Sunday, December 10, 2017
The monasticism of Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton died in Thailand on December 10, 1968. Forty nine years ago.
The following is an extract from "Living With Wisdom", a biography of Merton, by Jim Forest.
The last event of Thomas Merton’s life was participation in a conference of Trappist and Benedictine monks at the Sawang Kaniwat (Red Cross) Conference Center Samutprakan, 29 miles south of Bangkok. Merton arrived in the afternoon of December 9, 1968, and was housed on the ground floor of Cottage Two. The conference began the next day with a welcoming address from the Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism. Events of the day included an evening discussion on marriage and celibacy.
Few of the monks got much sleep that night. A chorus of cats had come out to sing the night office on nearby roofs. Following crescendos of cat howling, those in adjacent rooms heard Merton’s laughter.
Merton’s paper, “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives,” so much on his mind for many weeks, was presented the following morning. Merton, under orders from his abbot to avoid the press, was made nervous by Dutch and Italian television crews which had turned up to film his lecture.
One of the crucial issues confronting the monk, Merton pointed out, is what his position is and how he identifies himself in a world of revolution. This wasn’t simply a matter of how to survive an enemy who is intent on either destroying religion or converting those of religious convictions to atheism. Rather, it was a matter of understanding, beyond present models of Marxism and monasticism, the fundamental points of similarity and difference.
He recognized significant similarities. The monk, after all, “is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures ... [saying] that the claims of the world are fraudulent.” In addition, both monk and Marxist share the idea that each should give according to his capacity and receive according to his need. But while the Marxist gives primary emphasis to the material and economic structures of life, seeing religious approaches as empty mystification, the monk is committed to bringing about a human transformation that begins at the level of consciousness.
“Instead of starting with matter itself and then moving up to a new structure, in which man will automatically develop a new consciousness, the traditional religions begin with the consciousness of the individual seeking to transform and liberate the truth in each person, with the idea that it will then communicate itself to others.”
This is emphatically the vocation of the monk “who seeks full realization ... [and] has come to experience the ground of his own being in such a way that he knows the secret of liberation and can somehow or other communicate it to others.” At the deepest level, the monk is teaching others how to live by love. For Christians, this is the discovery of Christ dwelling in all others.
Only with such love, Merton went on, is it possible to realize the economic ideal of each giving according to his ability and receiving according to his need. But in actuality many Christians, including those in monastic communities, have not reached this level of love and realization. They have burdened their lives with too many false needs and these have blocked the way to full realization, the monk’s only reason for being.
Merton told a story he had heard from Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche of a Buddhist abbot fleeing from his Tibetan monastery before the advance of Chinese Communist troops. He encountered another monk leading a train of twenty-five yaks loaded with the treasures of the monastery and “essential” provisions. The abbot chose not to stay with the treasure or the treasurer; traveling light, he managed to cross the border into India, destitute but alive. The yak-tending monk, chained to his treasure, was overtaken by the soldiers and was never heard of again.
“We can ask ourselves,” Merton said, “if we are planning for the next twenty years to be traveling with a train of yaks.” Monasticism, after all, is not architecture or clothing or even rules of life. It is “total inner transformation. Let the yaks take care of themselves.” The monastic life thrives whenever there is a person “giving some kind of direction and instruction to a small group attempting to love God and reach union with him.”
Authentic monasticism cannot be extinguished. “It is imperishable. It represents an instinct of the human heart, and it represents a charism given by God to man. It cannot be rooted out, because it does not depend on man. It does not depend on cultural factors, and it does not depend on sociological or psychological factors. It is something much deeper.”
Finishing the talk, Merton suggested putting off questions until the evening session. He concluded with the words, “So I will disappear,” adding the suggestion that everyone have a Coke.
At about 3 p.m., Father François de Grunne, who had a room near Merton’s, heard a cry and what sounded like someone falling. He knocked on Merton’s door but there was no response. Shortly before 4 o’clock Father de Grunne came down again to get the cottage key from Merton and to reassure himself that nothing was the matter. When there was no answer he looked through the louvers in the upper part of the door and saw Merton lying on the terrazzo floor. A standing fan had fallen on top of him. Father de Grunne tried to open the door but it was locked. With the help of others, the door was opened.
