For the time being
Almost from the time of his entry in 1941 into the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (the Trappists) at the Monastery of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, Merton was obsessed with retreat from "the World," and from about 1952 onward he pressed for permission, heretofore unknown in the Order, to become a hermit with only limited contact with the monastic community; instead, in 1955 he was appointed Master of Novices, a position he held for the next nine years.
Merton, who has been described as "never having a thought he didn't write down," tended during this time to use the texts of his regular sessions within the novitiate as the basis for his later literary output, and it’s important to note that the temper of both his Introduction to as well as his selection from the writings of the Desert Fathers very probably had their basis in his sessions with his novices.
Wisdom of the Desert was published in 1960; in December of that year he was finally granted limited permission to reside in a small building on the monastery grounds, but was still required to sleep in the monastery and to participate in the activities of the community, including remaining Master of Novices. It wasn’t until 1964, just four years before his untimely death, that he was relieved of his position as novice master and permitted to remain exclusively in his hermitage.
From the fall of 1966 until early 1968, he had a remarkable exchange of correspondence (At Home in the World: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Rosemary Radford Reuther, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y. 1995). Reuther is a Catholic feminist theologian, then with a freshly minted Ph.D. In this exchange he attempted (in my view, ultimately unsuccessfully) to defend monastic solitude – the retreat from “the World” - as a necessary and viable alternative to active response to the challenges of contemporary secular society.
In her Introduction, written almost 30 years after the letters, Reuther says,
What I was looking for in initiating this conversation was neither a confessor, nor to be his confessor, but a genuine Catholic intellectual peer, one who would treat me as a peer, and with whom I could be ruthlessly honest about my own questions of intellectual and existential integrity. I was trying to test in this correspondence what was the crucial issue, for me, at that time: whether it was, in fact, actually possible to be a Roman Catholic and a person of integrity…. Could Catholics speak the truth and be Catholics? That Christians err, and even create monstrous idolatries, was in itself not scandalous to me. That would be only human. What was scandalous and insupportable was to be unable to admit error, to be incapable of repentance because you cannot entertain the possibility that you might be wrong. Worse still, to make such incapacity for self-questioning a dogma! That for me was the crux of the Catholic dilemma. [pp. xvi ff.]
Merton’s early response was to say,
“I do wonder at times if the Church is real at all. I believe it, you know. But I wonder if I am nuts to do so. Am I part of a great big hoax? I don’t explain myself as well as I would like to: there is a real sense of and confidence in an underlying reality, the presence of Christ in the world which I don’t doubt for an instant. But is that presence where we are all saying it is? We are all pointing (in various directions), and my dreadful feeling is that we are all pointing wrong. Could you point someplace for me, maybe? Thanks, and I am sorry to bother you. I have to write a book on monasticism, and I wonder if I can make it relevant – or may any sense with it at all. (I have no problem with my vocation.)[pp.17-18]
Never one to shirk a challenge, Reuther replied,
"You say you have no trouble with your vocation, but, if that is really true, maybe you should be having some trouble with your vocation. I love the monastic life dearly (I am a Third Order Benedictine) but today it is no longer the eschatological sign and witness in the church. For those who wish to be at the “kingdom” frontier of history, it is the steaming ghetto of the big city, not the countryside that is the place of the radical overcoming of this world, the place where one renews creation, disposes of oneself and does hand to hand combat with the demons. I don’t see how anyone who is tuck in the old moribund (once eschatological) structures and is at the same time alive to the times cannot be having some trouble with his vocation. But perhaps for you more important: more reading and thinking about Word and Church will not help. I think you will have to find some new way of having Word and Church happening for you….” [p.20]
Merton spends the rest of his time in this correspondence trying to explain his attitude toward his own solitude, and Reuther keeps shooting down his arguments. Finally, as the conversation begins to wind down, he writes,
"I don’t think I am rationalizing or evading when I say I think I owe it to you to pursue my own way and stand on my own in this sort of marginal and lost position I have. I am sometimes terribly hit by its meaning which is something I just cannot explain, because it is something you are not supposed to explain and must get along without explaining.” [p.62]
A rapprochement of sorts is reached in a concluding exchange. In December, 1967 Reuther writes,
"Dear Brother: You are really a shocking and dissolute fellow. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that the one thing a good son of the church never, never does, especially in ecclesiastical assemblies, is to state the bald and unregenerate truth? Surely someone must must have pointed this elementary fact out to you sometime during your novitiate.
She then quotes a fragment of a friend’s poem, applicable, she says, to Merton:
I suppose that with such views I shall be
left quite alone
To mumble plain truths like a dog
mumbling a bone… [pp.94-95]
Merton responds, 'Dear Rosemary: Ah, yes, I have become very wicked. This is due in great part to my hanging around with these women theologians. What a downfall. Let others be warned in time. Young priests can never be too careful. Tsk. Tsk.' [p. 96]
On December 10, 1968, at a conference of Asian monastic orders in Bombay, Merton finished his morning presentation with these words:
'I will conclude on that note. I believe the plan is to have all the questions for this morning’s lectures this evening at the panel. So I will disappear.'
"So he went to his room, and while taking a shower, was accidentally electrocuted."
It puts me in mind of Bonhoeffer's Christianity without religion, and my own spiritual....well, what to call it? Every noun that makes it a metaphor makes it all sound too grand, too much about me, when the point, the goal, the telos of any spiritual effort is to negate "me," Oh, well, that, too, can be a point of discussion.
This long quote can be the springboard.