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Thomas Merton: Sinner Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 30 December 2013

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In the histories of art and literature, there have been many great works created by terrible people. (Think of Tolstoy.) Some say it goes with the territory, that it has something to do with passions surging over the banks of art, swamping the artist.

Of course (and this may be equivocation), most artists – Catholic artists included – aren’t actual scoundrels or secret libertines. And even when they have their, um . . . faults, the good work they do may be redeeming, although that’s not for me to say without that powerfully conditional “may.”

Thomas Merton, for instance, is arguably the most famous Catholic convert of twentieth-century America, in addition to being the author of a conversion story (The Seven Storey Mountain) that became a runaway best-seller in spiritually starved post-World War II America. But he had faults.

For all I know, monasteries may be filled with men living secret lives. Merton’s own Trappist confessor, Fr. Matthew Kelty, was one. Kelty died in 2011, in his nineties, not long after “outing” himself in a harebrained essay in which he claims not only that he was homosexual, but that “gay” men make the best monks. This suits both a modernist and a revisionist version of monks, medieval and modern – power-hungry and sex-crazed (whatever else their virtues) – but it’s almost certainly not true: wasn’t then; isn’t now.

There is no doubt, however, that between 1966 and 1968 (the year he died) Fr. Merton had an “affair” with a student nurse from Louisville. Liberal Catholics will assert that this makes no difference regarding Merton’s holiness, that, in fact, the relationship “humanizes” him – whatever that ludicrous word is supposed to mean.

But I also put the word affair in scare quotes, because in the journal he kept, he refers only to kisses shared, adamantly insisting (to whom one can’t say): “We did nothing wrong!”

But, surely, necking in the bluegrass with a woman half your age doesn’t quite constitute “right” for a Trappist monk.

Some young filmmakers having been trying to make a film about Merton’s relationship with the woman he called “M.” in his journal. I’m not sure they’ve made much progress, but it’s apparently easier to take a stab at that part of the Merton story than seek to acquire the film rights to The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which the Abbey of Gethsemani steadfastly refuses to sell.

That book, which Merton always referred to simply as Mountain, originally began this way:

When a man is conceived, when a human nature comes into being as an individual, concrete, subsisting thing, a life, a person, then God’s image is minted into the world. A free, vital, self-moving entity, a spirit informing flesh, a complex of energies ready to be set into fruitful motion begins to flame with love, without which no spirit can exist.
 
Thomas Merton Playing Bongos by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1968
 
That’s marvelous, isn’t it? And better than what I’ve always considered a wonderful opening sentence:
On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French Mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.

I actually understand why editor Robert Giroux would later write that the original manuscript began badly with its “offputting sermon-essay,” which is much longer than the two sentences quoted above. The genre into which Giroux’s employer, Harcourt Brace & Company, intended to place the book was autobiography not spirituality. (The New York Times refused to list it as a non-fiction bestseller, because it was a “religious” book.)

With Merton’s literary genius and Giroux’s temperate editing, the book went on to become a classic: what their Columbia professor Mark Van Doren wryly defined as a book “that stays in print.”

Mountain almost didn’t see the light of day, because a monastic censor judged it unfit to print as too “colloquial,” which apparently meant too gritty. Merton took care of that in a letter, written in perfect French, to the head of the Trappist order. But the book was still redacted.

Giroux’s introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Mountain is worth reading, although its aura is substantially dimmed by a “Note to the Reader” by the founder of the International Thomas Merton Society, who describes the book as essentially an apology for the backwardness of the Roman Catholic Church into which Merton became a convert, and which has since become haunted “by a siege mentality, wagons-circled around doctrinal and moral absolutes, [clinging] to its past with great tenacity.”

But back to the affair.

The woman in question, Merton calls her “M.” in his journal (and whose full name has been revealed elsewhere), has consented to a few interviews but has never revealed details about the degree of her intimacy with the priest/writer. Many have conjectured. None with knowledge have come forward to fill in the missing details. And why should they?

