Monday, November 26, 2012

The Thomas Merton Affair

I’m on Cape Cod this week to read and write. A house and a beach and some woods all to myself. It’s heaven. I brought Thomas Merton with me. I think of him often. He is a writer and a spiritual director that I can truly take to heart. He was a writer, speaker, teacher, monk and a lover.

Yes, we often skip over that part when we tell his story but I think it’s central to who Merton is and was. The reason we can be so consoled by his spiritual advice is because we can know that he deeply knew all of our human and complicated struggles.

Thomas Merton had a love affair when he was in his 40’s. He was then already a writer and spiritual celebrity of sorts. He was a cloistered monk at Gethsemane in Kentucky and he had written his bestselling Seven Story Mountain and other books. He was married to the Catholic Church.

Then hospitalized for back problems he fell in love with a nurse. And she with him. They resisted, connected, pulled back, cried, committed, talked, broke up, tried again and loved each other. The relationship was consummated in a garden near the hospital and they made love there and in Merton’s cloister near the Abbey. Some other monks knew and some sort of knew and others didn’t know at all.

But then the Master of the Abbey got wind of the relationship and confronted Merton, “How could you?” he said, and he insisted that Merton make a choice. This amazing man of God didn’t have an easy time. He saw her again, cried, begged, swore off, went to find her, sent her away and went to find her again, and then left again only to come back. Finally he chose the Church and his life of monasticism. But it was not easy. He was a tormented man even while being one of the world’s most famous monks and a great spiritual teacher.

Two years later—Merton was allowed to leave the Cloister to travel to Asia. It was, perhaps, a consolation from his Abbott. In Asia Merton made one of his greatest speeches and then he died tragically by accidental electrocution. We know from his journals that even that year he was still grieving the loss of his great love. 

I have always wondered about his lover, the nurse, the other woman. How did she hear the news? How did she grieve? She lost him and then she lost him again. Did she know of his despair? And what did it mean to her to later read his great prayer of faith and doubt?

I think of Merton as a man who loved and suffered and lived in the grey of faith and morality. Somehow it helps me to know that even Thomas Merton was never really Thomas Merton. 


Kathryn said...

I love the last sentence. And it breaks my heart the arbitary rules that keep people from love. I feel certain that the God who created love wouldn't have felt dissed if Merton completely embraced his love for the nurse. So sad.

Anonymous said...

I love your last paragraph. I wish you had elaborated, but it might have lost its 'shock value' (I'm not at all saying that's why you wrote what you did -- I don't at all think that is why you write it), but, still, it does have some shock value.) //// None of us know ourselves very well, unless we've had many years of therapy, and, even then, many years of therapy is no insurance that we will come to know ourselves very well. //// What I've always thought is that Merton -- because he was far from stupid -- began to realize or even knew that Jesus Christ was not The Son of God, not the way Christianity traditionally teaches. And I think it was important to him to sort it out -- I think his inner life was of primary importance to him. //// And I would like to think that (1) he realized how impossible it would be to carry on a long-term relationship with a woman 30+ years younger than himself; and (2) even if he didn't realize that, I think he must have known that it would have been very hard to have supported her (I mean -- what would he have done to make a sufficient living??); and (3) I think he knew he simply couldn't cause the scandal that his leaving would have caused -- I mean, omg, for people without a tremendous amount of depth, intelligence and compassion -- it could very well have destroyed their faith, if not their lives (and that is really (1)). People had come to idealize Merton, and God was in second place. //// I don't think Merton killed himself, but I do think he was distracted at that conference. And I think The Universe 'took him' before he could do any real damage to himself, that girl, and Christianity (I would have said Catholicism, but Merton's followers included a lot of non-Catholics too). //// Merton has been a good friend and companion of mine for the last 50+ years -- since I first read 7 Story when I was 16. As I got into my 30s, 40s, and 50s -- even without his affair -- I began to realize he was far from perfect, and, consequently, I've had a very good and fruitful relationship with him, through his writings. All my adult life. And I know my life would have been much poorer without him. //// I love what you wrote. Thank you so much.

andy522 said...

Without being an anti-christ type, which I am not. The Catholic Church has placed millions of dollars, and still is, to prevent anyone from finding, on the web and elsewhere, the whereabouts of Margie Smith. Try it yourself and you will verify this for yourself.

andy522 said...

The Cardinals of the Church, the Bank of the Vatican, these people were very crooked.

andy522 said...

That being said, I hate to use this prosaic intro, but Thomas Merton will last for ages as a voyager in search for a port of call called TRUTH.

Anonymous said...

You are such a good writer. Thank you.

Ana REx said...

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...chances are he still feels something is missing.

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