By Matthew Feldman. Professor Feldman is a specialist on fascist ideology and the far-right in Europe and the USA. He has written widely on these subjects, for both academic and general audiences. He has long researched the interaction between politics and faith in the modern world, and has taught these subjects for some two decades to school, undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Guest blogs are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.

The writer-priest Thomas Merton – who took the name Fr Louis along with a vow of monastic silence, all while writing some three dozen books – seems at first glance little more than a jumble of contradictions. To be fair, that impression is scarcely dispelled on second or third glance, which is all this text can hope to indicate. Even Merton’s most informed critics argue that his life and work were filled with ‘major ironies’ (McInerny, 9).

Proving this point, and by way of background, Merton was French born and British raised, before becoming something of an American bohemian in New York during the 1930s. He moved from early dalliance with communism to a leftist anti-Marxism during these years, before joining the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance on the same day Nazi Germany declared war on the US, 10 December 1941. After an intense period of ‘spiritual wrestling’, he took his vows at The Abbey of Our Lady of Gesthemani, which he initially regarded as ‘the center of America’ (cited in Dekar, 17). Having written a celebrated autobiography about his Catholic conversion, The Seven Story Mountain, which sold tens of thousands of copies upon its 1948 release, many of Merton’s most influential writings were circulated by mimeograph in the 1950s and 1960s – such as his celebrated Cold War Letters – to avoid the ire of Trappist censors.

This is scarcely the typical trajectory of a Catholic priest. Indeed, perhaps most paradoxically, in the last three years of his life, he attained his long-time dream of becoming a hermit – living in a hermitage a close distance from Gesthamani that allowed him much more freedom to write. Yet this did not preclude travels to Asia in pursuit of religious ecumenicalism amongst Zen Buddhists, Hindu mystics, Sufis and others. And Merton died not in the rural Kentucky that had been his monastic home for the second half of his life, but in Bangkok – where he was attending an interfaith conference in December 1968.

Thomas Merton. Photo credit: Jim Forest.

The late ecumenicalism of his final years serves to further obscure those two consistencies that Merton championed most prominently: his Christian faith and his writing. Yet that, in turn, raises a final paradox; what might be dubbed Merton’s ‘anti-humanist humanism’. This may be conceived as an underlying outlook; a humanistic Christianity that owed much to Jacques Maritain, perhaps Catholicism’s greatest twentieth-century theologian. Maritain was a long-time correspondent and deep influence upon Merton. Here is the former’s attack against a ‘materialised spirituality’ that merely ‘worship[s] man’ in 1938, the year Merton converted to Catholicism:

in observing the contemporary forms of Western humanism which at first glance seem to be at the farthest remove from any metaphysic of transcendence, it is easy to see that if a residue still subsists in common of the conceptions of human dignity, of freedom, of disinterested values, this residue is a heritage of ideas and of sentiments which once were Christian and are now no longer so. I fully appreciate that liberal-bourgeois humanism is now no more than barren wheat or than starchless bread.

Contrasting sharply with this, Maritain envisioned an ‘integral humanism’ beyond an idolatry of race, class, empire or nation; ‘a humanism which is heroic’, with a ‘real and effective respect for human dignity’ (Maritain, 5). In turn, this seems quite close to Merton’s mature vision, set out in a letter fully a quarter century later:

There are different kinds of humanism, whether religious or agnostic (the positivist nineteenth-century type) or atheistic. […]  The Cold War is a struggle between two kinds of humanism which I regard as more or less gross and ineffective: the liberal kind and the totalist kind. Neither is, to me, an effective and realistic humanism at all. […] perhaps the crisis of our time is among other things a symptom of our total lack of a genuine, valid humanism – as well as of a really living religious sense. I personally see no way at all for a genuine and valid ethical sense to exist without a religious basis (at least one that is implied or hidden). (Merton: 1994, 101)