There was a smell of burned flesh. Merton, clearly dead, was lying on his back with the five-foot fan diagonally across his body. Dom Odo Haas, Abbot of Waekwan, tried to lift it and received an electric shock that jerked him sideways, holding him fast to the shaft of the fan until Father Celestine Say pulled the plug.
A long, raw third-degree burn about a hand’s width ran along the right side of Merton’s body almost to the groin. There were no marks on his hands. His face was bluish-red, eyes and mouth half open. There had been bleeding from the back of the head. The priests gave Merton absolution, then Dom Odo went to get the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, Dom Rembert Weakland, who gave Merton extreme unction. A doctor arrived, Mother Edeltrud Weist, prioress of Taegu Convent in Korea. She checked for pulse and eye reaction to light.
A police test of the fan showed that a “defective electric cord was installed inside its stand.... The flow of electricity was strong enough to cause the death of a person if he touched the metal part.”
After Merton’s body was released to Dom Weakland, it was washed, then taken to the chapel. There was a prayer vigil throughout the night at the side of the body.
The next day Merton’s body was taken to the United States Air Force Base in Bangkok and from there flown back to the United States in company with dead bodies of Americans killed in Vietnam. From Oakland, California, it continued by civilian carrier, at last reaching the Abbey of Gethsemani the afternoon of December 17.
The monks at the abbey had been informed of the death by Dom Flavian during their mid-day meal on December 10. In the days that followed, The Seven Storey Mountain was read aloud during meals in the refectory. “Some of us saw a considerable irony in fact that the refectory reader was Father Raymond Flanagan,” recalls Father Patrick Reardon, then a member of the community, “who had been carrying on a running feud with Father Louis for about as long as any of us could remember.”
One of the brothers drove a truck out to the hermitage of Dom James Fox to bring him back for the funeral. Dom James remarked that Merton “now knows more theology than any of us.” The brother responded, “Well, Reverend Father, he always did.”
Dom Flavian and Father John Eudes Bamberger identified the body at the undertakers in New Haven, where the casket was briefly opened. “I readily identified the body though it was already bloated and swollen considerably,” Father John Eudes wrote. “There was no doubt it was Father Louis.”
The casket arrived at the monastery only a couple of hours before the afternoon funeral Mass and was placed in the abbey basilica. Father Timothy Kelly, later to succeed Dom Flavian as abbot, and Father Patrick Reardon prayed the psalms over the body for the hour or more prior to the funeral.
The funeral Mass was composed by Father Chrysogonus Waddell. On the cover of the Liturgy booklet was a text from The Sign of Jonas: “I have always overshadowed Jonas with My Mercy.... Have you lost sight of me Jonas My Child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.” Part of the Book of Jonah was read aloud. At the end of the Mass, there was a reading from The Seven Storey Mountain, concluding with the book’s prophetic final sentence, “That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”
His brother monks buried Merton in their small cemetery next to the abbey church. Normally Trappists were buried without a casket. Merton was one of two exceptions. The other had been Dom Frederick Dunne, the abbot who had received Merton in 1941 and encouraged him to write. Dom Frederick had also died while traveling.
“A whole bunch of us grabbed shovels to fill in Father Louis’s grave at the end of the service,” Father Patrick recalled. “I remember Father Raymond going at it with the gusto he brought to every enterprise. Toward the end of the burial, it began to rain, so we were quite damp when we returned to the church.”
With the body came an official declaration of Merton’s effects, appraised in dollars. The items listed included these five:
1 Timex Watch $10.00
1 Pair Dark Glasses in Tortoise Frames Nil
1 Cistercian Leather Bound Breviary Nil
1 Rosary (broken) Nil
1 Small Icon on Wood of Virgin and Child Nil
There was also the memory of Merton’s last words. Following the morning conference, Father de Grunne told Merton that a nun in the audience was annoyed that Merton had said nothing about converting people.
“What we are asked to do at present,” Merton responded, “is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.”
The icon Merton had with him contains its own last words, silent on one side, and on the back a brief extract from the Philokalia, written in Greek in Merton’s hand:
If we wish to please the true God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.
- an extract from "Living With Wisdom", a biography of Merton, by Jim Forest
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