Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
December 10th, 2008

The Belly of a Paradox

Forty years after his death, Thomas Merton still causes controversy


Forty years ago today, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and perhaps the most popular American Catholic writer in history, stepped out of a bathroom shower during a visit to Bangkok. Slipping on the wet floor, he grabbed a poorly wired fan for support and was electrocuted. For many years, Merton had unsuccessfully sought permission from his superiors to travel outside his monastery in Bardstown, Kentucky. A few months after a new abbot was elected in early 1968, he assented to Merton’s request to attend an interfaith conference that December in Thailand. En route he met the Dalai Lama, who called him a “Catholic geshe,” or spiritual master.

Merton enjoyed paradoxes, and spoke of himself, like Jonah in the whale, as living in the “belly of a paradox.” The author of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” an autobiography that became an instant bestseller upon its publication in 1948, was a humble man who enjoyed fame, a Catholic priest fascinated by Zen Buddhism, a solitary mystic who craved company, and a cloistered monk who died far from home.

Paradoxes characterize Merton’s legacy as well. Why is this devout Catholic writer, whose autobiography proclaims a triumphal view of Catholicism and faintly mocks other religions, so beloved by seekers, doubters and agnostics? Conversely, why is this Catholic priest rejected in so many contemporary Catholic quarters?

The first paradox is explained by his writings. Merton’s most popular works are not the heavy-going theological tomes, but his autobiographical writings and journals. By turns lively, chatty and profound, Merton struggles with prayer, grumbles over his abbot’s refusal to let him travel, and fumes about being silenced by the Trappists when he writes about peace during the Cold War. Near the end of his life, he falls in love with a nurse he meets during a hospital stay. In all these experiences, he seeks to see signs of God.

Merton appeals to seekers and doubters because of his unflinching honesty in his quest for the “true self” and for God. No matter how long he has been a monk, Merton considers himself en route to God. (His most famous prayer begins, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.”) And he is not afraid to change his mind, later rejecting the more solipsistic passages in his autobiography. “The man who finished ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ … is dead,” he wrote in 1951. He is open, transparent, curious, protean and, finally, human.

His appeal among Catholics, however, is not as solid. In 2005, the editors of the “United States Catholic Catechism for Adults” planned to feature stories of prominent American Catholics. Initially, Merton was included among other noteworthies, until some high-profile Catholics opposed the move. Bowing to pressure, the editors expunged him. One bishop explained that Merton no longer speaks to contemporary readers, a surprise considering the author’s Amazon numbers, 40 years after his death, would be the envy of most living authors.

Merton’s affair with the nurse known as “M” also scandalizes those who think that monks never fall in love. (After both ended the relationship, a chastened Merton returned to his chastity.) Even the manner of his death raised suspicions. His last words to the Bangkok conference were, “So I will disappear from view and we can all have a Coke or something.” Friends dismiss rumors of suicide, attributing his death to a lifelong clumsiness.

But what raises the most suspicion is his longtime affinity for Eastern spiritual traditions. Merton’s trip to the Asian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, during which he described a mystical experience before a statue of the Buddha in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), makes some traditional Catholics queasy, and gave rise to the now-widespread rumor that he planned to leave the monastery, or the church. This is false. In a letter a few weeks before his death in 1968, he wrote to a close friend, “Keep telling everyone that I am a monk of Gethsemani and intend to remain one all my days.”

The body of the bestselling author who corresponded with Boris Pasternak, Abraham Heschel and Pope John XXIII, was returned to his monastery with his worldly goods: rosary beads (broken), glasses, a small icon, a prayer book, a $10 Timex watch. A final paradox: the man who preached against war returned to the States in the belly of an Air Force bomber bringing back the bodies of dead soldiers from Vietnam. His grave in the abbey cemetery is next to the abbot who had denied him permission to travel, an irony that would have delighted this saint of paradoxes.