Three years later, on 30 August 1966, Merton was even more explicit regarding his view of a Christian humanism that attends to the vulnerable and suffering with dignity, rather than misguidedly trying to perfect or ennoble humanity:

“humanism” is a matter of simple respect for man as man, and Christian humanism is based on the belief in the Incarnation on a relationship to others which supposed that “whatever you do to the least of my brethren you do it to me” (i.e. to Christ). (Merton, cited in Northbourne, 91)

Letters between Maritain and Merton – especially expansive in the 1960s – paint a similar picture: a rejection of a liberalism that is materialistic, reifying of humanity, and overly concerned with progress at the expense of the human dignity of the oppressed, silenced and vulnerable:

Actually, all our trust, politically and practically, is placed in a ridiculous posture of astuteness and toughness and cleverness and “practicality”, which is the most inglorious and ignominious degradation of our Western and Christian independence. (Merton to Maritain: 1993, 104)

In this light it might be possible to say that Merton advocated an anti-humanistic Catholic humanism.

Underscoring this view, in the final year of his life Merton distilled these sentiments into a plea for greater detachment in art. “Why Alienation is for Everybody” continued his longstanding interest in Maritain’s ‘integral humanism’ and artistic authenticity, juxtaposing this with ‘an overproduction of masks and myths and personae’. ‘Alienation is complete when I become completely identified with my mask’, Merton insists, even ‘religious alienation – an alienation which I myself know’ (2013: 383, 381). Writing from agnostic point of view in his non-fiction essays Betwixt and Between, and later, after the experiences of French occupation in World War Two, Albert Camus would dub this ‘rebellion’. For Merton, The Rebel ‘is, in a word, the man who refuses alienation’ (239). Bearing this in mind, the same insight is offered in the following comment from a February 1968 essay:

Modern literature is by and large a literature of alienation, not only because we are painfully living though the collapse of a culture but because today we have more culture and more civilization than we know what to do with (381)

Nor is this elision of Camus and Merton coincidental. For in the final three years of his life Merton wrote no less than seven essays on Camus’s work, totalling more than 120 pages. Granted, Merton was known to work fast and repeat his points. Withstanding, these pieces constitute a close and detailed analysis of Camus, with a Catholic reading applied to Camus’ ‘classic humanism’ as the latter developed out of his experiences during the Second World War. Following the liberation of Paris in August 1944, thousands of collaborators – from government officials to journalists to shaven-headed women alleged to have cavorted with German occupiers – had been treated to summary justice in courts, on French streets, by sometimes little better than lynch mobs. Under Camus’s yearlong directorship, Combat, then at the height of its resistance prestige, had advocated just such a purge (Camus 1991: 73).

Albert Camus: creative commons

Merton tantalisingly saw in him a man whose existential “absurd” is like Michaelangelo’s digitus dei in the Sistine Chapel: as close to a wary, secular optimism for man can come to Christian humanism: ‘he is typical of that secular and nonreligious thought of the so-called “post-Christian” era which seeks to defend values that are essentially those of Western and Christian tradition against the nihilism and violence that have arisen out the breakdown of Western civilisation’ – which is itself as good as any as a definition of modernism (2013: 232). Indeed, in this 1966 essay, “Terror and the Absurd”, Merton even approvingly quotes a Camus ‘letter of August 1943, “I have Catholic friends and for those among them who are truly Catholic I have more than sympathy: I have the feeling we are fighting for the same things. In fact, they are interested in the same things I am. In their eyes, the solution is evident, in mine it is not.”’ (235)

That is a sentiment with which Merton would personally apply in his final ecumenicalism. All the same, he seems at pains to try and convert Camus, to tell him that he has a ‘distorted and inadequate view of God’ (2013: 237), and that his objections to the Church owe more to a misunderstanding of Christianity as ‘a reflection of the social establishment’ (215) in late modern Europe than of the timeless tenets of Catholic humanism: if only Camus could accept ‘that the abstract God he could not believe in was not, and never had been, the living God of authentic Christianity.’ (240). This is, Merton avers in another essay from 1966, a ‘tragic misunderstanding’; referring to Camus’ ‘inability to cope with the idea of God and of faith to which his sense of justice and instinctive nonviolence nevertheless enticed him (271).

