Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lessons from Thomas Merton

By Mark Shaw

Thomas Merton was called the "greatest spiritual writer of the twentieth century" by Dutch priest and author Henri Nouwen. Ann Lamott said Merton was "a source of lightness and comfort and humor," and Joan Baez believed Merton "had a lightness like the Dalai Lama."

Certainly all of these comments are true, and Merton, a contemporary of Hemingway, Kerouac, and Fitzgerald who wrote more than seventy books including such classics as The Seven Storey Mountain, New Seeds of Contemplation, Wisdom of the Desert, and No Man Is An Island, remains a spiritual voice today regarding his advocacy of the contemplative life, detaching oneself from the crazy side of life.

But, like nearly every legendary wordsmith before him, Merton had a dark side, one caused by guilt over pre-monastic sins ranging from drunkenness, womanizing to the extent of fathering an illegitimate child, adultery, and being a draft dodger. Together with his lack of knowing of what loving, and being loved, was all about, Merton suffered in anguish beneath a mask of holiness pretending to be something he was not so as to satisfy Catholic Church handlers bent on preserving his "plastic saint" image.

Only when Merton finally broke free of the chains binding him in 1966 by falling madly in love with Margie Smith, a student nurse half his age, could he finally discover freedom. He called her a "miracle in my life," one "who completes me." The erotic affair was condemned by the church and Merton was forced to sneak romantic interludes into the clandestine relationship to the extent of making love to Margie in a friendly doctor's office. But the true, selfless love he felt for Margie finally caused Merton to give her up since he knew a life with him under the thumb of the Catholics would be no good for either one of them. Forsaking the love he had waited his whole life to experience, he broke her heart and his, but simply having learned how to love, and be loved set him free as never before.

Exposing the private, warts and all, side of this gifted wordsmith has become quite controversial as vicious attacks from all sides, especially those who feel the book is "anti-catholic," have occurred including accusations that this author chose a "lurid title" with sexual overtones replete with "purple prose." The book has been called a "farce," "pulp fiction," and "badly written . . . a bad book." Poor reviews are part of the risk any author takes, but the personal attacks have been shocking especially when compared with complimentary ones such as Merton scholar Robert Inchausti's saying, "I thought your book was brave, beautifully written, and an honest tribute to Merton." A fellow author called the book "a masterpiece," and educator Jim Seaton wrote, "This is a compulsively readable book, written with the verve and pace of a mystery thriller."

Attempts at banning the book have resulted in the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Merton spent more than twenty years, denying its sale at its bookshop. The assault continues, but there is hope as many people not afraid of the truth are reading what I believe to be a very inspiring story, a true Romeo and Juliet, and discovering a human side of Merton they never knew before. This permits them to connect with the famous monk, and to read his wise words of advice for those confused in a confusing world. Writers like Merton are the guideposts by which we learn and grow, and to silence him is not only censorship and denial of free speech, but denial of our basic right to read all points of view whether we agree with them or not.

Mark Shaw is a "reformed" defense lawyer and television legal analyst turned author of nearly twenty books. Formally a columnist for the Aspen Daily News, Mark lives near Boulder, Colorado with his wife Wen-ying Lu, and their beloved Labrador, Black Sox. More about Mark:


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