Thomas Merton, a Man of Contradictions

by James Martin, SJ

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, propelled him to fame, continued to be a man of contradictions even after he entered the Trappist monastery in 1941: struggling with his own vocation while touting the virtues of monastic life, he battled superiors while writing about the value of obedience, desiring travel while simultaneously treasuring his seclusion, seeking the company of others while loving his solitude, and planning book after book even as he believed that writing tempted him greatly to the sin of pride.

It is these contradictions that draw me to Merton. One can stand back and say, “Yes, this man of opposites, this proud and boastful monk, who was sometimes unwilling to listen to advice, sometimes overly self-absorbed, sometimes overly spiteful, was also holy. He was dedicated to God and to the church, helpful to so many, generous with his talent, time and prayers, wishing peace to all he met.” Seeing that someone so human could be holy gives me great hope.

Especially with Merton one sees both the sins and the sanctity. And I wonder if this isn’t something like the way God sees us.

Here’s a final paradox of Merton’s life: In 1968, after years of butting heads with his religious superiors, Thomas Merton was granted permission to leave the monastery for an extended trip to Asia. On his way he stopped in a place called Polannaruwa, in Sri Lanka, where he paused before immense statues of the Buddha. He was overwhelmed by a feeling of grace, of contentment, unlike he has ever known. “Looking at these figures,” he wrote, “I was suddenly, almost forcibly jerked clean of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the robes themselves, became evident and obvious.”

A few weeks later on December 10, 1968, at an ecumenical conference in Bangkok, on a warm day while taking a bath, he slipped in the bathtub, grabbed an electric fan and was electrocuted.

And so the devout Catholic monk received a final mystical experience in front of a statue of the Buddha in Sri Lanka. The man who took a vow of stability to a Kentucky monastery died in Bangkok miles and miles from home, called home by the One whom he sought in contradictions.

 James Martin, SJ

James Martin, SJ

James Martin, SJ, is associate editor of America magazine and a prolific author, writer, and editor.

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