It is as if Merton proposes a deal with secular humanists: accept the truth of Catholic theology in return for Christians acting like Christians. Although neither side was likely to budge, by way of concession Merton was willing to admit ‘[t]hose who claim to represent God have often done much to cheapen man’ (237); were only Camus, and other humanists of goodwill, able to see they have too typecast a view of Catholic teaching. The ignorant nihilism that both associated with the ceding of ground from modernism to postmodernism was best faced, at least in Merton’s view, from the position of the Catholic modernist. To him, humanity’s life-or-death task, spiritually no less than physically, could be undertaken by an individual steeled against the seductions of the absurd, and bearing the urgent message ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’: 

Although Camus is expressly non-Christian, we must admit that in practice his ethic seems to tend in the direction pointed out by authentic Christian charity. Though Camus failed to understand the full import of the Christian message, the failure is for many reasons understandable, and once again it suggests that even for the Christian the moral aspirations of a Camus retain a definite importance. They bear witness to the plight of man in a world with which the Christian still seeks to communicate and they suggest conditions under which the communication may conceivably be more valid (2013: 291)

Perhaps, to close, it is worth considering anew this proposed ‘deal’ between secular humanists and worldly Catholics. For clearly they have more in common than divides them, as so eloquently highlighted by Thomas Merton’s work. Indeed the avenue of Catholic humanism may be a way to resolve, or at least place in abeyance, the jumble of contradictions posed by Thomas Merton; and above all, his late, sustained engagement with Camus. In different ways, both were optimistic as to humanity but pessimistic as to the mercifulness of social strictures in their times – or even of all times. Both were keen students of the utopian savagery presented by secular humanist excesses, and both took up pen and auto-distanced contemplation rather than sword and fixed ideology in order to contest it. In the end, this solidarity in the face of negligence – of the world, of what lies beyond it or otherwise, and of the beautiful that links them both – has all but been lost. Reformulated in the words of Abbe Pire, another French-born Catholic ecumenicalist and wartime member of the Résistance, ‘the difference is no longer between those who believe and those who do not, but between those who care and those who do not.’ (Pire, cited in Strand, Day 25). Merton, through a standing offer that ought to paint him as a Christian intellectual profoundly if ironically engaged – like the “religious unbeliever” Camus – with the astonishing apocalypticism of the century in which he lived, surely deserves reconsideration for this reason alone.

Works Cited

Albert Camus, Between Hell and Reason: Essays from the Resistance Newspaper Combat, 1944–1947, trans. Alexandre de Gramont. Wesleyan University Press, London: 1991.

Dekar, Paul R., Thomas Merton: Twentieth-Century Wisdom for Twenty-First-Century Living. Cascade Books, Eugene, OR: 2011

Mcinerny, Dennis Q., Thomas Merton: The Man and his Work. Consortium Press, Washington D.C.: 1974.

Maritain, Jacques, True Humanism. Charles Scribner and Sons, New York: 1938.

Merton, Thomas, Witness to Freedom: Letters in Times of Crisis, ed. William H. Shannon. Harcourt Brace & Company, San Diego: 1994.

The Courage for Truth: The Letters of Thomas Merton to Writers, ed. Christine M. Bochen. Farrar, Strous, Giroux, New York: 1993.

Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, ed. Patrick O’Connell. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY: 2013.

Northbourne, Lord [Christopher James], Religion in the Modern World, including correspondence with Thomas Merton. Sophia Perennis et Universalis, Ghent, NY: 2001

Strand, Robert, ed., Moments for Christmas: Uplifting Reflections on the True Meaning of Christmas. New Leaf Press, Green Forest, AR: 1999.

Thomas Merton: Catholic humanist?
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