Merton in England

I have concluded the first part of Monica Furlong’s very engaging biography of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, mystic and spiritual writer. Monica Furlong was an Anglican with a strong interest in what we now call Christian Socialism. She died in 2003. This book is from 1985. In it she has developed the biography from Merton’s own works, interviews with friends of his then alive and research in various Merton archives. She acknowledges specifically Brother Patrick Hart who was the keeper of Merton’s papers in Gethsemani.

I have enjoyed so far her account of Merton’s younger days in France, his deep love and appreciation for the France of the Languedoc, its rootedness in a long history of faith and civilisation. Merton’s England also communicates itself in these early extracts from Seven Story Mountain where he describes his life at Oakham school in the East Midlands, his escapades in London, and his descent into darkness during his largely failed undergraduate years at Clare College in Cambridge.

His relationship with his father is very moving, a father who had himself discovered religious faith through suffering (he died of a long struggle with a brain tumour). Something of this experience remained with Merton and undoubtedly influenced his later decisions and life-choices.

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Merton’s intellectual life developed considerably through his exploration of modern literature and his travels in Europe. Furlong rightly compares him to a Merton contemporary, T. S. Eliot. But, as she notes, Merton already sensed the shallowness and hypocrisy of the English upper and professional classes of pre-war 1930s England. Some of this, by the way, is caught admirably in the BBC World War I series on the Royal Flying Corps, Wings. Oddly enough, Eliot, with his more austere early spiritual and poetic apprenticeship, seemed more in tune with English and Anglican sensibilities than Merton.

Merton’s life in England came to an abrupt end when he found himself as an eighteen year old caught up in a paternity case involving a girl in Cambridge by whom he fathered a child. Tom Bennett, Merton’s godfather following the death of his father, a Harley Street doctor, was brutally cold and confrontational with Merton in regard to the affair. He interrogated him at his consulting rooms and arranged a settlement out of court. Furlong notes that Merton perceived himself as treated very unjustly because, in leading a debauched life at Cambridge, Merton believed himself to be following the admired examples of happy hedonism laid out in the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Hemingway so admired by Bennett. Merton saw this as hypocrisy.

Merton cuts a very lonely figure at this point in his life. He has been wounded by his experimentation in expressing his sexuality and he has failed to find love. His understanding of love is both overly romanticised and shallow. He has no sense of human love as mutual relationship and care, something he might have learned from his parents, his grand-parents and, indeed, his guardians. Like everyone else, he was not spared the painful existential wasteland where life and love reveal themselves in their fullness.

The concluding paragraph at the end of the first section of the the book says it all:

Both the descriptions and the feelings are reminiscent of T. S. Eliot, another exiled American struggling with despair. Unlike Eliot, Merton passionately wanted to be a participant in life, not the fastidious observer. Part of him longed to be man of action, the Hemingway man with his women, liquor, fights and his easy knowledge of the world, and he had the courage and the nervous vitality for it. Another part, desperately vulnerable, wanted but was afraid of tenderness, kindness, love, some real authenticity of feeling, and was nauseated by the squalor of the ways in which men seek for this. An inviolable innocence remained, even in his despairing attempts to become the perfect man of ‘the world’.

Merton felt that England did not appreciate him. HIs good friend from that time Andrew Wisner, the son of an Anglican priest, with whom Merton had spent vacations, noted that Merton at times was, for his friends, embarrassingly ‘un-English’. The ‘muscular Christianity’ preached from the pulpit of Oakham College saw gentlemanly behaviour and doing the ‘decent thing’ as the epitome of Englishness and good Christian behaviour.

Merton was seen to fail in this. Hence, Bennett told him to stay in America when he left for the Summer vacation of 1932.

See this YouTube for a lecture at Merton’s old school, Oakham College, marking the centenary of Merton’s birth.

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The Revealing

We are celebrating these days the Christian feast of the Epiphany. I heard someone, I think it was George Hooke on Ireland’s Newstalk radio show, describe it yesterday as about ‘three fellas on camels following a star’. Crude, but broadly accurate. The Gospel indeed tells a story about three wise men who followed a star and came to the place where Jesus, as a tiny infant, slept in a cave. Who knows where this myth/story was originally crafted? Who knows who originally told the story around a campfire or at a table? Who knows what unknown scribe first copied it out on papyrus? Who knows what tiny echo of a primitive Gospel tradition lies behind it? So many known unknowns!

What is important, though, is the message that we, some two thousand years hence, can discern in this story. This message is available to us because, as Christians, we live within a tradition that allows us to glimpse the intention of the original storytellers.

The Epiphany message opens up for us the cosmic dimensions of the story of Jesus, what we frequently call, the Incarnation. God has become manifest as intentionally present within the history of the world, of the cosmos, of the Universe (even the multiverse). This is not a ‘fact’ of history. It is what emerges in the mystery of the world’s coming to be. But although a mystery, the story is underlining for us that it is a ‘knowable’. Why? Because there are people who witness to it, not as a brute fact of history, but as mystery that which makes history possible in the first place. First the shepherds, then the wise men of the East, and now the two thousand year old history of Christian belief.

But this this mystery is finding it increasingly difficult to speak its name. The closed world of contemporary secularism will have nothing to do with it. Why? Because it is clearly preposterous. This argument is not new. St. Paul encountered it in the Agora of ancient Greece when he preached a sermon in Athens. The hellenised elites of his day mostly refused to hear him. Witnessing to the mystery was, as we say in contemporary parlance, a ‘tough ask’.

T. S. Eliot in his beautiful poem about the Epiphany, Journey of the Magi, offers a reflection on this contemporary reality. He was writing as a committed Anglican Christian in the full daylight of contemporary secular liberalism. In the poem he speaks of the ‘folly’ of following the Star of Bethlehem.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
saying
That this was all folly.

Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish philosopher, in his monumental classic, The Star of Redemption (1921), invites us to penetrate the intense life-affirming truth that is offered by the Jewish and Christian understanding of the divine mystery. Rosenzweig essentially challenges us to see creation, revelation and redemption as the ultimate categories for thinking about the cosmos.

So, the feast of the Epiphany with its outwardly simple story, is, in fact, a profound statement about ultimate reality. Reality. as we encounter it in our histories and experience, is open to rational scientific investigation, but it is also universally open to the mystical vision of stargazers, shepherds, wise men, street crazies, poets, artists, philosophers, believers and saints. It remains closed to ideologies based on the human will-to-power.

The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.
The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.