then tell us not to worry because Pope Francis is taking off where Merton left off. Huh??

    You say that there is nothing new to write on him, yet there are hundreds of hours of lectures that are locked away in archives. It would do you much good to go hear one of those where he defends the veiling of women for Mass. That one, for some reason, never "gets out".

    Have you considered in all your posts on Vatican 2 that Merton said that losing the Latin and reverence for the Mass would destroy the Mass. That attempting to synchronize religions would eliminate a need for the Church. His words! And what is the result? As Merton predicted empty congregations, closed churches, and zero silence and reverence in the new Mass.

    You consistently, and you are not the only one, isolate his study of Buddhist monasticism and turn him into a heretic. I always remind people that the night before he met Suzuki in New York, he wasn't reading about Zen. He was reading about medieval Irish monasticism. But as your post so wonderfully explains, you taught Merton how you wanted him to be and not how he really was. You wanted a Buddhist
    syncretist and that was reflected.

    Perhaps its time for you to go off into the horizon but not Merton. He grows stronger and stronger after death like a saint.

    This may sound harsh. I am very thankful for your work. But this is hardly the time to make your conclusions. Next year will be Merton's time in the public eye again. As a 37 year old, I couldnt be happier because Thomas Merton has merely began!

  4. Thank you so much for helping to support the Atkinson film. Morgan Atkinson is from Louisville (graduated from Atherton H.S. in 1967) and a very gifted film-maker. I’ve had some conversations with him through the years - particularly when he was exploring Merton’s relationship with John Howard Griffin - and I trust his insights. My very favorite of his films is WONDER: The lives of Harlan and Anna Hubbard. … Morgan’s website is here: … Anyway, he makes me very proud of my KENTUCKY roots.

  5. thanks for you comments, Mark. Keep reading Merton. He has never led me down a wrong road.


  7. Maybe it's true that the interest in Merton for a lot of people has run its course during the past 2 or 3 years. But, fortunately, that is not the case in my personal life.

    My own personal journey started in the early 70s when I was still in my teens. I had my initial spiritual awakening while I was attending a charismatic prayer meeting. But I felt that it was not enough. I was not really comfortable with the verbosity and activity that accompanies the charismatic style of worship and spirituality.

    Fortuitously, during that time a priest, who was in charge of a seminary in our area that was closing down, donated to our charismatic group a number of Merton's books. I started reading them and was hooked. I found what I was searching for...

    My interest in Merton spun off to other things. For one thing, it led me to study other religions, especially Zen Buddhism. Zen has deeply enriched my Christian faith and has helped me understand in a deeper way our Christian mystical and contemplative tradition.

    For another, when I was my late 20s, Merton also inspired me to stay in a Trappist monastery to discern a possible vocation to the monastic life. Unfortunately, my fragile health prevented me from fulfilling my dream to become a Trappist monk.

    I was struck by what you said:

    "There is still interest in and a need for institutional monasticism in our world. Monks have something to offer us, but rather than drawing more people to monasteries (as Seven Story Mountain did in the 40s), I think that monasticism should open out, shining its light toward the world rather than inward upon itself. Pope Francis is picking up where Merton left off."

    Most of us can't be monks (and nuns). But if monasticism opens out to shine its light upon the ordinary person in the world, we will find out that the contemplative orientation towards life that the monasteries value and cherish belongs to all of us. This is what I learned from Merton and my brief stay in the monastery.

    By the way, Beth, thanks for sharing Morgan Atkinson's film project on Merton. I hope he gets enough funding so that the project can push through...