The Author : James Martin, SJ
James Martin SJ is the culture editor of America magazine the national Catholic Weekly published by the Jesuits. He is the author of numerous books including My Life with the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything but is perhaps best known as "chaplain" to The Colbert Report due to his frequent appearances on the show.
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  • Paul

    Joseph was much older than Mary. Are we going to consider it a form of abuse as well? Ok, Merton wasnt going to marry M but potentially he could. Is love forbidden to people of such a significant age difference?

  • jburca

    I have no background to discuss the religious aspect of this subject, however, having read that Margie Smith was 20 years old, a nurse – or student nurse – at the time and that Thomas Merton was not in a position of authority over her I find the accusations of abuse over the top. Also, as they were both consenting adults, neither her age or his is an issue worth becoming “shaken” over.

  • ali

    I think for a lot of us, Merton is a welcomed breath of tolerance, intelligence, and an example of sincere striving at a time when the world is riff with intolerance and social and political polarization. Like many of the so-called pundits (who also claim to be “Christian”)those who use the word “abuse” when referring to Merton’s relationship with M. must be careful when using such charged words. I hardly think that a consensual relationship with a 19/20 yr. old constitutes abuse and as such is none of our business nor are any of us in the position to judge. It may have been Mae West, or someone like her who once said, that the worst sinners make the best saints.While I don’t think Merton was the worst sinner by a long shot, I do think he should be in the running as a saint for our times.

  • Mimi

    Has everyone forgotten that Merton himself told those interested in his background not to forget he was an orphan. To lose his mother at 5 to cancer, his father at 15 to a brain tumor, his only sibling in WWII, to have been moved around internationally and to have been left in a boarding school, set him up for acting in the way he did as a young man. He resolved much of his inner turmoil in Gethsemane, but to be so ill and have a young nurse touch and care for him must have been the answer to a very deep desire from his earliest childhood. I think the relationship with M. was a form of healing and he was able to leave the relationship without malice on either side. M. never published a delicious “tell all” book. Most of his family had been taken from him and he had abused others. This was against his vows, but was a healing that may not have occurred otherwise. Only God knows. We all have dark shadows.

  • Kate

    As a person who has been lucky to befriend many religious in my life, I’ve become increasingly aware that lots of civilians (including my former self) regard the vows of poverty, chastisty, and obedience on a bit of a sliding scale. No one tends to begrudge the vowed priest lavish meals, expensive cocktails, vacations at his order’s lovely retreat properties (many occupying enviable swaths of shoreline and mountainside), or access to fine automobiles; nor do they find it particularly damning when one admits an occasional lapse in obedience. But the mere suggestion that the priest is a sexual being who might be attracted to or fall in love with a woman, or, God forbid, touch one, is absolutely horrifying.

    I think people are uncomfortable with Thomas Merton because most people have exaggerated hang-ups with sex that distort their idea of vowed life. From what I understand, the priestly vows are of co-equal importance; a very human failure to maintain the vow to poverty is no less important than a failure of chastity — and the latter is no more damnable than the former.

    I once met a new seminarian who spoke of a seminary classmate who was so scared of the very idea of sexuality that he referred to a dinner meal as “grilled chicken chests.” I also have a priest friend who was taken to task by a parishoner for publicly hugging me (who she described to him as “some blonde woman”) on the rectory steps after I’d stopped to say hello. Right in broad daylight!

    Fr. Merton’s appreciation for Eastern spirituality seems to me to only confirm the suspicions of those who find his candor about his sexuality abhorrent. But I suppose that in a world with an attitude toward sexuality so variously and dramatically skewed as it is in ours, there’s not much more to be expected.

  • RelicMM

    I seriously challenge that he is the most popular American Catholic writer in history unless you perhaps preface that with dissident. I read his book after I converted in 1949, and while it was an engaging story of apparently unrequited searching for truth, I found many questionble parodies of doctrines I had learned well during extensive instructions as an adult convert. I am not sure that he ever found the answers he sought. His writing blends in well with the questioning and dissenting search for change spirt of the Second Vatican Council. His way could not be my way.

