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Moses, Divine Discontent

Published in The Tablet, 21 March 2015, p. 23

Thomas Merton was born on 31 January 1915. This volume is one of many brought out to celebrate him during his centenary year. The thought of Merton—energetic, argumentative, irresistibly curious—turning a hundred is incongruous. One struggles to imagine him a very old man. His death in Bangkok in 1968 swept him away in his heyday. It is the image of him then, posing for photographs with a youthful-looking Dalai Lama, that is fixed in our minds.
Moses’s first chapter is called ‘The Fascination of the Man’. The title sums up his approach. His admiration for Merton is manifest throughout. Moses has read every jot and tittle Merton wrote. He draws much of this material into his study. Yet although he stresses his subject’s humanity, the Merton he presents comes across as strangely disincarnate.
There are two reasons for this. First, Merton is presented under a series of disparate headings: ‘the Trappist monk’, ‘the social critic’, ‘the ecumenist’ etc. For insisting on the interconnectedness of these ‘vocations’, Moses dissects and subdivides in such a way that the book, which reads rather like a thesis, struggles to conjure up the whole man.
The second reason why Merton here seems to verge on abstraction is his being presented in such splendid isolation, like a meteor flaring into a starless night. Nowhere is this more evident than in the treatment of Merton’s monastic life. The call to be a monk, we are told, was basic to everything Merton did, yet a living context is nowhere indicated. When Moses writes of Merton questioning the inflexibility of the Trappist regime, when he describes his ecumenical outreach, he suggests that Merton’s voice was heroically lone. It was not.
Merton’s twenty-six years as a monk coincided with a ferment of renewal in the Order he belonged to, which was blessed with a range of charismatic personalities. To mention but a few: Dom Anselme Le Bail (1878-1956), the abbot of Scourmont who, by means of a vigorous intellectual revival, formed monks to be mature, thinking, and free; Mother Pia Gullini (1892-1959) of Grottaferrata, a key figure in the early movement of prayer for Christian Unity; Dom Gabriel Sortais (1902-63), who, as abbot general, gave expression to the missionary dimension of monasticism.
Merton was attuned to the voices of such brothers and sisters, but they get no mention in this book. Neither do the great figures of the monastic patrimony Merton loved and taught. Moses’s portrait would be truer, perhaps, if more had been cited from Merton’s studies of St Bernard or the Desert tradition, less from the volumes of his Journals. It is the Merton of the Journals who exemplifies the ‘discontent’ Moses uses as a hermeneutical key, duly idealised as a holy unrest goading Merton on to new exploits. I am not sure the term serves its intended purpose. It makes Merton appear truculent, as if caught in a state of arrested adolescence.
Now, he could be truculent. But he had an uncanny knack for catching himself out, to bring himself back to essentials. He easily gave voice to frustrations, yes. But is it realistic to read his life’s narrative in terms of such explosions? Is it the case that our private confessions, our passionate outbursts (self-indulgent as they sometimes are) give truer voice to the truth about ourselves than our reasoned aspirations? As Merton admitted, his ready recourse to words could stand in the way of his real purpose.
In a letter of 1957, the Carthusian Jean-Baptiste Porion, whom Merton esteemed, noted on the subject of monks and penmanship: ‘the charism of poetry must never became a preoccupation for the monk; for in that case, instead of taking part in the wedding feast, he is constantly going outside to tell passers-by of the lovely music he has heard in the palace of the King (Thomas Merton).’ There is no malice in this remark, just a hint of sadness.
Moses writes, ‘It is as a contemplative that Merton is best known’. That is a paradox that poses questions. Thomas Merton was an exceptional, great-souled man, lovable man of brilliant intellect and insight. But did his attention, his heart, his mind stay fixed on the marriage feast? Merton asked himself that question at regular intervals, pitilessly. This reading of him would have gone deeper if it, too, had been a little sterner.

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