But a writer named Donna Freitas wrote a novel based upon the affair in which a famous priest/author becomes the stalker of a young woman he mentors about writing. Merton is her model. Miss Freitas says that because he trashed his vows and because of the age-power imbalance in the affair, she can’t forgive Merton:

She was practically a girl and he almost an old man. I can’t seem to get this business enough out of my head to read Merton like the brilliant intellectual and writer I once imagined him to be.
I’m inclined to agree. But I don’t.

The sins in this melodrama are many and possibly worse than stated, but are sins not forgivable? The affair was short-lived, and it appears that Merton at least had moved on – confessed and absolved, we hope. And Mountain and a number of his other books are no less great because he sinned. No author was ever sinless.

Thomas Merton was a teacher but not a guru, and probably not a saint.

 
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (35)Add Comment
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written by Jack,CT, December 30, 2013
Brad,
A beatifully written essay!
I was truly clinging to every word and I
love the message of "Sin".and he humaness
of it...
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written by Manfred, December 30, 2013
If you are going to bring up Merton at all, you might want to mention that he had received permission to go to Thailand to study Eastern religions, of which he had developed an intense interest. He was finally ordered back to Gethsemane by his superiors and he refused to return. He died in Bangkok in 1968 at age 53 under very suspicious circumstances involving an electric fan and his bath.
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written by A Catholic Seminarian, December 30, 2013
This is an interesting piece, Mr. Miner. Seven-Storey Mountain is indeed an excellent spiritual autobiography is indeed a classic of the genre and a very worthy read, no doubt about it. And by all means we should be very wary of judging anyone's life, even that of a religious, based on a single sinful incident like the affair you've described. God's mercy is boundless if one is repentant and truly seeks it; this we know from Christ's revelations to St. Faustina Kowalska and His pleas for her to spread the hope-filled message of Divine Mercy throughout the world.

Nevertheless, I think there is a much more problematic aspect to Merton's spiritual journey over the course of his life: some would say he became a religious syncretist the more deeply he delved into Eastern spirituality later in his life, and indeed many priests and spiritual directors caution the faithful not to delve too deeply into his writings beyond The Seven-Storey Mountain for this very reason. He expressed deep interests in Buddhist and Hindu theological ideas and some would argue that he even embraced a quasi-pantheistic approach to "finding God" and "knowing God" which belie a rejection of basic Catholic soteriology. I realize that the length of the columns here at The Catholic Thing severely limit how much you can delve into an issue in a single column, but I would have expected to see at least a passing mention of this problematic aspect of Merton's spiritual journey so as to at least caution the orthodox faithful about the man's entire body of spiritual writings.
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written by Mack Hall, December 30, 2013
Bongos -- chilling. Did these lead to guitars, felt banners, and "folk" masses?
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written by DXM, December 30, 2013
Merton's affair appears to have been un-repented sin, which massively undercuts any claim that he is any sort of guide for Catholics. Merton had a great talent for writing. He was far from being a saint however.
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written by Rich in MN, December 30, 2013
I know very little of Thomas Merton. (I read The Seven Storey Mountain" about 30 years ago but, other than the phrase "the four walls of my new freedom," I do not remember much about it.) However, I do remember some years back when Dr. Alice von Hildebrand was asked about Merton's work. As I recall, she could recommend Merton's earlier work as good Catholic spirituality but she warned that Merton's later writings had drifted too far into Eastern spirituality and that she could not classify them as decidedly "Catholic" thought.

Regarding the 'caveat' written by the founder of the Int'l Thomas Merton Society, a few years back I purchased a Chesterton novel (I believe it was "The Man Who Was Thursday") and read a similar disclaimer in the introduction. I must admit that I have had to confess the sin of despondency over the way Catholic morality has been increasingly marginalized, derided, suppressed and blacklisted. I asked one of my "progressive" friends about the whole "freedom of speech" thing and she explained by comparing Catholic teaching to neo-Nazis holding a rally and shouting derogatory epithets at a Jewish person's funeral. And she was being dead serious; hopefully her "serious" will not transition into our "dead."