  • Fay

    Dear Fr. Martin,
    My heart skipped a beat when I learned this morning of the death of Cardinal Dulles — truly a humble man and the stuff of saintliness at least from what I can see. I’ve been thinking a good deal about Thomas Merton these past few days and it occurs to me this morning that a comparison of Dulles and Merton might be fruitful simple because they both have “conversion” stories. Admittedly, they are as different as apples and oranges and “there are many rooms in my Father’s House,” etc., but it might be fun and instructive and give you an opportunity to persuade some of us to overlook Merton’s “glitz” and focus on his conversion and life. This of course for a later date after all the tributes and grieving for Cardinal Dulles have been expressed.
    How privileged you must feel to have been a “companion” of Fr. Dulles. I’m very sorry and send you and all the other Jesuits in your community best wishes and prayers for all of you..

  • James Martin, SJ

    Dear Dan,
    Thanks for your comment. Some carpal tunnel is preventing a longer answer today, but, in short, Christians in general (not just Catholics) find Eastern spiritualities interesting for a number of reasons–none of which mean that they’re not good Christians. For Merton it was, I think, primarily the confluence between the “practices” or “techniques” between his own prayer (which had a goal: God) and the Zen prayer (which, as I understand it, was goal-less). In this way his “via negativa” seemed to find some common ground (though in the end the two part ways over God) in terms of practices: breathing, posture, lack of any expectations, etc. And Merton was simply curious about everything! He also related to individuals in that tradition (Suzuki, the Dalai Lama) as friends.

    As for making enemies in the Kremlin, Merton was more interested in simply writing about peace, which won him enemies almost everywhere. Though he was of course vindicated with the publication of John XXIII’s “Pacem in Terris,” I think.

    Dear Bill,
    I’m not sure if I used the words “emotional equipment,” but Merton was, at times, someone who could be petulant and angry and self-centered, at least according to his writings and journals. Though he was ordained he was as human (and sometimes sinful) as the rest of us.

    James Martin, SJ

  • Bill Rydberg

    Fr James, I find the comment about Fr Merton lacking “emotional equipment” rather troubling. That is to say, I don’t believe that he was as normal as the rest of most red blooded males. Please keep in mind that he was a qualified Confessor and therefore had the experience of seeing the secrets of emn’s souls. Let’s not discount the sources of temptation. Grace and Peace with prayers always…

  • Dan

    Dear Fr. Jim,

    As a Jesuit, perhaps you could comment on why some Western Catholics find eastern spirituality to be so fascinating. Anthony deMello and Merton seem to cross some unwritten line which triggers a reaction from (at least some) authorities in the Church. However, others writers on Eastern (and also Christian) mysticism, like William Johnson don’t threaten the official-traditional understanding of our faith. Perhaps they felt he encouraged a bit too much liberty of conscience. John Courtney Murray eventually found his ideas accepted after a period of being under suspicion by the Curia.

    I appreciate what you said about Merton’s candor and reflections of humility. This is critical, since the only hesitation I see them legitimately having is that these said officials are concerned about somebody being misled by his example. It took many years for Joan of Arc or Thomas More to be recognized as saints, too. You noted that this is the 40th anniversary of his death. Forty years is often a symbol in Biblical language for a transition, like in Exodus.

    Perhaps if Merton made more enemies in the Kremlin, like Pius XII and John Paul II did, there would be less suspicion about Merton’s earlier empathy with International Communism. He did a work called “My Argument with the Gestapo”, which unless you’re in Bonhoeffer’s position, (not safely in the USA), did not didn’t require lots of courage. If he went after the KGB and their work in Ukraine, its minions in the Roosevelt administration, Hollywood, and our universities, it would have shown his even-handedness. Solzhenitsen and Walter Ciszek come to mind here. He witnessed the sterility of Oxford, and spoke earnestly of the vacuity of it all, implying what had been lost was a spiritual flame. A monastery is in a way a bit like a commune, and he could see the differences between it and what was done in the USSR. Like Augustine going after the Manicheans following his conversion, Merton would have been very well suited to discern the differences between the actual and the advertised versions of Communism. His own experience with authority in the monastary would be helpful for him to see the peril of an entire government or worldview based on such principles, enforced on its citizens from birth. He could have spoken to the Dalai Lama of his own experience with Mao’s minions in Tibet. This is my own speculation, so I wish to hear your opinions.

