“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”

    You’re probably familiar with the quote above, a favorite of Pope St. John Paul II.  It’s author is Tertullian (c. A.D. 160 – c. A.D. 220), one of the foremost Christian writers and apologists of his age, who also gave us such essential terms as “Trinity” (Trinitas) and “Three Persons, One Substance” (Tres Personae, Una Substantia).  Despite his enormous achievements, however, and his lasting influence, Tertullian is not considered a Father of the Church; we don’t even call him “Saint” Tertullian:  he chose, sadly, to follow his own judgment rather than that of the Apostolic Church, and fell into heresy in the latter part of his life.

Tertullian AD 155-220

    I first wrote this post six years ago, as a follow-up to my essay “Merton’s Parable of the Trappists and Icarians”.  I had been reminded of Tertullian by several things I read at that time about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton who, if he had still been with us, would have been celebrating his 100th birthday at the time (January 31st 2015).  I don’t mean to suggest that Merton was a figure on a par with Tertullian: the late Trappist made no lasting contribution to the development of Catholic Doctrine, and added no new words to our vocabulary, although he was quite influential in his time (and still is, to a degree).  Like Tertullian, however, he didn’t stay the course: while he never considered himself to have left the Church, his growing involvement with Zen Buddhism in his last years appeared to be carrying him outside the bounds of Christian belief and practice.

     I resisted reading anything by Thomas Merton for a long time, largely, I confess, because I was put off by certain enthusiasts who were mostly interested in his Zen phase. When I first picked up The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography he wrote shortly after joining the Trappists, I wished that I hadn’t waited so long: the story of his conversion was beautiful and inspiring, as was much of his other writing from the 1940’s and 1950’s.
     Sadly, Merton didn’t stay that way.  He has always reminded me of an image from the English historian (and Catholic saint) the Venerable Bede (672-730 A.D), although not in quite the same way Bede used the image.  In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, a retainer of King Edwin of Northumbria convinces him to embrace the new faith of Christianity by telling the king that his life is like a bird that passes through an open window into a well-lit hall, and then out again into the stormy night: his pagan worldview can only explain that brief moment in the light, but what comes before or after is dark.  The Christian Faith, on the other hand, can explain it all.  In Merton’s case, he is the bird in the image.  He flew out of the darkness of his early, unbelieving,  years into the light of the Faith, but appeared to be headed out the far window when he met his end in Thailand in 1968.

Thomas Merton

     As I mentioned above, this post was originally sparked by other articles I read marking the centennial of Merton’s birth.  On the Catholic World Report site, for instance, Karl Olsen had posted a piece (“More on Merton”), a spin-off from an earlier article published in This Rock in 2008 by Anthony E. Clark (Can You Trust Thomas Merton?”) for which Olsen had been the illustrator.  The two pieces highlight the dilemma presented by this conflicted, contradictory monk: yes he was a good Catholic gone bad, but he was also a gifted writer who, in his orthodox period, wrote some insightful and uplifting things.  Clark’s This Rock article very helpfully includes a list of Merton works to avoid, but also enumerates recommended writings, which Clark introduces by saying: “These works represent the early era of Merton’s monastic life, and his views are still quite orthodox.  These books are beautifully written; they are what made Thomas Merton Thomas Merton.”

     It’s tempting to simply drop Merton altogether, given the potential bad influence of his later, heterodox books. I don’t think we should do that.  That’s not the way the Church dealt with Tertullian, or Origen, another almost-Father of the Church gone bad whose good writings are still read.  We should hold on to what what is good and beautiful. We haven’t thrown out the word “Trinity” because Tertullian became a Montanist, and we likewise should not forget The Seven Storey Mountain just because Thomas Merton seemed to lose his way later in life.

One Response

  1. I think your comparison of Tertullian and Thomas Merton is unfair. If we distinguish their accomplishments, by saying, “I don’t mean to suggest that Merton was a figure on a par with Tertullian: the late Trappist made no lasting contribution…”, then we should also be clear that Merton also did not share Tertullian’s apostasy.

    Merton has been treated very unfairly since his death. Scholars have praised and condemned Merton to suit their own agendas, while for 50 years the truth about Thomas Merton’s death has been deliberately concealed.

    Thomas Merton’s Martyrdom

    They say his death was meaningless.
    That’s what they want us to swallow.
    But in light of all the evidence,
    Their argument rings hollow.

    His life was full of purpose,
    But we must to the world confide:
    His words had no more meaning
    Than the things for which he died. -David Martin


    Hugh Turley, co-author of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation

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