Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"Haunted by Thomas Merton"

This is a post that will probably only interest me as I ramble on about myself for a while. All I can say is that it is my blog after all.

There was a piece with that title linked on Real Clear Religion today. (RCR is a great site, by the way, I strongly recommend bookmarking it. It's my second page view every morning.)

My father and his closest friends all read Seven Storey Mountain when they were at Saint Patrick's College in the 1950s and it changed their lives. One of those friends went into the priesthood and another became a Trappist Monk. Even those friends of my father's who didn't find a religious vocation would tell me over and over again over the years that reading Seven Storey Mountain had been the formative experience of their adolescence.

I too was haunted by Merton in the sense that he and his most famous work hung over my head like a sword. It sat on the bookshelf at home and it seemed to say, "Someday, you're going to have to read me."

I tried for the first time when I was seventeen. I got in about thirty or forty pages and then put it down and never picked t up again. One day my mother picked it up off my bedroom floor and put it back on the shelf. I tried it again every year or so right through university. I just couldn't read it. Nothing about the book captured my attention.

I read some of his later stuff. I beat my way all through Disputed Questions, which my father gave me for my 18th birthday, probably in the hopes that it would be like an intellectual Toga virilis. I was able to read it but wasn't much impressed. I don't think Merton's heart was much in it and wasn't surprised to find out that the Trappists treated Merton as a bit of a cash cow and that he felt pressured to keep cranking out books. The collected essays that make up Disputed Questions feels very much like the work someone writing out of duty rather than love.

In university, I met a guy who told me that he'd had the exact same experience with his father (who was a professor of Greek Classics). He suggested to me that Merton played a role something like the Beats for very Catholic boys. It was the story of this wild journey into mysticism that a boy could read and feel like he was doing it without leaving the comfort of his bedroom and, particularly important for his father and mine, not leave the comfort of Catholic orthodoxy that a frank appreciation of Jack Kerouac might require. 

That made more sense to me than my friend intended. He was reading a lot of Charles Bukowski in those days.

That poem sounds like complaint but it's actually wish fulfillment literature. It's a lot like Hooper's hope to see just enough military action to say he's been in it but nothing more. I don't say that Bukowski meant it that way. Perhaps he really meant the words as he wrote them, but a twenty-something male reads those words and imagines some rough experience he might have, not for it's own sake, but to be able to look back on.

In the end, I found my formative book when I found read Brideshead Revisited. I think a tiny bit of the intense enjoyment I took in reading the book was the relief that came from realizing that I coukd now give up on trying to read Seven Storey Mountain ever again.

Brideshead was formative in that it allowed me to make sense of what had been a rather chaotic life up until that point. It did so even though my life does not resemble that of any Brideshead character, although there are some strong similarities between my character and that of Rex Mottram. 

(For what it's worth, I think Anthony Powell's Dickie Umfraville is the fictional character who most resembles me. Unlike Umfraville, I have only been married once and never divorced but I share a lot of his weaknesses and, at the risk of being vain, his charm and ease with women. On the other hand, the choice of Mottram and Umfraville may strike some as very humble. I don't think so and think that both stories could be told in ways that make them highly charismatic and even admirable in some ways without changing the basic facts of either life.)

Over the years, my father's little gang talked about Merton less and less. By the time he'd hit his sixties, my father expressed puzzlement that the book had ever been so important to him. He'd say these things in the same sort of tone that I have since heard men use to describe a young woman who haunted their generation's erotic fantasies years ago and while they can still see that she was beautiful they can't quite figure exactly what it was about her that made her so much more special than all other women at the time. (For my generation, that would be Jennifer O'Neil.)

The man who became a priest and the man who joined the Trappists both dropped out in the 1970s. The former priest married. The former Trappist did not and, outwardly anyway, showed no signs of any sort of active sex life. That may not mean much for, as Hugh Moreland repeatedly observes in The Dance to the Music of Time, the person whose outward persona seems so decidedly not sexual that you can't imagine them having any sex life will often turn out to have had an extensive, wild and fulfilling erotic life. (He does not go on to say, perhaps because it would hit to close to home, but it is no less true that people, especially beautiful and sexy women people, who seem to be the sort who ought to have full and satisfying sex lives are often complete duds sexually.) In any case, this former monk joined the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s and ran a farm west of town here using no power machinery.

I remember helping him collect maple sap by hand one winter. We spent hours doing this hard work in the cold and dark and afterward, while huddling over stove that was his sole source of heat, he told me that he had found the Trappist life too hard. Given the life he didn't find to hard as a basis for comparison, that made me wonder.

Merton felt more and more distant from the book that made him famous over the years. He also felt more and more distant from Catholic Christianity. Monasticism was more important to him than any particular creed. By the end of his life his writing suggested that he would have been just as happy in a Buddhist monastery as a Catholic one.

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