    I sense a paradox in all this reluctance to give credit to the obvious value in Merton’s witness. Perhaps he would find that in itself to be an amusing and a valuable exercise: can the living now judge the dead ? Do we look for a miraculous sign or two in order to confirm his sainthood ? Will that pursuit really help the Church ? I don’t know.

  • Bill Rydberg

    Brothers and Sisters, For me, this article is a message to all of the laity to pray to the good God for the well being and protection of our beloved Religious. That they may ever be attentive to the promptings of our Lord the Holy Spirit and to the only garantor of the true path to the Eternal Word, which is our Magisterium in communion with the Pope. Finally, its wise to remember that temptation never ends in this earthly life. Therefore its prudent to read Scupoli or Fr Jonathin of the Oratory’s update. Consecrate oneself to the Immaculate Conception and read the magisterial document: LETTER TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON SOME ASPECTS OF CHRISTIAN MEDITATION by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (copy located at: http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfmed.htm . Lets remember that the glory of God is man fully alive! Grace and Peace with prayers always…

  • Jessamyn Slon

    I”m relieved that someone mentioned “Learning to Love,” edited by Dr. Christine Bochen (who happens to be my academic adviser at Nazareth College, where I am a student, so I admit I”m a little partial), a collection of journal entries of his about this very episode in his life, the subtitle of which is “Exploring Solitude and Freedom,” which expresses much of the immense impact of “M” in his personal development. This is actually what I find most fascinating about Merton”s life and spirituality, not as a perfect model of obedience, but as a human who acknowledges that love is a natural and almost necessary experience in life. Of course there are consequences and ramifications for willingly exploring such a “freedom,” but it is through this personal love and intimacy that he is able to experience God in a very different way. It speaks volumes about lay Catholics and contemplatives who also experience love and personal relationships, and it asks questions about the variety of ways God is present in our spiritual journeys, whatever unexpected and seemingly “wrong” turns they take.

  • Gideon

    Amen to that Patrick. I don’t see how judging TM here about something that has already been thoroughly discussed and dissected is gong to accomplish anything at all.

  • patrick

    WEll, Margie smith was in her 20’s which is really not quite as childlike as one would think. Frankly, who the hell are we to judge? In Lerarning to Love, TM was clearly troubled by all of this, yet ,somehow, he was working through and really, seriously, flesh-and-blood learning to love,not in an intellectual dry ss bones way. We do prefer our “heroes” neat, clean,perfect,despite protests to the contrary.I am deeply impressed by Mertons honesty, his ability to struggle with truth, to know that there are many ways to approach that truth, and his ultimate acceptance of himself as a flawed,brilliant child of a loving God.Would we all be so honest

  • James Martin, SJ

    Dear Fay and Mark,
    Yes I have actually read all of Merton’s journals.
    In my reading, he is tormented by his affair with M. Also, his earlier affair with the woman in London still torments him (though the question of whether he actually fathered a child is still up in the air with biographers). It is that remorse that causes him to confess this before his entrance into the monastery. Frankly, he seemed ashamed of his youthful sexual escapades for his entire life, at least until the time he meets M. He realizes how immature he was in his dealings with women during his time at Oakham, Cambridge and Columbia. And how immature his entire outlook on women is.
    Also, as I read Merton he is at times emotionally immature, but quite mature when it comes to taking responsibility for his sins. As with many of holy men and women he knew his sins better than anyone. Also, I think we may have to admit the possibility that this young woman was more emotionally mature than Merton was. From all accounts, it seems to have been a mutual attraction. And I assure you I am not cavalier about the breaking of the religious vow of chastity, having professed the same vow myself. In fact, I would go further and say that Merton at the time was breaking all three vows: chastity, as well as poverty (by asking for money to make phone calls to M) and obedience (by going outside the monastery grounds without permission). This is not an edifying episode in Merton’s life, but then again, even the holiest of saints were not perfect in their Christian lives, and understood their need for constant conversion, as Merton manifestly did.
    James Martin, SJ

  • mark

    Wow, Jim, you are pretty cavalier about this.

