See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. - James 5:7

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Can you trust Thomas Merton?



The model of modern gyrovague monasticism...
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I appreciate some of Merton's earlier writings, although I find his later writings only interesting - to some extent.  I've never been attracted to his work for spiritual reading however.  No doubt he has influenced many people and I think he is very much a hero and model for the peace and justice activists who have controlled much of the Catholic Church in the U.S. since the Council.  Likewise his greatest influence may have been that his writings and monastic explorations opened the doors of many a cloister to the New Age, Orientalism, and the ever popular Centering Prayer movement.  Others may disagree.
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I found a rather good rundown on Merton's writings in the post, Can I Trust Thomas Merton, at Catholic Spiritual Direction blog.  I like what the author has to say in response to the question:
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My advice? Well, it’s not like the Church is hurting for solid and perfectly trustworthy writings on the spiritual life. I personally don’t know why anyone would want to carefully sift through this kind of literature when it is clear that Merton had serious issues. It seems a bit like sifting through the refuse at the back of a good restaurant. You are likely to find much that is of nutritional value, but why not just go take your seat at the table for the best and purest meals available? I would encourage you to stick with the spiritual doctors of the Church. - Can I trust Thomas Merton?

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I couldn't agree more - one cannot have confidence that the Holy Spirit was guiding him in his later works.  Personally, I would never go to his writings for spiritual reading or direction.  

16 comments:

  1. "Likewise his greatest influence may have been that his writings and monastic explorations opened the doors of many a cloister to the New Age, Orientalism, and the ever popular Centering Prayer movement."

    I hear that his legacy still lives in Kentucky.

    I went through a "phase" with him a while back. For some years now I haven't been able to force myself to read him - not his early work or later work, nor his poetry, early or late. I know that won't change either.

    "modern gyrovague monasticism"

    Yep.

    Oh, anybody out there considering writing a spiritual autobiography - don't do it.

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  2. He was just a beatnik pretender. I've met people like him who are in religious life and they fill me with such revulsion, I don't wonder that others don't feel it as well. It's just a feeling, but I've noticed that the people who are attracted to this kind of religious life aren't exactly what you'd call normal or well adjusted. Just a look at Merton's beady eyes and long nose ... well you get the idea.

    Of course, religious houses where public intellectual types like Merton flourish are dying of old age and are becoming increasingly irrelevant to Catholicism if at once they ever were.

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  3. Don't ever let Fr. Martin, the Deacon at the Deacon's Bench or Elizabeth Scalia hear you saying this. The Anchores banished me for fully concurring with you...Fr. Hardon warned of his new agesism but there are some you cannot convince otherwise. Refuse indeed, lol!

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  4. Early Merton may have been OK, but he did really go offtrack & later stuff is as Fr. Hardon said.

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  5. Maria - yes these people seem to have already canonized him.

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  6. Merton ought never to have been allowed to publish under his own name or live a 'superstar' life different from other Trappists. His superiors bear no small share of the blame for his fall.

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  7. Padre: Humility and obedience. Always the same lesson, right?

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  8. Fr. Hardon wasted no words in describing the danger of his New Age influences.

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  9. michael r.8:08 AM

    "His superiors bear no small share of the blame for his fall." Father, what was his fall? Are you speaking of a specific incident, or making a sweeping comment on the whole direction of another priests life?

    Lots of really dumb comments in this thread...one builds upon the other until we get to the point of knowing that another has fallen. Sorry, I guess I'm not very advanced in the spiritual life.

