Thomas Merton: Sinner

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.
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.


*Image: Thomas Merton Playing Bongos by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1968

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.