Thomas Merton is a name that can provoke a reaction from all manner of Catholics . . . all manner of reactions as well, depending on whether you invoke the Merton of the 1940’s, a doctrinally orthodox convert to Catholicism who was enamored of his new life in a Trappist monastery, or the Merton of the 1960’s who, although still a monk, seemed more interested in anti-Vietnam politics and Buddhist mysticism. This article, an update of a post I first published six years ago at the time of Merton’s hundredth birthday, is about an illuminating story in one of his early (i.e., orthodox) books. I’ll publish a follow-up post about Merton himself next week.
Although vowed to silence in his everyday life in the Trappist abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Thomas Merton was a gifted writer whose literary work was first permitted, and then encouraged by his superiors. His first and best book is The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography he published in 1948. It’s a beautifully written, compelling story of his conversion to Christ and to Catholicism. He was not without his failings, however, some of them rather serious. Not only that, but toward the end of his life in the mid to late 1960’s he became increasingly drawn to Zen Buddhism. It was not clear that he could still be truly considered a Catholic at the time of his unexpected death in Thailand in 1968.
Prior to his later turn toward Buddhism, however, most of Merton’s writing was thoroughly Catholic and often inspirational. One of my favorite pieces, from his 1949 book The Waters of Siloe, is his account of the founding of his monastery, Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, which had been established by French monks a century earlier. The tale starts with the departure of the founding monks, in the dead of night in the pouring rain, from their original monastery in France; it details their many adventures in getting to, and then across, the Atlantic Ocean, and finally their arrival at their new home in the rolling Kentucky hills.
I had at one time hoped to write a children’s book drawing on Merton’s story (which is itself based on a contemporary account in the monastery’s records). My own kids liked the idea, but, sadly, the late monk’s literary trustees did not share our enthusiasm for the project, so it was not be. Too bad.
Nonetheless, it’s worth reading Merton’s version of the story. He has a wonderful way with a narrative, and makes the most of some of the amusing twists in the story, as when the reclusive Trappists lose their luggage in the worldly sprawl of Paris, or when (again in the pouring rain) the “Silent Monks” need to find a way to wake up the Jesuits under whose roof they were planning to spend their first night on their arrival in Kentucky.
The Parable of the Icarians
The most striking thing in Merton’s story, however, is a little parable which he weaves into the larger narrative. As it happens, among the other passengers on the ship that carries the Trappists to America are members of a secular communal group called the Icarians. Merton doesn’t miss an opportunity to contrast the peace and order of the Trappists, whose little society is founded on Jesus Christ, with the Icarians, who follow the ideas of the socialist utopian Etienne Cabet: the Trappists feed the other travelers, including the Icarians, from their mobile kitchen, while the Icarians prohibit their members from taking spiritual sustenance at the monks’ masses; the Trappists “owned all their property in common. They were, in fact, vowed to the most uncompromising poverty, forbidden to possess anything as individuals,” whereas when the Icarians decide to divide up their wealth one member attempts to make off with all of it and another “wrote a letter of delirious invective against Cabet and then blew out his brains.” The Trappist superior is shocked when one Icarian, who had fallen overboard, confided that he was prepared to stab himself to death rather than drown if nobody came to save him; later, the monk is bemused to discover that another Icarian, who is asking to join the Trappists, is in fact a married man.
Merton himself explains the difference between the two groups as follows:
. . . the monks had Christ living and working in them by faith, by charity. The monks were united by the Holy Spirit in the peace of God, which tames and dominates and sublimates man’s nature and ordains it to the highest possible ends. But the Icarians were united only by the frail bonds of an “armed neutrality” of insatiable animal appetites.
Merton’s thesis is a simple one (which I address from a somewhat different angle in my recent post “What We Owe to Caesar“): Jesus Christ is the foundation of all truth, and a society built on Christ will be orderly and flourishing; a society that relies exclusively on human wisdom is doomed to futility and disintegration. The Icarians (who were actually more successful than most such groups: their last community didn’t disband until 1898, fifty years after they began) are neither the first nor the last example history offers. Merton saw it himself in his own history, in the contrast between the disorder and unhappiness of his early, worldly, life, and the joy that he found in the Christ-centered world of the monastery (and one hopes he found his way back to the Lord before the final end). His tale of the Trappists and the Icarians is just one more illustration that only the house built on the Rock (see Matthew 7:25) will stand.
Featured image above: “The Fall of Icarus” by Bernard Picart (1731)