So there you have it, folks. We do have freedom of "love" speech but not "hate" speech. I've got to go now and make my contribution to "The Catholic Thing"....
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written by Rosemary, December 30, 2013
I agree with A Catholic Seminarian. Thirty years ago I read a biography of Merton's life. It begins sadly: His parents were part of the "Me" generation of the 1920s, off partying and enjoying themselves and their money. Merton's only sibling, an older brother, was separated from him when they were young (I can't remember if it was due to death or boarding school - same thing). He grew up essentially alone, neglected. I truly felt sorry for the man who had to endure such a loveless and lonely childhood.
Because of this, the Trappist Order was perhaps not the appropriate one for Merton. He probably realized too late that he thrived more among the laity. It would have filled a lot of holes in his life, and he may not have needed the type of warmth he eventually sought from the student. Or he may have left the priesthood, married, and we never would have heard from him again.
Certainly, it would have helped if he had written his own "Confessions" as a sign of repentance. It would have been a help to priests and laypersons. As it is, his life reached a crescendo and then fizzled. He deserved better than that.
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written by Shawnbm, December 30, 2013
I echo what the seminarian indicates above; Thomas Merton wrote some brilliant pieces of catholic spirituality and likely led many converts and cradle Catholics into a deeper sense if mystery and theological reflection, but he did seem to stray from orthodox Catholicism and even outright violated various vows of obedience as a Trappist monk and vows of celibacy as a catholic priest. The essay might have explored that more, but all of our time is limited, isn't it? Thank you.
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written by Patsy, December 30, 2013
I'm with Catholic Seminarian.

I'll admit it. I owe a LOT to Seven Storey Mountain, since reading it some years ago kick-started what ultimately became my own discernment of a contemplative vocation (I'm seriously discerning with a monastery). However, I think this was the work of grace more than the quality of the work. Yes, Seven Storey Mountain's considered a spiritual classic, but even in a work as early as Seven Storey Mountain, there are some matters of concern (which I now recognize in hindsight and from the position of more maturity than I had when I read the book), so it would have been good to point out that Merton's works are not to be approached without some caution.
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written by Sue, December 30, 2013
For true grit on Merton, look to *Libido Dominando*, by E. Michael Jones, who draws a straight line from French Rev's De Sade up to Kinsey to Kerouac through Merton to Hesburgh up to our present sidge at turn of century. Common thread? the plutocrat dynasty who's finding or funding (and thereby creating) the creeps.
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written by Patrick Leddy, December 30, 2013
Brad, I knew Fr Kelty...he was originally a member of the Divine Word Missionaries , the order for which I studied...5 years.
Kelty was Merton's Spiritual Director, not his confessor.
Kelty almost perished in a fire at Techny around 1960...he lived in his own "hermitage" in the press building...the building which burned. I have a pic of myself and a buddy climbing around the wreckage during an altar boy retreat. I was from St John Brebeuf parish, six miles south, and Kelty did supply work for a couple of years. There is NO evidence he ever acted on his homosexuality. I believe he actually went to the trappists to remove himself from the "near occcasion of sin".

As for Merton, he once got drunk, allegedly, with Joan Baez near HIS hermitage. She tried, during their "picnic" , to convince him to take a larger part in the anti-war movement.

He declined, politely no doubt.

Do yourself a favor. Go to "Fr Matt's Homilies" on the Gethsemani website....read a couple, or all of them. There is also a video of Kelty givining a homily to the community during mass.

Merton had knocked up a woman in England prior to "fleeing" to the USA before WWII. By joining the Trappists, he killed two birds with one stone, vis a vis military service. He escaped from his lover and negated an obligation to serve in the military. Yup, he sure wasn't perfect. Not even close.