    A 51-year old very famous man with a young woman.

    The claim of “falling in love” is not necessarily distinct from abuse. In fact, many who sexually exploit others do feel that they are in love. It is part of the pathology.

    Power differential. Age differential. Ministerial authority in play, as well as the pathos of the injured patient.

    Not a sweet idyll. A rather disturbing expression of self-absorption and arrested development.

  • Fay

    Hi Fr. Martin,
    I very much agree with Mark. Have you read Robert Royal’s The Several-Storied Thomas Merton (First Things, February 1997)…you can google the article. Also, have you actually read all of Merton’s Journals? I was curious about Merton’s lack of any disclosure of remorse over what appears to be real “abuse” of the young nurse, and also his seemingly lack of concern for the young women with whom he fathered a child and the child much earlier in his life. Most people with his background would exhibit at least some lingering big time guilt on all this. Not so Thomas, at least as I read his journals. I just got the impression that he spent too much time gazing at himself.

  • James Martin, SJ

    Dear Mark,
    Thanks for your comment. I’ll have to ask my friend Robert about that. I’d not heard him say that before. Sounds interesting.
    As for abuse, I would say that’s a pretty loaded word these days. The story of his affair is most completely told in Paul Elie’s “The Life You Save Me Be Your Own” and of course Merton’s own journals. You can also read my reflections on it in my book “Becoming Who You Are.” “M” or “Margie” has never written about it, which is admirable I think.
    As it happens, though, Merton himself had very little emotional equipment to deal with falling in love. His previous experience, in college, had mainly been in rather shallow relationships, and, after entering the monastery, his primary relationship with a woman was with the Blessed Mother. So this was, at a late age, his first real time of falling in love, and he came at it almost like a college student.
    My point was not so much that it was unimportant, but that falling in love as a religious is not as uncommon as outsiders may think. Those in religious orders are human and “liable” to fall in love. Remember he was also at a low ebb, in the hospital at the time. Breaking one’s vows is a very serious matter, but Merton, after falling in love despite himself, realized the error of his ways and recommitted himself to his vows. Which takes a great deal of faith, I believe.

  • mark


    I don’t think you should diminish the importance of the affair with the nurse.

    I heard Bob Ellsburg speak on this a while back and he said that in exploring what really happened and confronting the age of the young woman (I believe she was 19 or so), he was himsef rather shaken in his assessment of Merton. It prompted him to rethink many things.

    He did not say this, but from my perspective, when you examine the situation, it comes awfully close to an abuse situation – an abuse of power, of age differential, of something.

    It is not something to be brushed off, and for that reason, I’m fine with him being left out of the exemplary models in the Catechism, for all the other good that he has done.

  • Michael Miller

    Some people are uncomfortable with Thomas Merton because they believe his contemplative life was adversely affected by his exposure to non-Christian contemplative traditions. I have listened to most of the explanations for this negative opinion of Merton and frankly I don’t understand them. In my own tradition (Camaldolese Benedictine) there is a strong element of encouraging dialogue between contemplatives of the Christian and other traditions (Buddhist, Confucianist, Hindu, Taoist, etc). Thomas Aquinas told us that God dazzles us by an excess of truth.

    Often ‘truth’ is ‘not knowing’. This way we keep unraveling our comfort zone until we face the unknowable again. Thomas Merton encourages not to wait for signs or revelations, or to weave theories or contemplate values that would have us stand still and risk not growing. Some people are not comfortable with this.

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