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  10. michael r.9:39 AM

    With all due respect to Fr. Hardon, his ideas on Thos. Merton amount to a small heap of clap-trap. Please read the following:

    "Thomas Merton, I do believe was never intellectually converted to Christianity. He became a Trappist Monk, became a priest and wrote many books. So his conversion is Seven Storey Mountain. He became very famous, mainly because of his writing. But also, because his ideas, it goes back already to the fifties and sixties. His ideas were very sympathetic with oriental thought. Well, Thomas Merton entered my life when my Jesuit Provincial Superior told me to go to this Trappist’s monastery, which was quite some distance. I was teaching theology and I was told to talk to Thomas Merton, which I did. Our relationship lasted about six months. Thomas Merton had organized a campaign for the movement of what we now call the New Age Movement - meditation. Oriental meditation. At the Monastery of Gethsemene, his Abbot Superior either changed his mind or never gave Merton permission in the first place to start his meditation center - at the monastery in Kentucky. Then his Abbot simply told Merton, you cannot build this meditation center. In the meantime, a great deal of money had been collected for this meditation center. Thomas Merton had left the United States and he died suddenly in Asia by giving lectures on Oriental Mysticism. Thomas Merton's writings, his New Age writings, have been published after his death and without his Abbot's permission. In fact, the manuscripts were given to a lay person who has been publishing his books ever since. "

    There are many many factual errors here. I believe every single sentence contains error, which is very sad, considering that many people think the person writing this is a saint. Just curious, does anyone know when Fr. Hardon wrote this?

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  11. Michael - the copyright says 1998, but this is apparently from a taped Q&A session with a bunch of religious sisters. So - no idea when he gave the actual talk. I do realize the nature of what he's sayings is somewhat off-the-cuff, so perhaps there are significant factual errors. Could you point out some of them? (you know more than I do on this, I'm sure)

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  12. michael r.4:22 PM

    "...never intellectually converted to Christianity." -- Only God would know. He did go through the motions, and spent thousands upon thousands of hours, seven times a day, plus Holy Mass, seeming to have accepted Christianity. All of his superiors(minus one possibly), accepted that he was a very good and holy Trappist monk. More of that one later...

    "Thos Merton had organized a campaign for the movement of what we now call the New Age Movement - meditation." -- Huh? He is the father of the New Age Movement? This is pure stupidity. Please consult Jacques Maritain or anyone else who knew or visited him over the years.

    "At the Monastery of Gethsemene(SIC), his Abbot Superior either changed his mind or never gave Merton permission in the first place to start his meditation center - at the monastery in Kentucky. In the meantime, a great deal of money had been collected for this meditation center." -- This is gross fabrication on someone's part. He was originally given the hermitage to host people of other faiths for simple discussion.

    "Thomas Merton had left the United States and he died suddenly in Asia by giving lectures on Oriental Mysticism." -- Not even close. Certainly didn't die from giving lectures on Oriental Mysticism; but again, maybe only God would know. Didn't give lectures on Oriental Mysticism in Asia. He went to Asia to give lectures to Catholic monks and nuns living in Asia; largely on Marxism, which was a prevailing ideology in those countries.

    "Thomas Merton's writings, his New Age writings, have been published after his death and without his Abbot's permission. In fact, the manuscripts were given to a lay person who has been publishing his books ever since." News to me. Published by whom??? Who owns the copyrights? Someone should have reported this to the Abbey's five abbots who have survived Merton. His estate (more than 50 major published works) has surely been worth millions.



    I don't doubt that Fr. Hardon held this estimation of Merton, but it's not original at all. I will just hope that he was a very old man when he wrote this, or said it, if it is a talk. I suspect it was based on hearsay and innuendo. I do doubt that Fr. Hardon, et. al., knew that Fr. Louis was very much against saying Mass in the venacular. There are many other quirky things like this about him that are available in the published literature. He was a very complex personality, and can't be pigeon-holed like so many of us want.

    It's a tangled tale, but if you dig a little deeper I believe you will find that a key player in all of this was Fr. Urban Snyder(who I had some connections to many years ago). I believe that most of the smear against Merton goes back to him. He was Thos. Merton's novice master. He was ultra-conservative trad, and couldn't accept anything post-Pius XII, and he left his own vocation. He is the one who left Gethsemani, and ended up as a confessor to Archbishop Lefebvre, and teacher at Econe, not suprisingly (He was brilliant, in ways). He wrote articles for the Remnant, and other trad publications. In the end, he was allowed to return and be buried in a Trappist Abbey. Here is an interesting bio of him. Much of it was pieced together by ..... drumroll ..... Archbishop Williamson. http://www.dailycatholic.org/issue/06Aug/aug2ttt.htm