I am not a catholic anymore...(that sex abuse issue really pissed me off at a time I was making an attempt to reconcile).
And I grow tired of the loudmouthed gay movement.But Kelty?
He knew what he had to do and he did it. Probably not easy, but there you go.

BTW, it would be nice to have a phone number for your offices....

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written by Tim, December 30, 2013
I was surprised to read this commentary on Merton. To focus on the potential or imagined faults of another, and especially someone like Merton whose writings have helped thousands in their faith journey, borders on culumny. Furthermore, to use this article to ask for continued monitory support as a fundraiser adds insult to injury. Writers and blogs that focus on perceived faults and "sins" of others do not exhibit Catholic virtues and are falsely representing itself as a "Catholic Thing." It is insulting to Catholicism. Because of this, not only am I not going to donate, but I'm completely unsubscribing from this false pretense of a Catholic publication as it certainly in no way reflects my Catholic values.
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written by Ed Baker, December 30, 2013
Aside from debunking Medjugorje, I wouldn't place much stock in the historical understanding of anti-semite E. Michael Jones. His continuing thesis is that Catholics would all be perfect saints were it not for Jewish influence trying to destroy the Church.
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written by Aramis, December 30, 2013
Tim, in the words of Jonny Ringo...

"well.... bye"
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written by Sue, December 30, 2013
Being labeled anything negative by the Southern Poverty Law Center may well be a badge of honor. Calling someone "anti-semite" or "conspiracy nut" is the lazy way to shut people up who may be exposing inconvenient truths. I won't be dragged into dealing with the Ed Baker ad hominem fallacy but merely point out that "Libido Dominandi" is itself devoid of any anti-semitism and may be judged on its own merits.
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written by Janet, December 31, 2013
Taught for twelve years many years ago I came to believe that all who are welcomed into heaven are "saints".
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written by Craig, December 31, 2013
Seven Storey Mountain was the work of a young Merton, still in his monastic fervor and far from being an "experienced" writer. In later years, Merton wanted every copy to be destroyed, partly due to the fact that it was inferior in a literary way to later books like New Seeds of Contemplation or Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and also because Merton no longer bought into the simplistic view of the monastic life and felt that it was, in his words, "being used as a catechism for Catholic School children." As for the affair with the student nurse, Merton quite simply was, for lack of a better phrase, very much in love with her, as is borne out in his book Eighteen Poems and in his journal, Learning To Love. None of us are in a position to condemn Merton for his love affair, as we are all seriously flawed.
Also, I agree with Manfred when he states that Merton's death was "suspicious." This is something that should have been investigated in December, 1968. Unfortunately, like President Kennedy's assassination, we'll never know the true facts. I consider Merton to be one of the most gifted writers of the 20th century, and he is, for me, a spiritual guide.
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written by Steve Kindred, December 31, 2013
Aramis: it was Curly Bill who said those words, not Johnny Ringo.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, December 31, 2013
Craig writes: "None of us are in a position to condemn Merton for his love affair, as we are all seriously flawed."

Isn't there something flawed in the underlying moral compass of this statement?
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written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., December 31, 2013
To Craig and Deacon Ed: What about the underlying grammatical compass? The sentence should begin "None of us is..." rather than "None of us are..." And this is from the uncontested typo king of the universe, namley me. But seriously, although we Christian must remind each other of the sinfullness of making pronoucnemtns about the states of others' souls, we are also obliged to tell people, espeically our children and students, that some actions are obejctively evil. This toxic smoke of relativism disguised as compassion is the creation of Satan's own cauldron.
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written by Julie Chovanes, December 31, 2013
Mr. Miner's rather gratuitous remark about Fr. Matthew Kelty and his homosexuality misunderstands Fr. Kelty's teachings about being gay and celibate. Mr. Miner further ignores the fact that Fr. Kelty's teachings are precisely in accordance with the Church's -- being gay is not a sinful thing. Indeed The Holy Father recently reaffirmed the Church's teachings. As a trans woman myself -- that doesn't mean gay, that means transsexual -- Mr. Miner's ignorance of the Church's teachings and willingness to cast others aside is all too drearily familiar; and he must have missed Christ's Own Word that no one -- no one -- is to be cast aside. Indeed, as we all should know Christ saved His strongest condemnation for the Pharisees and others who didn't understand God's teachings -- but only their own man made perceptions of God's teachings.
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written by Allen, January 01, 2014
Ed wrote: "Isn't there something flawed in the underlying moral compass of this statement?"
Not that I see; can you enlighten me what your perspective is?
BTW, as one of those millions (not thousands as someone wrote) who regards Merton as a teacher, my perspective is that the courage with which he directly looked at and wrote about his human failings is in fact an integral part of what emerges in his public/spiritual writing as immense depth and clarity.

