THOMAS (Fr. Louis)
MERTON, O.C.S.O.
(1915–68)
 

 


FR. (Louis) Thomas Merton (1915–68), Trappist monk and writer. Born in Prades, in the French Pyrenees, he was educated in England at Oakham School and Clare College, Cambridge, which he left without taking a degree.  His behavior at Cambridge which may have included fathering a child, resulted in his guardian's insistence that he leave England; whereupon he went on to Columbia University in New York. In the USA he became a Roman Catholic and in 1941 he joined the Trappists at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, taking the name of Louis. The fact that his decision to enter Gethsemani at that time exempted him from military service during World War II has been a source of embarrassment to some of his biographers. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948; pub. in a slightly abridged form in England in 1949 as Elected Silence) portrayed a traditional conversion to Catholicism, but at the same time it presented monastic spirituality to the public, and it had a very wide appeal.

     Merton’s development, recorded in his immense literary output, echoes the changes in modern Roman Catholicism, leading to a greater openness to other traditions (both Christian and non-Christian), and to a deep concern for the moral dilemmas of modern man. His understanding of monasticism also developed, leading him eventually to seek the life of a hermit. He died, electrocuted by a faulty shower, while attending a world conference of contemplatives in Bangkok.

     A controversial biography published in 2009, Beneath the Mask of Holiness, (Mark Shaw, documents Merton's romantic relationships with women, before and after entering the monastery, particularly his clandestine relationship with 19 year-old Margie Smith, a nurse he met while in the hospital, and with whom he continued to communicate until at least 1967.

M. Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston, 1984; London, 1986). D. Grayston, Thomas Merton: The Development of a Spiritual Theologian (Toronto Studies in Theology, 20 [1985]). Popular Life by M. Furlong (London, 1980; rev. edn., 1995). L. Cunningham in, ANB 15 (1999), pp. 370–2.


In April 1966, Merton underwent a surgical procedure to treat debilitating back pain. While recuperating in a Louisville hospital, he fell in love with Margie Smith,[29] a student nurse assigned to his care whom he referred to in his personal diary as “M.” He wrote poems to her and reflected on the relationship in “A Midsummer Diary for M.” Merton struggled to maintain his vows while being deeply in love.


“What have I to do with all that has died, all that has belonged to a false life? What I remember most is me and M. hugging each other close for hours in long kisses and saying, Thank God this at least is real!’ “ 

“She says she thinks of me all the time (as I do of her) and her only fear is that being apart and not having news of each other, we may gradually cease to believe that we are loved, that the other’s love for us goes on and is real. As I kissed her, she kept saying, ‘I am happy, I am at peace now.’ And so was I.”

There is no question I love her deeply ... I keep remembering her body, her nakedness, the day at Wygal’s, and it haunts me ... I could have been enslaved to the need for her body after all. It is a good thing I called it off.”

 (Journals. vol. 6)


This issue is discussed in detail in Shaw, Mark (2009). Beneath The Mask of Holiness. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-230-61653-4. In Learning to Love, Merton’s diary entries discuss his various meetings with Smith, and in several cases he expressly denies sexual consummation, e.g. p. 52. However, on Saturday, June 11, 1966, Merton arranged to ‘borrow’ the Louisville office of his psychologist, Dr. James Wygal, to get together with Smith, see p. 81. The diary entry for that day notes that they had a bottle of champagne. A parenthetical with dots at that point in the narrative indicates that further details regarding this meeting were not published in Learning to Love. In the June 14 entry, Merton notes that he had found out the night before that a brother at the abbey had overheard one of his phone conversations with Smith and had reported it to Dom James, Abbot of Gethsemani. Merton wondered in his diary which phone conversation had been monitored, saying that a conversation he had on Sunday morning, i.e., the morning following the meeting with Smith at Wygal’s office, would be “the worst!!”, see p. 82. The June 14 diary entry also describes Merton’s discussions with Abbot James in this regard, and Merton’s intent to follow the Abbot’s instruction to end his romantic relationship with M. Roughly a month later, in his entry for July 12, 1966, Merton says regarding Smith, “Yet there is no question I love her deeply ... I keep remembering her body, her nakedness, the day at Wygal’s, and it haunts me ... I could have been enslaved to the need for her body after all. It is a good thing I called it off [i.e., a proposed visit by Smith to Gethsemani to speak with Merton there following their break-up, which Merton called off].” See p. 94. Learning to Love reveals that Merton remained in contact with Marge after his July 12, 1966 entry (p.94) and after he recommitted himself to his vows (p. 110). He saw her again on July 16, 1966, and wrote: “She says she thinks of me all the time (as I do of her) and her only fear is that being apart and not having news of each other, we may gradually cease to believe that we are loved, that the other’s love for us goes on and is real. As I kissed her she kept saying, ‘I am happy, I am at peace now.’ And so was I” (p. 97). Despite good intentions, he continued to contact her by phone when he left the monastery grounds. For example, he wrote on January 18, 1967 that “last week” he and two friends “drank some beer under the loblollies at the lake--should not have gone to Bardstown and Willett’s in the evening. Conscience stricken for this the next day. Called M. from filling station outside Bardstown. Both glad” (p. 186).


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