My good friend Anthony Clark, profesor of Asian history at the University of Alabama, sent me the following photo a few days ago, taken from the apartment in Beijing where he and his wife, Amanda, are staying while he teaches there this fall:
For the sake of this post, the picture will serve as a metaphor of sorts for the various clouds surrounding the life and work of Thomas Merton, the famous convert, author, and monk who died in December 1968 while traveling in Asia. To some, Merton is best known and remembered as the brilliant young convert who wrote Seven Storey Mountain; to others he is the poet and contemplative who remained actively engaged in the outside world while at the Abbey of Gethsemani; and for others he is the activist and mystic who (supposedly) overcame the boundaries of cold dogma to embrace a God who is bigger than Christianity.
This past summer, Anthony—who has studied Merton's writings and life for many years—wrote an article for This Rock magazine titled, "Can You Trust Thomas Merton?" (May/June 2008) We spoke about it several times while he was working on it; it was a difficult piece for him to write because he figured (with good reason, I think) that some readers would think he was too hard on Merton while others would conclude that he was too charitable. Although I've only read a couple of books by Merton, I think the article is both balanced and helpful, helping clear away a bit of the haze surrounding one of the most famous and controversial Catholic writers of the past century:
Thomas Merton (1915–1968), a Trappist monk, was one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the 20th century. He was the author of more than 60 books, including the story of his conversion, Seven Storey Mountain, a modern spiritual classic. Yet Merton is a controversial figure. In the last year of his life, he wrote in his journal while traveling through Asia:
Last night I dreamed I was, temporarily, back at Gethsemani. I was dressed in a Buddhist monk’s habit, but with more black and red and gold, a "Zen habit," in color more Tibetan than Zen . . . I met some women in the corridor, visitors and students of Asian religion, to whom I was explaining I was a kind of Zen monk and Gelugpa together, when I woke up. (Asian Journal, 107)
A Trappist dreams of being a Buddhist monk? My grandparents recall an American impersonator named Lon Chaney (1883–1930) who was such a master at changing his screen identity that he came to be called "the man with a thousand faces." Fr. Thomas Merton was a man of a thousand lives. He was at one time a womanizer, a member of the Young Communist League, an English student at Columbia, a peace activist, an English teacher at St. Bonaventure University, and a social work volunteer. He was an orphan, the father of a child, a Catholic convert, a Trappist monk, a priest, a poet, a writer, and some describe him as a Zen Buddhist. It is difficult to distill the essence of Thomas Merton: He and his works are complex.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:
• China's Catholics of Guizhou: Three Days with Three Bishops | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
• China's Struggling Catholics: A Second Report on the Church in Beijing | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | September 13, 2008
• China's Thriving Catholics: A Report From Beijing's South Cathedral | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | August 20, 2008
• Two Chinese Churches? Or One? | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
• On Writing A History of Christianity in China | Preface to Christians In China: A.D. 600 to 2000 | Fr. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier
• Two Weeks in the Eternal City: From the Vatican Secret Archives to the Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
• Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson
• Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.