The spiritual journey has become almost a cliché these days, what with boomers obsessing over their mortality and glomming onto everything from evangelical Christianity to American-style Buddhism in a fervent attempt to locate their souls. I’m as guilty as the next guy when it comes to jury-rigging a spiritual identity, flitting from the Vietnamese Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh to Taoist Lao Tzu to Methodist Charles Wesley to Tibetan Buddhist Sogyal Rinpoche and back again. There’s much to be learned from these fellows, but none of them packs quite the wallop you get from a visit with Thomas Merton.
For years I eyed Merton from afar, tasting his peculiar passion in small doses here and there (Raids on the Unspeakable, Mystics and Zen Masters) while relegating him to some lofty pantheon of impossibly enlightened people. Here was a guy, after all, who chose the most severe and rigorous cloister imaginable, a Trappist monastery where the very act of speech was limited. Mortals like myself cannot relate.
But after devouring the 50th-anniversary edition of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (Harcourt Brace, 1998), I’ve changed my mind. It turns out Merton was every bit the bewildered seeker looking for something he could never quite put his finger on, the kind of guy you might meet in a bar posing as just another drunk intellectual. It gives a guy hope.
As elementary as it may seem to the more spiritually well-traveled among us, Merton’s odyssey, filled as it is with all manner of politely understated debauchery (including an illegitimate child conceived during a year at Cambridge), portrays our moral vulnerability in a way only guilt-ridden Christians can: ‘Did I know that my own sins were enough to have destroyed the whole of England and Germany?’ he writes at the first ominous signs of World War II. ‘There has never yet been a bomb invented that is half so powerful as one mortal sin.’
Merton’s relentless self-flagellation rises above tedium and self-pity, though, and his journey becomes more inspiring than insipid as he eventually accepts his calling and navigates the narrow straits of Catholic orthodoxy, ever-convinced that God had no use for him. Only the hardest of hearts could keep from rooting for Merton.
But there’s more here than just an uplifting tale of Christian perseverance; Merton’s passion helps us see Western spirituality in a new light. ‘Sometimes it is more difficult to have a dialogue with people in our own tradition than with those of another tradition,’ writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Living Buddha, Living Christ. ‘Most of us have suffered from feeling misunderstood or even betrayed by those of our own tradition.’
I’m not a Catholic–lapsed or otherwise–but Merton’s struggles help to bridge the rift I’ve experienced between my Christian roots and the Eastern spiritual paths that Thich Nhat Hanh and others represent. The contemplative life, the idea of meditation and solitude and sacred work, is at home in every spiritual tradition, Merton tells us. We needn’t look so far afield to find a home for a disciplined, passionate practice. Everyone, as it were, is a buddha–or a saint.
Merton himself had to learn this. Wandering around New York at a time when he was only beginning to feel his calling, Merton was asked by his friend Robert Lax what he wanted to do with his life.
‘I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.’
‘What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?’
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
‘What you should say’–he told me–‘what you should say is that you want to be a saint.’
A saint! The thought struck me a little weird. I said: ‘How do you expect me to become a saint?’
‘By wanting to,’ said Lax, simply.
. . . ‘All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.’
Not exactly nirvana, but pretty close.
Craig Cox is executive editor of Utne Reader.