    Please note that this bio comes from an ultra-trad group that honors just about anyone who rejects anything post-Pius XII......all of the SSPX, various sedevacantists, including holocaust deniers, and ...... and Mel Gibson, just to make it a real hoot. Lots of fodder for future articles -- http://www.dailycatholic.org/tttaward.htm

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  13. michael r.8:11 PM

    And here is the full obit by Bishop Williamson: http://www.sspxseminary.org/publications/rectors-letters-separator/rectors-letter/192.html

    Poppycock! Loads of fabricated and/or simplistic nonsense. I do like this succint quote: " Fr. Thomas Merton, had undergone a conversion in the 1940's to the quality of which his early books, and their fruits of many vocations, seem to testify, but in the swing to modernism of the 1950's the self-seeking emotionalism of his Protestant origins regained the upper hand, and worse, he continued to draw a large part of the monastery after him. What was a true monk to do?"
    "Here began for Fr. Snyder tens of years of wandering, again, not outwardly impressive to relate, but revealing to the inner eye a steady fidelity and coherence: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord" (Is. LV,8). The monk might be driven out of the unfaithful monastery, but the monastery could not be taken out of the faithful monk. He remained the monk, say friends, to the end of his days."

    So, for Williamson, et. al, Merton led the entire monastery off the rails and into a ditch, and poor Fr. Snyder had nowhere to go. Wonder why the other famous Trappist writer, the very conservative Fr. Raymond Flanagan, kept his vocation and stayed at Gethsemani? He disagreed with Merton over a number of issues, but shed tears at the death of Merton, and said it best (paraphrased): "He was a damn good monk!"

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  14. Thanks Michael - I forgot you are close to Gethsemani.

    This is my opinion on the issue:

    I actually think Merton is a rather typical Trappist - if a type actually exists, that is. Once a monk told me that the men who enter Trappist monasteries are pretty much the same types who enter the Marines.

    Merton had an interesting background, and his NY intellectual-social-activist roundtable friends can not really be classified as beatnicks. Imagine Dottie Day in black tights and leotard. Not so much.

    I think Merton's work was solidly Catholic in the beginning and I believe his conversion and monastic life was just as authentic. Yes his superiors were amazed by him and therefore responsible for his soul.

    Nevertheless the Counciliar years - pre and post - were very much about renewal and experimentation. Merton's explorations into oriental monasticism and mysticism developed in response to that climate - encouraged by the Council Fathers to some extent, in addition to his superiors. As an intellectual and mystic he was naturally captivated by the spirituality he observed - in that sense he became a sort of modern John Cassian of monastic indifferentism, if you will. Yet he was just doing his job and remained in obedience, even as he dabbled in other cloisters he knew not, as it were.

    He set the trend - he blazed the trail. He removed the grill, and the Trappists have never restored it. (When I say he, I'm talking about his influence.)

    He died a monk. That's a huge accomplishment. God judges the rest.

    I know nothing about Fr. Snyder but I have never heard it said that Gethsemani was unfaithful - to the contrary. Snyder evidently left the monastery. Strangely enough, sometimes following all the rules - up at 3am and to bed by 8pm and never missing an office, etc., can be more a matter of training and discipline, and not necessarily a sign of holiness. Though laudable, it is similar to the duty-bound Marine.

    Just my opinion. I am not at all qualified to judge anyone's monastic observance.

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  15. Michael--
    I am not judging his soul, but his writing and public witness, which went from edifying promotion of the Catholic faith to something less so and in the process did damage to Catholic monasticism and spirituality.

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  16. Thomas Merton was a prophet who called out the injustices he saw in the world. He called out for peace and understanding in a tumultuous time of war and judgement. Jesus did the same exact thing. Thomas Merton should be considered a part of the Communion of Saints along with figures like Dorothy Day and Peter Maunir. They lived doing Christ's work in this world. Caring for the sick and the persecuted. Merton was a cloistered monk, but had a divine sensibility about the rest of the world. He truly loved humanity and the presence of the Lord through them all. We are all children of the same God, and God loves us all equally.

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