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written by Sue, January 01, 2014
Kelty: "A celibate priesthood, community, is a grace for the Church, a song of the Kingdom (where there will be no marriage but all will be whole),and a joy for all in it. There are none more called to it, more capable of it, more created for it, than the people we call gay."

Problem: substitute sodomy-attracted for gay and it doesn't sound so wholesome.

Also, how the heck is someone with a disordered notion of sexuality (however they came by it) able to benefit the couples who come to them to be prepared for the sacrament of marriage. This is the objective fact of homosexuality - however you slice it, a homosexual's understanding of sexual love is disordered. We must have compassion for the affected individuals, but not put other people's marriages at real risk by "celebrating" attractions to perverse behavior.

Just because homosexuals and priests are each called to celibacy does not mean they should be conflated. Priests are expected to be "forever", but there is no gospel that establishes homosexuality as a permanent condition.
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written by Avery Tödesuhl, January 01, 2014
Yes, Merton struggled with sexual desires throughout his life, without a doubt. But so did/do many others. For instance, C.S. Lewis is thought by the best of his biographers (McGrath, Hooper) to have carried out a long running unconventional affair which he referred to obliquely in "Surprised by Joy." Merton's affair is well-known since he wrote of it in his journals, while Lewis' even-stranger relationship only emerges after investigation. Although, some may claim that Merton's few stolen kisses with this young woman were worse that Lewis' years-long affair, since he had taken religious vows, the moral status of any sexual activity outside of a traditional marriage is clear: it is mortal sin.

As anyone living in the 20th and 21st centuries can tell you, sexual sin is the most visible type of sin in the here-and-now. Someone you know and love is probably involved with sexual sin in their lives right now. And it was the downfall of the biblical King David and St. Augustine, among many others. Now, does anyone want to proscribe the writings of Augustine, or more stridently, the Psalms of David?

