My favorite writer on spirituality, Thomas Merton was born January 31, 1915 “under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain,” as he put it at the beginning of The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography that detailed his life’s journey up to age 27 when he entered a Trappist monastery. An autobiography that plunged him into fame just as he retired from the world to one of the more austere Roman Catholic orders and had taken a vow of silence.
I first encountered Merton’s writings when I was 27 and in graduate school. Every year just before Christmas, the campus bookstore had a big book sale, and faculty and graduate students got first dibs the night before it opened to undergrads and the general public. In those pre-Amazon days, it was quite the event. We graduate students eagerly looked forward to the invitations that would appear in our mailboxes, entitling us to gorge on books at a reduced price.
I don’t remember what exactly drew me to Merton’s autobiography. Perhaps I was vaguely aware of the name, and in any case I had a long-standing fascination with monasticism. In college I heard Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs for the first time and was immediately taken with both the music and the words, monastic marginalia adapted by poet W.H. Auden. Barber’s setting of the last poem, “Ah, to be all alone, in a little cell, with nobody near me,” is particularly haunting, and his setting of an unknown monk’s ode to his cat, “Panga, white Panga, how happy we are, alone together, scholar and cat,” absolutely delightful, with an accompaniment that manages to be wholly musical while sounding quite like a cat pattering on the piano keys.
In any event, I was totally captivated by The Seven Storey Mountain and quickly moved on to devour Merton’s other writings. In particular, I was struck by his essay “Learning to Live,” which articulated many of my own concerns and answered them with his call to complete authenticity in every area of one’s life. (It was published in the collection Love and Living, one of the many posthumous collections of essays and other writings edited by his longtime literary agent, Naomi Burton Stone, and Brother Patrick Hart, who served as Merton’s last secretary.)
Like Tolkien, Merton was a Roman Catholic in a Protestant culture, something which must have given each an outsider’s perspective. Like Tolkien, too, Merton’s work reveals great reverence and respect for the natural world, which figures most prominently in his poetry. Merton’s passion for social justice and personal integrity became my guiding principles (not that I can claim to live up to such a model), and his diaries and other autobiographical writings show the struggles all of us experience as human beings trying and failing to lead good lives. They also show specific difficulties of the monastic life such as the struggles Merton experienced in balancing obedience to his superiors with the sometimes conflicting demands of his conscience when he felt obliged to speak out against racism and war. At a time when most religious persons regarded those outside their faith with suspicion or worse, Merton corresponded with Buddhists, Jews, Protestants, and Muslims, eagerly exchanging ideas and taking away much from their traditions that he felt could enrich his own religious practice.
Merton was also, first and foremost, a writer, and I can imagine no better patron saint.