(Shambhala Publications, 2015)
I had written some years earlier about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author—see Angelic Mistakes, below—but there was more to explore and share. Signs throughout Merton’s journals and correspondence point to an enduringly difficult relation with his abbot. However, apart from passing references in biographies and other sources, no study had brought the issue to light and fully explored it. It was easy enough to view this fateful relation from Merton’s perspective through his writings. But that is half of the story. What of Dom James’s perspective, what of his experience as the superior responsible for the welfare of a world-renowned author and (in later years) peace activist, regarded by Fr. Dan Berrigan and others in the 1960s anti-war movement as their spiritual counselor? Thanks to the generosity and trust of the current abbot of Gethsemani, I was invited to explore all but forgotten monastic archives. Dom James’s passionate commitment to traditional monastic thought and practice, his devotion to the Crucified Christ, his uneasy and not infrequently coercive relation with Merton, his admiration for Merton and mistrust, his heartfelt work toward a materially productive, self-sufficient monastery were there to be seen. The fine detail was evident at last. For example, Merton typically suffered, oh he suffered, during Dom James’s homilies—but where were the texts of those homilies? In the archive. The basis for fair assessment was at hand. A fascinating story could be told.
In early years an ideally submissive monk, over time Merton became a loyal rebel, a seeker of truth beyond the boundaries set by the monastic norms and practices of his day. His mind forced him on, his need for direct contemplative practice forced him on. Dom James possessed the authority to contain him—through 27 years of residence Merton left the monastery for trips of more than a few days only three times, though he was in demand worldwide as a conference participant and retreat leader. The agon of these two men—their combat and reconciliations, their harsh love for one another as vowed brothers of the same Order—is an astonishing and, to my mind, beautiful story. More than a personal story, it has qualities of legend.
Why did I care? In recent decades I’ve had an instinctive concern for spiritual community: its ideals, its dynamics, its potential for darkness, its potential for light. And spiritual community needn’t be monastic. Sound spiritual communities among lay men and women, based on teachings that go deep and make sense, are equally valid, and arguably more so, for our time. But Thomas Merton—an authentic seeker of truth, an author of scope and chosen words and genius—offers an opportunity like no other to understand how brave individuals, both Merton and Dom James, make their way in spiritual community.