Yes, both Merton and Lewis were sinners. And King David and St Augustine, too. They will all be judged by the Lord for their lives. And so will you and I.
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written by Avery Tõdesuhl, January 01, 2014
One last comment and then I must go to Mass: the notion that only the "animae purii" can teach and lead the faithful is not a Roman Catholic doctrine, but rather a Catharist heresy. Be careful not to go to close to that evil way. It is perilous to the soul.
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written by George , January 01, 2014
Forgive me, but what is mysterious about stepping out of a shower, touching an incorrectly grounded electrical appliance, an getting a fatal shock?
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written by Chris, January 08, 2014
It is my understanding that Merton was consumed by Eastern mysticism in his latter years & there is no evidence he renounced it. This raises red flags for me. Maybe a good man, but no saint.
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written by jeanette, January 08, 2014
Avery, CS Lewis MARRIED Joy Gresham & the movie, Shadowland is an accurate rendition of their relationship--did you watch it? Fr. Merton's relationship with an of age adult, other than what he shared, is NONE of my business. Period. To go beyond this is to allow sin to creep into my life by way of gossip. We all must read anything critically, including this essay; and if someone is doing a movie on that period of Fr. Merton's life, I have no intention on earth of seeing it. Father Merton was a pilgrim on a journey as are we all.
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written by jeanette, January 08, 2014
We should read all things with discernment--even this article.
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written by Betsy Russ, January 08, 2014
I am a Merton-head. Jesus hung out with the sinners. And as Pope Francis has said, "who am I to judge?" Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. I love Thomas Merton.
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written by jim henman, January 08, 2014
You say a lot but they appear you implying certain accusations . This could be interpreted as you being judgmental .
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written by Stan j, January 08, 2014
Merton's writings were required reading by the progressive "catholic" school teachers in order to establish a mindset in youth that accommodated the new V2 philosophy.
I was outside the church at that time and recognized where Merton was coming from and how his works fit into the timetable in conjunction with V2, the sexual revolution, nuns in Esalon, transactional analysis and the Peace movement. It was all no coincidence and guess who the great choreographer was?
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written by rose, January 09, 2014
Merton had a youth/lack of mature family formation that carried forth into his adulthood. His mother of short time was very distant and used to record his behavior in diaries of sort...sound familiar? He was placed in lone situations with a guardian at a distance who always bailed him out when he got into serious trouble and then he got moved out of the situation. He had a child by another "encounter" before his conversion for whom he later used his writing income for support which is admirable. He had episodes of real panic/anxiety/mental instability that he honestly tried to stabilize but he had a pattern of after getting relief from said periods of panic he would then relax and begin to once again manipulate those around him who truly were caught up in sympathy towards him. He used his best friends to facilitate, unknowingly, his escapades/meetings with M. They were very disappointed in him and tried to warn him of the danger to his own psyche/spiritual calm. He influenced/manipulated his own abbot to give him (Merton), alone, more freedom than the other monks which caused division in the spirit of the monastery...or at least in those who noticed the various attempts to go around the community rules...like using outside phones for those "special" more intimate calls to M or instruct her and others how to write to him without being read or listened to by his superiors. He became very defensive when analyzed by a psychiatrist as a narcissistic sort and some said that he recorded so much about himself that they believed that if he made grocery lists they too would be considered as gold by his admirers!

When he realized his M relationship had entered a stage beyond which he got quite alarmed for his stability he did confess but still questioned if he could actually get beyond it. Actually it looked like his "victim", the much younger woman, was the one who made the serious decision to break things off. Soon after that he went off on his final venture Eastern trip....where his last talk sorta equated monks with Marxists...same old type of tactics. And then, the shock of being shocked....to death. These kinds of inconclusive personality "cults" always leave the mystery (and romance) open for future Rorschach projections by others with their own individual needs for consolations, etc., but the whole life and its intermittent realizations of personal defects resulting from early experiences and lack of real helpful guidance while maturing remain hard to get a truthful grip on and best left to God's understanding and Mercy.
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written by Albert Nygren, February 24, 2014
I have read many of Fr. Merton's books and found many of them helpful. As someone commented, King David had an affair with Bathsheba but did not mention that when she became pregnant by David, David had her husband murdered so David could marry her and cover up the sin. This was terrible, immoral, and sinful but should not make King David's writings (The Psalms) any less valid.

One of the positive things about Fr. Merton is that He helped make lay people and priests aware of Contemplative prayer and the possibility of the experience of Divine Union. The catholic Church used to teach that Divine Union was only for the very few and that even for monks in orders like the Trappists occurred very rarely. Even Merton taught this but this is far from the Truth and the opposite of what is taught in the Bible. The Scripture that teaches that it is "impossible to please God first a man must believe that there is a God and is a rewarder of those who ardently seek Him" says that God wants us to experience Him in the closest way which is the experience of Divine Union.

I hope I have added some perspective to this man who was a sinner just like all of us but also wrote and taught some valuable Spiritual insights.
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written by Fran, February 28, 2014
Mr. Miner, I feel sorry for you. What a small, mean spirit and mind you appear to have.

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